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Liz Doherty: Donegal to Cape Breton
Paul Cranford

Liz Doherty is an Irish fiddler based in her home County of Donegal. She wrote her PhD thesis on Cape Breton music and she currently lectures at The University of Ulster in Derry. Liz has recorded and toured with both Nomos and The Bumblebees and has recorded two solo albums as well. Her personality is much like her music –– exuberant, fun, quick-witted, and full of life.

Donegal has a rich fiddling tradition with regional styles very different from the rest of Ireland. Why do you think the music is so distinctive?

A lot of men used to go to work in Scotland on a part-time basis as tatty-hokers, picking potatoes, and they would share music and bring back tunes to Donegal. The Scottish connection affected the repertoire. For example, you won’t find strathspeys anywhere else in Ireland but in Donegal. They’re played as a listening piece there. And highlands are derived from the strathspey as well. Then you have people like John Doherty, who got into the Skinner collections. In terms of the style, Donegal does stand out from other styles of Irish fiddling. You have the single bowing thing going on. You have the use of a lot of what we call trebles, which are called cuts here in Cape Breton. So the whole rhythm, the tempo, is quite distinctive, different from the other styles in Ireland. But the big thing about the Donegal style for me these days is this whole label of “Donegal.”

In the ’80s, a group of people became concerned that the local Donegal musical accents were disappearing, and they set up this organization and did absolute Trojan work. They have a week-long school in Glencolmcille where they teach Donegal style and repertoire. It coincided with the advent of Altan, who were kind of at a commercial level then, promoting the Donegal repertoire. And then Cairdeas also undertook a whole series of recordings, and old players like Con Cassidy were recorded, thus disseminating the repertoire. They used the Donegal label for that, which you need to do in a revival –– you kind of have to pick an angle and promote it. But the county is so big that there are actually quite a number of styles within it. So that Donegal label should be handled with care.

You mentioned John Doherty earlier. I had been led to believe his style best exemplifies Donegal playing. He was from southwest Donegal?

Yes. He died in Ballybofey, which is more on the eastern side, but he was a traveling tinsmith, so his influence was wide. He was a virtuoso player. He would have had a lot of influences, would have learned Skinner tunes and so on. But John Doherty was in a position… he happened to be one of the older musicians who was recorded by people like Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax and for RTE and the BBC. So he would have been widely heard, as well as him traveling himself.

Which gave him status as well.

Exactly. So I think there was kind of a combination of factors. I mean, there’s no question about it, he was a musical genius, and it was quite easy to define the Donegal style based on his playing, because he was such a big influence. But the thing I’ve been questioning a whole lot recently is the size of the county geographically –– it takes nearly two hours to get from Inishowen where I’m from to Glencolmcille, Teelin, and Kincar, where the home of the so-called Donegal style is.

Where John Doherty was from.

Yeah, that whole area, around Glenties, that whole kind of southwestern part of the county is where he traveled around mostly. He is the grandfather of the Donegal style, there’s no question about it, but it’s the Donegal style as a single entity that I’ve been questioning. People like Pat Mulhern and Seamus Grant and Dinny McLaughlin were and still are giants in the Inishowen area. They had completely different styles from John Doherty. They’re still Donegal fiddlers, but the style is very different –– a lot smoother, influenced by people like Michael Coleman, as well as by somebody like Peter Wiper or Jimmy Shand as well. They would play highlands and barn dances and hornpipes and jigs and reels, so there would have been tunes in the repertoire, like highlands, that you wouldn’t hear in Sligo or Kerry or Cork. The also played polkas –– which we would not generally associate with Donegal. They use some single bowing but not as much as John Doherty. So, the Donegal style as a single entity is maybe not quite as black and white as it has been promoted. And of course there never had been any Donegal style prior to that, because every community ––  Gweedor, Gaoth Dobhair, Teelin, Inishowen –– all had their own styles.

John Doherty would have been old enough to have been influenced by Michael Coleman’s 78s. He must have heard those recordings, yet he interpreted them in a totally different way. Do you think that he had already developed his style before he heard any recordings?

I think somebody like John Doherty was able to take material from elsewhere and, as you say, completely absorb it, but then it came out with his own slant on it.  I suppose the mark of any good traditional player is that you don’t completely imitate anybody. So you know, Pat Mulhern listening to Michael Coleman, and John Doherty listening to Michael Coleman –– their interpretations of that would have ended up being completely different. And John Doherty was often regarded as a listening player, whereas Pat Mulhern would have played some for dances –– it was later on that he became more of a listening player as the dances began to disappear. Johnny Doherty supposedly learned tunes from the fairies and all as well. He had a big source of material, you know. So his influences were far and wide, and real and not so real. [laughter]

Back to regional styles…

If you look at Irish music pre-20th century, you had a mosaic of different styles. Every community, every little region had their own style, because there was no transport, no communication, no recordings –– you knew what was in your own area. Your star fiddler was the local fiddle player, or piper or whatever. But then you had the advent of recordings, you had publications like the O’Neill collections and people for the first time were hearing music that wasn’t from their own area. Everybody could hear Michael Coleman and want to learn his music and so on. I find one of the saddest things about all that is the fiddlers who, when they heard it they thought that was the standard they should be measuring themselves off, and they actually stopped playing. So gradually, you had a whole shift from rural Ireland to urban centers and people were coming together trying to find communal repertoires to enable them to play together in sessions and so on.

Comhaltas was set up in 1951, and you had the competitions and the formalization of the transmission of the music, and all that lent itself towards the development of a homogenous style of Irish music. So whether you were playing fiddle or flute or whatever, the local accents began to disappear. What’s been interesting is that, gradually, before the local styles completely disappeared, people started going back and looking for the older players before they passed away. There’s been a movement toward local styles being resurrected. So obviously the Donegal style was one big area that was focused on and there’s been a huge push on that. And it was mostly the southwest Donegal style…but also Sliabh Luachra and the Cork-Kerry-Limerick region –– there’s been a big push on that style and the repertoire and the dance from there. County Fermanagh –– that whole repertoire and style has been focused on, so people like Cathal McConnell and all have been big contributors to this. And the interesting thing is that young people from that area are playing Fermanagh tunes, so there’s lots of pockets of regional styles being reinstated. It’s really special, because you still have your “Irish music” style that kind of encapsulates it all, but you’re back now to having diversity, and I think that’s the thing that was missing. The richness of lots of local accents or dialects is certainly there again, which is good.

How about your own development? When did you first start playing –– how did you get into the music?

I would have been about six or seven and went to this guy in the community, Dinny McLaughlin –– he was teaching dancing and  music, so that whole formal structure of traditional music was well underway. The classes he taught were…he might have forty or fifty kids for an hour a week –– the front two rows would be learning tin whistle, somebody would be on the piano, there might have been a row of accordions, maybe one or two concertina players, a row of fiddles, he might have had a flute here, a harp here –– it was a complete mix of instruments. And he would write the tunes on the board and he would stand and point at each note with his bow.

In standard notation?

Just in letters –– he would just stand with his fiddle bow and point out the letters, and everybody would either play it or blow it or whatever. And so that’s how we learned our tunes. And Dinny was a great one for group work, both in music and dance, so if it was in the dance classes we did a lot of team dancing as it was called, and in music it was the groups for the fleadh competitions, and there would have been maybe twenty in the groups, and we learned our seven minutes of music, different types of tunes. Ciaran Tourish and all of us –– we were all in the same groups –– we’d go off to the fleadh and we’d win that and we’d come back and learn another bunch of tunes the next year and put those together.

As well as being a teacher, Dinny also was a player and a composer and a dancer. You did a book on his life –– can you talk a little bit about him?

Well, Dinny was one of the old style of musicians in Ireland –– they all played a bit and they could jump up and do a couple of steps, and then they could tell a story, and make a tune… The thing is so changed now, where younger players are technically accomplished, but the whole context of it has changed quite a lot. People can sit down and play tunes all night or whatever, but you wouldn’t get the younger players sitting down and telling a story that goes along with it. So Dinny was certainly one of those guys. And as well, he very much spelled out that old style thing as well, where the continuation of the music in a particular community depended, completely almost, on one person’s input into that. I know when Dinny stopped teaching a number of years ago, all of a sudden, because the kids weren’t hearing music in their own homes, and this one teacher, this master fiddle player stopped teaching music, it just wasn’t passed on.

Thankfully now it’s kind of been resurrected because we got a festival up and running there, just a three-year kind of project –– three festivals to kind of try and reenergize or bring the focus back on the music in Buncrana. Because Dinny taught myself, people like Ciaran Tourish, Mairead Mooney, Dermot Byrne, Kevin Doherty, so all of those guys –– Altan and Four Men and a Dog and all that –– were kind of pushed on by Dinny in their early years.

So I just started this project where two mornings a week I’d go out and sit and have tea with Dinny and just sit for hours and hours, get him chatting about loads of different things. And eventually it ended up in a book about his life and times. He’s composed quite a lot. I think that was one of the things that also got me going, because he really never documented that stuff himself. And you know, recitations of poems and songs, the whole lot. It’s a local kind of thing, the pictures in it as well. He’s touched so many people’s lives through passing on the music, I just thought it was important to record in some way. [Dinny McLaughlin: A Life of Music, Song and Dance in Inishowen by Liz Doherty;]

[For the rest of this interview, as well as transcriptions of the tunes "Fiddle and Box" (reel by Paul S. Cranford) and "The Jinkin' Mermaid" (reel by Dinny McLaughlin), purchase the Winter 08/09 issue of Fiddler Magazine!] 
University of Ulster: 

[Paul Cranford is a lighthousekeeper, fiddler, composer, and music publisher living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Please see his website at for more information, as well as sound clips, tunes in abc notation, and much more, and to sign up for his “Silver Apple” newsletter.]

Photo: Evan Logan Photography