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Caoimhín Mac Aoidh: Friend of the Fiddlers
Ben Nelson

Fiddler Magazine has featured music and musicians from County Donegal, Ireland, five times in its dozen years of publication. Undoubtedly, the county would not be such a friendly place for fiddlers were it not for Caoimhin Mac Aoidh. For the last thirty years, Caoimhin has dedicated most of his evening hours (not to mention many early mornings) to recording, documenting, teaching, and living the rich Donegal fiddle tradition. He was instrumental in the founding of Cairdeas na bhFidléirí --sometimes translated from the Irish as "The Friends of the Fiddlers"--an organization that sponsors a summer fiddle school in Glencolmcille and an annual meeting and festival weekend in Glenties, as well as smaller educational events throughout the year. In 1994, Caoimhin's decades of playing, collecting, and researching culminated in the publication of Between the Jigs and Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition, a comprehensive account of the history, folklore, local styles, and individual players that have collectively woven the rich texture of the county's musical heritage. His dedication to the preservation of the music's past is only surpassed by his commitment to its future, revealed by his eagerness to teach anyone with a passion for Donegal fiddle. I spoke with Caoimhin over bottomless cups of tea in his home in Ballyshannon, County Donegal.

You were born in Philadelphia, right? What age were you when your family came back to Donegal?

I would have been pretty young when we came back. In fact, I was about forty-five before I actually found out where I was born. But, I mean, the important thing was that the music was always there. My father had built a pub downstairs, in the house in Philadelphia. I can remember, as a very young child, lying on the floor, pressing my ear to the floor to hear the music coming from downstairs. Now, I was supposed to be asleep, but that whole thing seemed incredibly exciting, because there was music, and there was fun, and it was an adult thing, you know. But the music was the thing that was obviously driving it, and I would really be attracted to the music. I thought that was brilliant.

At what point did you actually start playing the fiddle?

I actually started on the whistle, on the grounds that when I was that young, if I was given a fiddle, I would probably break it. But I used to go to Vincent McLaughlin--a relation of mine from County Derry--and play on his fiddle, unbeknownst to anybody. We were at a party one evening, and both of us had forgot I was learning in secret. You know, everybody was doing their party pieces, so I played a couple of very simple jigs or something-in fact, it was "The Trip to the Cottage," a double jig that I had learned from Vincie-and all of a sudden, there was this revelation of, "What's he doing playing the fiddle?" So, I would have been "let at" the fiddle, let's say, from then on.

When did you develop an interest in documenting the Donegal fiddle tradition?

By an age when I still was young, I knew that I didn't want to just learn the music. I wanted to know the background to the melodies, the folklore. I wanted to know about the people who played it, the people who were old, who were great players, and who I still had direct access to. I might not necessarily have very comfortable access-you know, there was a generation gap between us, so I wasn't meeting them as social equals-but music transcends that. So certainly by the time I was eighteen, I wanted to know everything about it. That might be unusual because for a lot of people, that additional desire doesn't come until later on, and for a lot of people, it never comes. I think for the music, for the tradition, it's not important that everybody has to be that way.

Was there anyone you looked up to as having the same kind of desire to know everything behind the music, and not just the melodies?

Danny O'Donnell, definitely. As I said, to keep all elements of the tradition alive and being passed on, you only need a couple of people doing that in each generation--but they have to be really, really good. And Danny was that man of that generation, and he was incredibly good. I used to pass Danny's door, twice a day every day, and if I was inquiring about a tune I would call in. I would just play the first phrase of something and ask him about it, and if it was in O'Neill's, he would give me the number--with no reference to book nor paper nor publication. He would actually know the numbers! I went to him once and I told him I found something in Dublin about a dance that was done in Donegal called the Berlin Polky. As soon as I said that, he says, "If you go to the first collection of Kerr's "--Kerr's Merry Melodies, which in Donegal was more important than O'Neill's, because it had all the highlands and Scottish tunes--he said, "on the lower right hand side of the page there's a 'miscellaneous' section, and if you look in there you'll find a tune called the 'Krakoviak.' That was the tune played for the Berlin Polky." I would write this stuff down on my hand in case I forgot it. I would have done this hundreds of times, and he was never wrong once. It was incredible.


When was Cairdeas founded, and what was its purpose initially?

It was founded in the 1970s. I don't think there was an official kind of a date when it started. It was basically a working group of people of a same inclination and a same age, people like myself, Rab Cherry, Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh, Paul O'Shaughnessy, Dermot McLaughlin, people like that. We were all mad keen on Donegal fiddle music when it had no attraction, nobody wanted to hear it, and outside of Donegal nobody wanted to play it. There were a lot of giants around still, but even in Donegal, a lot of people of our generation were going to folk music, or rock music, or something else was interesting them and it wasn't traditional fiddle playing. The handful of us who were making big contact with the old players realized that a lot of them were kind of getting disappointed at the way that the music had changed and was deteriorating in terms of its social meaning. So, the idea of Cairdeas was to put on events which would encourage the old players to play, to give them a bit of dignity back. We started running concerts with nationally known players who would be attractive in terms of crowd numbers, but we would actually put the old Donegal boys on the top of the bill. And you would have players of national and international significance come up on stage and play a set and say how honoured they were to be sharing a stage with somebody like, say, Francie Byrne. Then at the end, they would come out and play duets or trios with him. It was genuine, and it was deserved-and you could see that. The old boys-you know, people like Con Cassidy and Francie Byrne and John Gallagher from Ardara-their hearts were just rising that all of a sudden there was meaning again. Their enthusiasm started to rise, their playing started to rise, they thought more about the music, and a lot of times they were digging out tunes they hadn't played for forty or fifty years.

So we started at that--that was the only aim, to put the dignity back and the opportunities of playing back for the older generation of players. That was a huge, long-term goal which we thought would take to the end of the older players' lives. We were badly caught off guard because within three years we had achieved that aim. And we were lost. I mean, the thing just snowballed, incredibly, and brilliantly, and all of a sudden it was: Well, we don't have to do that job anymore. What should we be doing? Very quickly the realization was that the old generation was secure. We were okay, the middle generation, the young adult generation. So the obvious answer was: Well, hang on, what are we doing for the younger generation? Because we're just delaying the end, if we're satisfied that we're okay, and not doing something for the next generation. So very, very quickly, we turned the total focus of Cairdeas into one word: education. Everything we did had a massive educational content to it. We had started the Glenties weekend in 1983, and in 1986 we had the first summer school. And that has been an incredible success. We've consciously kept that running in such a way that it's not a tourist event or a commercial event, it's an educational event. The only question we ask is: What is the quality of learning that the pupils get here? It's quieter, more quality of human contact, more listening and understanding and exchanging ideas, and playing, and coming to grips with what's the beauty of this thing.

We also run master classes throughout the year, which, again, have small numbers of pupils who are totally committed to learning and playing. We run it with the likes of Jimmy and Vincent Campbell, who are giants in the music. We make the important connection between playing tunes not only as session tunes but as music for dancing. To get a full understanding of how it all works together, players are also taught the old dances by Connie McKelvey, a local postman, and Anne Connaghan, whose daughter, Tara, is a brilliant fiddler herself. Master classes put young players--and middle-aged players (I mean, I go to these things!)--in close contact with fiddlers who have been absolutely born, bred, and buttered in the tradition. They're incredible learning opportunities for anybody. And the good thing about it is, I would say that the young kids who are playing in Donegal today actually understand that point. They see that difference, and to my best knowledge, they're very, very grateful to get that experience.

Has teaching fiddle changed your understanding of Donegal music?

Teaching has changed, from the generation before me to my generation, and it's changed out of need. If you look at the generation before mine, they learned the same way that fiddle players were learning 200 years ago. You would go out ten nights in a row, mostly to the houses, and you were hearing the same repertoire over and over again. Well, if the tunes are in your mind, and you're in any way musical at all, it's not a big effort to get it down into your hand. And everybody here learned by ear. As you became a really good player, if there was a particular difficult tune or intricate tune that you wanted, well then you could go to a player and ask him to play it slowly and go over it and get it that way. But I mean, you would never go for lessons.

Whereas now, our social, working lives have changed. They've become a lot more busy and regimented, with the result that we have to kind of schedule things. If you're going to have learning that's scheduled, that really leads to classes. And Cairdeas was huge in providing regular classes. Again, virtually everybody teaches here. And in fairness to all of the Donegal players, virtually everybody is doing it for effectively no economic gain. Everybody's doing it because it's the right thing to do. The tradition is a bank. We've been drawing for decades on the account, and you know, it's time to put some of the money back. We do it in classes, which is the social and musical need that's there now-still basically passing on the tradition, but in a slightly different way.

I would argue that there is a Donegal style of teaching, what I call poetic learning. In "linear learning," you teach a tune along a straight melodic line. Say each of the two parts of a tune has eight bars, eight notes in a bar, sixty-four notes. So combining both parts, a tune is a 128-note sequence, if you're learning it by linear learning. And that's very difficult, to learn a code that length--in particular with something like a reel, where you have additional notes of ornamentation or triplets thrown in, and it's played at speed.

Now look at poetic learning. That is to say: each musical phrase is like a line of poetry, and just like poetry has repetition within its internal structure, so do the phrases of traditional music. For example, the first phrase is typically the fifth phrase, and very often it's the third phrase. If you look at Scottish music, and a good bit of Donegal music, the second phrase is usually the first phrase moved up one note or down one note. So you have the A phrase, the B phrase, the A phrase repeats, and you have a semi-resolution as the fourth phrase. The A phrase repeats again, the B phrase repeats again, the A phrase repeats again, and then you have a complete resolution-something very close to the fourth phrase, the semi-resolution-on the last phrase. You get that structure reflected again in the second part, and a lot of times, the second part will borrow the resolving phrase from the first part. So if you learn it by phrase, a lot of times you only need to learn something like four or five phrases to learn the tune. Now, the demand to learn four or five phrases, in poetic learning, versus the demand to learn a code of 128 changes-you can do it the hard way, or you can do it the simple way.


[For the full text of this interview, as well as an article by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on James O'Neill, purchase the Summer 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Ben Nelson is a clawhammer banjo player and aspiring fiddler from a musical family in southwest Virginia . He has spent this past year pursuing a Thomas J. Watson fellowship to study the ancestry of old time fiddle and banjo music in Donegal and Senegambia .]