The Donegal Fiddle


RTÉ CD 196; 63 minutes; undated 1990s



For some reason when Donegal fiddle anthologies are discussed this CD rarely receives a mention, yet it is very difficult to understand the reason (unless the album was poorly distributed). So, let’s begin by detailing what the purchaser receives for her or his money. Firstly, the album consists of field recordings made by Ciarán Mac Mathúna and Séamus Ennis for Radio Éireann, the latter’s tapes being made in 1949 and the former’s in 1957. The recordings themselves have been wonderfully remastered by Aodán Ó Dubghaill to eradicate the originals’ speed variations caused by the instability of the power source – the battery of the recording van. Secondly, the fiddlers recorded were Francie Dearg and Mickey Bán Ó Beirne (sometimes “Ó Beirne” or “Byrne”) from Kilcar, Jimmy Lyons from Teelin, Paddy ‘The Tae’ and John ‘The Tae’ Gallagher from Ardara, James Josie McHugh also from Ardara, and, finally, Simon, Mickey and John Doherty from the travelling family. Next the liner booklet’s highly detailed information on the tunes and their sources and the musicians themselves was provided by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh, the nonpareil source of wisdom on Donegal’s fiddle music. Lastly, the liner cover consists of a painting by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh to honour another great Donegal fiddler, Danny O’Donnell, revealing yet another string to her illustrious bow.


But, of course, it’s the vibrant and ebullient fiddle-playing which is the chief attraction and there’s more than enough here to satisfy any lover of Donegal’s music and draw the interest of those yet to discover its pleasures. The album begins with thirteen tracks recorded by the Ó Beirn brothers and evokes memories of a conversation with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh where we were discussing regional styles and drawing parallels with rock bands, along the lines of “well, if Killarney’s INXS, then Donegal’s Captain Beefheart”. If you have never heard Francie and Mickey Ó Beirne then it is almost impossible to convey the blend of rough sweetness which imbued their playing together nor the astonishing contrapuntal elements which they introduced into their playing. Nobody has ever sounded quite like them, perhaps a factor of fraternity, but the huge influence of the piping tradition on Donegal’s fiddle music is fully evident here.


Mickey Doherty announces himself with the marvellous entrance of the George the Fourth highland, perhaps the outstanding moment of the whole CD and, over five tracks, provides ample justification why some consider him a better player than his more widely known sibling. The Glendowan Reel, recorded eight years earlier, is distinctly different in fiddle tone (a variance not caused by the remastering process), but, as Caoimhín notes, it’s his playing of The Old Oak Tree reel “the grandeur of this and its suitability to the instrument establishes it as the anthem of Donegal fiddling” and it’s impossible to refute that assertion as Mickey whirls through his father’s version of the tune twice before changing to his brother John’s adaptation.


Next up are the Gallaghers, father and son, with James Josie McHugh. However, Paddy only appears on one track in a duo with his son who appears on the remaining five, two with Mr. McHugh. John actually won the Senior Fiddle competitions at both the 1956 Oireachtas and the 1959 All-Ireland Fleadh and perhaps there’s a touch of the competitive ‘purity’ in his solo playing, although it’s unlikely he would have won with the fiery rendition of Mooney’s Reel (which, when played as a highland, is known as The Cat That Kittled in Jamie’s Wig). His first duet with James Josie is the splendid The High Level Bridge played in B flat while he and his father convene for an effervescent version of The Tarbolton.


Jimmy Lyons is rightly regarded, alongside Con Cassidy, as one of the fiddlers who put Teelin on Ireland’s musical map and, despite somewhat ropey sound quality, it’s very easy to see why from the ten tracks featuring his fiddle on this recording. He announces himself with the wonderfully swaying and strutting Moneymusk before hitting the high spot with a mind-boggling rendition of The Pinch of Snuff, an astonishing virtuoso performance and the rest is almost as good!


Lastly, there are three simply remarkable recordings by John Doherty. The first, Píobaire a Chéididh, is staggering in the sheer intensity of his fingering, while Simon’s appearance for The Pigeon on the Gate, sees the pairing playing in separate octaves, although, unusually, it was Simon who took the higher one in this recording.  On the last track of the album John recounts a tale about the legendary Biddy from Muckross before playing Slán le Ceol (‘Farewell to Music’) which combines a march and hornpipe and amply fills the description of  ‘descriptive piece’ while forming an apt conclusion to this superb compilation from RTÉ’s archives.



This is an original review by Geoff Wallis.



Back to the CD index