Randal Bays has described Tommy Peoples as "one of the higher peaks in the great mountain range of traditional musicians." It is an image that captures a lot of Tommy: his great stature, his craggy features, his intense and individual nature, and the long shadow he has cast over Irish music. Originally from Donegal, near St. Johnstone, Tommy moved to Dublin as a teenager, and eventually to County Clare, where he married and raised a family. Rooted in the Donegal style of playing from an early age, Tommy's music evolved as he was exposed to different influences. Known early on for his ferocious triplets and dazzling technique, Tommy's recent recording, The Quiet Glen, shows the great sweetness in his playing. From his early playing with groups such as the Green Linnet Ceili Band, his recording on the Bothy Band's first album, and through his solo work, Tommy Peoples has influenced untold numbers of musicians. When I watch him play, I am struck by how he invests himself in every note, and by how deeply personal is everything he plays. We spoke at his family home, Kinnycally, Donegal.
Tell me about your early life in Donegal.
I was born here in St. Johnstone in 1948. They were bleak times alright, but I'm sure it was an improvement on what it was before. My uncle, Matt Peoples, played, my grandfather played. The first fellow that started teaching me was my first cousin, Joe Cassidy -- his mother and my father were brother and sister. In my father's generation, I was just thinking, there were about six fiddlers in a two-mile radius, but then no one since.
Were there other early influences, apart from your cousin Joe?
Well, at the time there wasn't much in the way of travel, or transport or anything else - it was mostly bikes and walking. There were pretty regular little sessions, once a month, up in Letterkenny [thirteen miles away]. Actually, the man that ran them there - Hugh McGovern -- he was an undertaker for years -- still runs the session and he's like ninety or something. I've gone up there the past couple of weeks now that I'm back home.
When you were growing up here, were you playing in a traditional Donegal style?
It's hard to say. Donegal style is associated with Johnny Doherty in particular, and I'd say there were a lot of different styles even within the county. I was probably playing a lot straighter when I was around Letterkenny. There were a lot of influences like Frank Kelly, who played maybe more like a Sligo style than a Donegal style, even though I wouldn't say he was influenced as such by the Sligo musicians. And Vincent Campbell had a very individual style. He was in Glenties and used to come to those sessions in Letterkenny.
You moved to Dublin in your teens?
I did. I moved to Dublin when school wasn't an option. I didn't succeed too well at school. I'd been expelled from one and hadn't turned up at another. It was kind of time to go. There wasn't a tradition of education around this particular area.
I assume most of the people in the area were farmers?
It's also a divided kind of area, religiously. So the farm owners are one religion -- Protestants -- and the other community are Catholics. Most of the Catholics that live in this area would have come in through what were known as hiring fairs. Mostly children hired after they were twelve years of age, for six month periods and the like. Most of the houses around here were laborer's cottages owned by the farmers. Education wasn't stressed because when people left grammar school, the next step was emigration.
And then in Dublin you met up with the Kellys?
I would have, yeah. I met John Kelly [James Kelly's father] accidentally. I didn't have a fiddle or anything, so I'd decided I would buy a whistle. There were a few in the window at John Kelly's shop. He would have told me then about the different sessions that were going on. It was kind of a different scene -- there was no such thing as playing for money or anything like that. There wasn't a lot of music at pubs, either. It was just in these little clubs where we got together just for the sake of playing. At the time, Matt Molloy was going to the college there and Mary Bergin and other people of that age group were around -- Sean Keane, James Keane, and the like. That was about the bulk of that age group. Then there was the older generation, like John Egan, John Kelly, Des O'Connor and Tom Mulligan. Leo Rowsome was teaching at the time in the Piper's Club, so he would often be there on a Saturday night. There were some great old characters around. They were wonderful people and you were safe in their hands. I was in a ceili band then when I was in Dublin -- the Green Linnet Ceili Band. It was a nice band, and good fun. There were a good few ceilis at that time, so it was our first venture into commercialism. We wouldn't play like every week, but maybe every second week. Mary Bergin was in the band, and Tony Smith used to play fiddle in it, and Mick Hand played flute.
Listening to your recordings over time, your music has become sweeter and gentler. Does this reflect the changes in your life, or is it something you've worked towards?
It's probably a reflection of the change in my life. Maybe the main ingredient is from alcohol to sobriety, as well as some degree of inner peace that didn't exist before. Plus a few other ingredients like nervousness that would have had a bearing on performance. Mostly I still am nervous performance-wise, though not on all occasions, but cope with it differently.
Another thing that makes you a unique player is the number and quality of your compositions. Have you always composed?
I would have from a pretty early age. I get fits of it. Being here at night time -- I'm not a television addict and I don't tend to go out very much, so it can be almost a necessity at times. I composed from an early age, and there was probably a theory then -- a ridiculous theory -- that tunes should be strictly traditional and probably passed on for ten generations or something. Maybe the best way to know that a tune was in anyway valid was not to say it was newly composed. There are probably tunes that are attributed to me that I had nothing to do with, that would be called "Tommy Peoples'" just because I happened to play them sometime.
Do you keep track of the tunes you've written?
I wouldn't, no. Maybe there are more than fifty or so - I would have written down a good few in a certain period. Generally I tend to just write a tune down on paper rather than pull an instrument out. It might change a little bit afterwards. I generally do that if I'm sitting down with some spare time on my hands, being a non- practicing workaholic.
Do you have any pet favorites among your compositions?
One that I wrote lately that's on The Quiet Glen, called "Black Pat's." I like the "Green Fields of Glentown" as well, mind you, but I don't play it all that much. It seems to have a certain appeal to a lot of people and has been recorded a lot by others. Glentown is just half a mile up the road from this house.
Is it important to you to think that people will pick up these tunes and carry them on?
It's nice if it happens. I don't know what started me initially, kind of just having a fascination with tunes. When I was younger it was probably a fascination with new material, or any tune that you haven't heard before always appeals. So I just started like that. It would have been a big surprise early on to hear someone play a tune I had written, a surprise and a confirmation that it was reasonably okay. It's hard to judge, really.
[For the full text of this article, as well as transcriptions of Tommy's tunes "Black Pat's" and "Gráinne's Jig," purchase the Summer 2001 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays fiddle and guitar for contra dances and concerts. He holds a master’s degree in Irish music from the University of Limerick, and has toured in Europe and North America. Visit his website at www.brendantaaffe.com]