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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Affley, Declan James (1939–1985)

by John Dengate

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Declan James Affley (1939-1985), musician, was born on 8 September 1939 in Cardiff, Wales, son of James Affley, labourer and amateur musician, and his wife Winifred Anne, née Samuel. Declan’s Catholic working-class parents were both descended from Irish families. He began learning the clarinet when he was 8 years old and later enrolled in the Royal Welsh College of Music. He attended several Catholic schools and maintained that they `caused no permanent damage’.

Having joined the British merchant navy at the age of 16, Affley arrived in Sydney in 1960. The folk-music movement was just beginning and he sang in what he referred to as `low dives’ such as the Royal George pub. By this time, he had abandoned the clarinet in favour of the guitar, banjo and tin whistle. In 1967 he started playing the fiddle and in 1970 the Irish (uillean) pipes. Devoted to his craft, Affley is best remembered for his singing and guitar (his `harp’) accompaniments. His voice was deep, resonant and powerful.

On 11 December 1967 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Colleen Zeita Burke, a stenographer and poet. Working as a boat-builder, Affley lived (1967-69) in Melbourne and performed at the Dan O’Connell Hotel and at Frank Traynor’s folk and jazz club. In 1969 he founded a bush band, `The Wild Colonial Boys’, which combined traditional Australian and Irish music. Back in Sydney from 1970, he played at the Troubadour coffee lounge, Edgecliff. His last band was `Lazy Harry’s’. Affley was a regular performer at the Boîtes: concerts featuring Turkish, Greek, Irish and Australian music. He busked on the streets and was occasionally subjected to censorship by council officials for singing left-wing political material, but such suppression encouraged rather than deterred him. Some of the political songs he sang were broadcast on radio by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and performed on concert tours. In 1970 the National Folk Foundation of New Zealand invited him to attend its festival. He was a member of the committee of the New South Wales Folk Federation in the early 1970s.

Affley participated as a singer in an award-winning ABC television documentary, `The Restless Years’ (1966), which presented Australian history through songs, stories and poetry. In 1972 he accompanied Peter O’Shaughnessy and Marian Henderson to Ireland to perform a dramatised stage version at the Dublin Theatre Festival. He contributed to films including Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly (1970), Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and Richard Lowenstein’s Strikebound (1984).

Supporting the advancement of the Australian Indigenous people, Affley taught music at the Eora Centre in Redfern (1984-85). He regarded himself as a socialist `with a fair degree of anarchy’. Outspoken and informed, especially on Australian and Irish working-class politics, he supported the New South Wales Builders’ Labourers’ Green Bans, Irish hunger strikers and the Gurindji’s struggle for land rights at Wave Hill, Northern Territory. He enjoyed discussing cricket and Rugby League over a convivial ale. Articulate but unpretentious and egalitarian, he shared his skills and knowledge. Affley died of a dissecting aneurysm of the aorta on 27 June 1985 at Newtown and was cremated. His wife and their daughter and son survived him. The Declan Affley songwriting award is made annually at the Australian National Folk Festival.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Davey and G. Seal (eds), Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore (1993)
  • NSW Folk Federation, Newsletter, Aug 1970, p 11, Feb 1972, p 13, May 1972, p 8, June 1972, p 3, Dec 1972, p 1, no 23, nd, p 6, no 24, nd, p 3, Dec 1980, p 20
  • Cornstalk Gazette, Aug 1985, p 3, July 1986, p 17
  • C686, correspondence file: Declan Affley (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Dengate, 'Affley, Declan James (1939–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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