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Danny Meehan: Force Ten from Drimalost, Part One
CaoimhĂ­n Mac Aoidh

Danny Meehan is a towering, powerful man. Having left Donegal as a young man to spend the best bit of a half century as a paving stone layer in London, he has entered the folklore of that city as “The Man Who Built London Single-Handedly.” In keeping with his great humour, this is a title he strongly denies. He points out that there were some rough days when he was forced to use both hands! The interview is transcribed as spoken to capture Danny’s infectious use of language and old terms related to fiddling with editorial notes in brackets. 

Danny: You’re welcome Caoimhín to “Tarbolton Lodge”! I called the house after my favourite reel and it still is. The reason I named it is that the first time I heard it I was only about eight or nine years of age played by a little man called Peter Quinn. He was from our townland, Drimalost here in south Donegal. He had just come back home from being away in England for the first time and he playing absolutely gorgeous music. It’s like everything else that’s been battered to death, you see. If you hear the “Tarbolton” for the first time you could see the beauty of it stand out on its own. So you’re welcome to Tarbolton.

When were you born, Danny?

I was born on the 24th of September, 1940. I was born in Donegal [Town] Hospital. It was a great old house to be brought up in, you know. We were probably living in the 17th century to a certain extent. We had our own water. We had our own spuds, our own milk. We had our own cabbage and onions. There were eleven children and it was a very musical house of course; very, very musical. We were listening to music from when we were babies. Me father was a very musical man. And he was a very sociable man because everybody was invited in. Our house was nearly packed day and night with visitors and people dropping in. He was a very nice easy-going sociable man. ’Twas a great house to be brought up in. I couldn’t think of a better father or mother, really. I suppose everybody says that, but he was a nice man.

He was very, very musical and very emotionally attached to the whole people he played with. There was a great camaraderie. He played with Charlie McCahill [pronounced as McCaul] and he died very young in 1949. But I was lucky enough. I got some of his [McCahill’s] magic, like. I couldn’t get into the details of what he did, but I just loved the sound of his music. He played right up into the summer and he died in the late summer. He set his spuds in the spring and meself and me brother watched him setting the spuds and he did everything meticulously. He never lived to dig his potatoes.

My grannie was actually, what the modern word would be, the catalyst, behind it all. She was my father’s mother and she was Susie McGroarty from Drumkeelan. From the famous rock of Drumkeelan where the famous quarry is there. She was brought up there and there was a big house of daughters there you see. She got all the music of John Mhosai McGinley and the travelling men who came to sharpen the tools of the stonemasons. It was a fantastic place for stone cutters, you know. Mountcharles and Drumkeelan. Nearly every man could cut stone. And even I learned to pitch stone as well. That’s why I got my way of making a living in London. I was pretty handy with a hammer and chisel. I love working in stone even still. But that was where it all started.

What kind of style did [your father] play? Do you hear anything like his playing today?

He had a very nice, lyrical style of playing. He knew what was in the fiddle. There’s no musician can take everything that’s in a fiddle out of it, even the great classical players. But he knew what was there to be taken out and he had done his damndest to take it out. He was left-handed, you see. He decided to play right-handed and he didn’t get enough “purchase” with his prominent hand. You need the prominent hand for the bowing. He was bowing with his weaker hand. He done his damnedest and he was quite a nice player. He was very musical and he would never play a bum note or a bad melody for the sake of it.

Looking back on it, I thought, “I better start playing this.” My brothers and sisters were less inclined to take it up but maybe they didn’t have the mad, wild gene you need to keep it going. And you do need a bit of the romantic gene to keep it going.

It was mostly house dances then. Did your father play for house dances?

Oh God, he did. My father was playing very well at the time. It was great to be brought up in that era. There was no radio or nothing back then. We were quite old before we got a radio. We used to go to Mick Gillespie’s to hear Mickey Doherty being broadcast, or Denis Murphy. We used to steal into his shop. Mick was a tailor living in Drumkeelan, just over the burn [stream] from us. It used to be crowded with all various characters to hear the like of Denis Murphy.  And they’d comment on his playing saying “he’s a nice level player…” Leo Rowsome [uilleann piper] was one of my favourites. He was played a lot [on the radio] in Mick’s at night.

Your father had a very special playing relationship with Paddy McDyer.

Oh, he did, yeah. He loved McDyer. McDyer was a little dynamo. A small little man who lived life a hundred miles an hour. He was a fantastic tradesman. This is the stories of Ireland. He could build you a wardrobe, build you a house, put windows in. He could do everything –– stonemasonry, carpentry, the whole lot! We’ve got an old chair in Drimalost still in our house that he made and a wardrobe as well that he made. He could build dry stone work or outhouses. He needed to be paid every night and that was the deal. He’d go into Mountcharles and come home at two in the morning. A tradesman always stayed in the house they were working in those days. If you went to work you didn’t trek home every night maybe four or five miles in the dark. You stayed in the house you were working on, or as near hand as could possibly be. McDyer slept in our small little kitchen bed. He spent a month doing the outshot building. My father loved him to death with his music but he said it was the longest four weeks of all. He’d be twisting and turning all night and whistling and all. That was the dynamo of the man. He was an outstanding player and used to play on his own a lot at the dances and school houses and various little venues here and there. Paddy used to tune the fiddle a mile high. He had big steel strings and you could hear him miles away. It was fantastic. That was the romance of those players.

But for a quiet Sunday afternoon, people preferred Charlie McCahill to McDyer. He was more lyrical. He didn’t have the same power as McDyer and probably hadn’t the same amount of tunes but McCahill, on form, was beautiful to listen to.  That’s what my father always said. He could give you great insight into the value of music. As John Doherty used to say about fiddle playing and music, “it’s no burden to carry.”  

You knew McCahill well.

I knew him very well. I knew quite a lot about him. I used to twist rope for him and he’d give me two shillings for it. We used to hang about waiting for him to play and suddenly then he’d play with Peter Quinn and a few others. Tunes like “The Maid Behind the Bar” and such. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me if he was playing rolls or trebles or nothing. I was so young, you see, but it sounded very nice. 

He had a special way of tuning. He used his fingernail to tune up. You could tell McCahill was tuning up. He’d strike the strings up at the “step” [nut] of the fiddle. “Playing off the step of the fiddle,” that was another term they used if you were playing in flats [keys]. That’s the term we used in Donegal. Poor Jamsie Byrne would have used that term, God rest him. The old boys would have done that automatically. They wouldn’t even know they were playing in flats. Peter Quinn told me about McCahill using the “Clare slide,” lonesome notes. He was doing it automatically at the time playing in Drimarone. He and Quinn would come off the stage and play at the bottom of the steps. He was doing it automatically at the time and I didn’t realise it. The “nyahs” as they call it. Quinn was a beautiful player. He had a certain sweetness.

You knew John James Conaghan. What do you remember about him? 

I knew him very well and he was genius of a man in a lot of ways. He was a fantastic man altogether. He was a very intelligent man with anything with wheels on, mechanical, or electrical. He could deal with engines. He could weld. He could even temper the spring for a shotgun….

When I was young I used to play for him and he used to encourage me to play. That would have been around ’53 to ’55. He’d bring you in and play records for you and play tunes for you himself and of course you always got tea there. Tea was always welcome and you always got it. Those memories sustained me in my darkest hours. They were great times.

After that time there was a dark age approaching, but there was always those people who loved the music and kept it playing. The music would live on anyway. When a forest burns down it’s a dark age but it can revive itself. It’s like when [Michael] Coleman died. There were only a dozen good players in the whole of Ireland and I’m categoric about that. We all knew their names. The likes of the Dohertys, [Seán] McGuire, and various Claremen. But now there’s about two thousand great players! And they’re all very good, outstanding players. My heroes used to be all older than me and now they’re all younger than me! I could be their grandfather! There’s three gentlemen particularly playing well. Cíarán Ó Maonaigh, Aidan O’Donnell, and Damien McGeehan. They’re my heroes, those young fellas, because their attitude and their upbringing is a throwback to the days of McCahill and my father as regards a love of the music. And they’re very good mannered fellas and they’re good craic.  

One character that seems to have impacted on you hugely was Peter Quinn.

He lived on the far hill from us. He lived just a half a mile across the hill from us in the same townland. There were only 450 acres in the whole townland and 150 years ago it sustained fifteen families and they all lived pretty good. They all had their own little wells and such. They had their own little fertile fields. But he lived across the hill from us. I remember him before he going to England. He had a donkey and cart going to the bog and he always whistling. He was very heavily influenced by McCahill and it broke his heart when McCahill died. He went away to England then but he kept playing. I remember the first year he came home. I was heavily influenced by him. I was getting confident in my fiddle playing then. That was in the summer of 1953. He had loads of money, a nice overcoat, a nice fiddle and a nice new bike. He had a lovely demeanour and he was playing beautiful music. He had an essence of charm in his music. He had retained the music of the 1930s and ’40s. The sweet music. He had great attention to detail in his reels. The melodies were very well tidied up. The first principle was sweetness.

But then misfortune befell him. His mother died and his father died and times got a bit tough in England and he came back and sold the farm. The man that I knew in the early ’50s disappeared if you know what I’m saying.

His playing appears to have impacted on you hugely. For as much as you learned from your father, you seemed to have studied Quinn quite intensely. 

Quinn’s playing was very important to me. His music was more like McCahill’s. Quinn had a beautiful style of playing. I could never really emulate Quinn’s playing in his prime. It was a great pity he was never recorded. He was neglected, too. After a few years he lost his music and he couldn’t play at all.

What you play of Quinn’s music is very interesting and intricate music.   

Exactly. The man that would remind me very much of Quinn would be Tommy Peoples. The great Tommy Peoples. There’s an awful lot of Quinn in Tommy Peoples. Tommy didn’t get it off Quinn but that’s a very old, ancient style of playing. Older than the Dohertys even. My father did say that the McConnells, the uncles of the Dohertys, didn’t play like John and Mickey Doherty.

Was there much association between your father or even your own generation and players to the west, say out in Killybegs and even further into Glencolmcille?

My father was known quite well. He and McCahill played a lot together and they had a great band at one time. McCahill was always featured at the end because he was a lovely player. But to get McCahill up on stage wasn’t always successful. He’d often arrive late. His bike used to break down and he wasn’t a good cyclist anyway. He ended up he didn’t even repair it because he kept falling off the bike.

[For the rest of this interview, as well as transcriptions of the tunes “Coveny’s Reel,” “Peter Quinn’s Jig,” and “William McGonagle’s Barndance,” subscribe to Fiddler Magazine! Part Two of the interview appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.]

[Caoimhín Mac Aoidh is the author of Between the Jigs and Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition, The Scribe, The Life and Works of James O’Neill,” and an upcoming book on mazurkas. He was featured in the Summer 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine and is a founding member of Cairdeas na bhFidleiri.]

Photo: Caoimhín Mac Aoidh