Donegal fiddle tradition

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The centuries-old tradition of fiddle playing in County Donegal, Ireland, famous for its unusual tunes, the virtuosity of some of its players, and its rapid pace, might in fact be better described as a set of coexisting traditions. Donegal is a rural, remote, partly Irish (i.e., Irish Gaelic) speaking county in northwestern Ireland and one of the three counties of the northern Irish province of Ulster that are part of the Republic of Ireland. The fiddle is completely dominant as an instrument in traditional music in the county, although some Donegal musicians have gained some renown by their playing of button accordion, pipes, and tin whistle, among others. The singing tradition is also particularly strong in Donegal. But for many "Donegal music" refers to fiddle playing first and foremost.

While a "Donegal style" of fiddling is often spoken of, it might be more accurate to identify several different, but related, styles within the county. To the extent to which there is one common style in the county, it is characterized by a rapid pace; a tendency to be more straight-ahead (unswung) in the playing of the fast dance tune types (reels and jigs); short (one-note-per-bowstroke), aggressive bowing; relatively sparse ornamentation; the use of bowed triplets more than rolls (an ornament like a turn) as ornaments; and the use of double stops and droning (playing on more than one string at once). None of these characteristics is universal, however. In general, aggressive and lively fiddling is very often heard in Donegal, which many listeners find exciting.

Donegal represents a sort of musical crossroads between Ireland and Scotland. Donegal repertoire and style have been influenced by the fiddle styles of parts of the south--especially Sligo and the playing of the Sligo greats such as Michael Coleman--as well as Scottish and Shetland Island styles and repertoire. Fiddlers such as John Doherty said that they took cues from the sounds, ornaments, and repertoire of the Highland bagpipes (the so-called Scottish warpipes). This seems evident in their playing, which features a lot of droning, trilling and finger ornamentation, and a stark style some find reminiscent of the pipes.

Another feature of Donegal fiddling that makes it distinctive among Irish musical traditions is the variety of rare tune types that are played. Highlands, a 4/4 type of tune based on Scottish strathspeys, which are also played in Donegal, are one of the most commonly played types of tune in the county. Other tune types common in the county include barndances, also called "germans" in Donegal, and mazurkas.

While there are several strands to the history of fiddle playing in County Donegal, perhaps the best-known and, in the last half of the twentieth century, the most influential has been that of the Doherty family. Hugh Doherty is the first known musician of this family. Born in 1790, he headed an unbroken tradition of fiddlers and pipers in the Doherty family until the death, in 1980, of perhaps the best-known Donegal fiddler, John Doherty. John, a travelling tinsmith, was known for his extremely precise and fast finger- and bow-work and vast repertoire, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest Irish fiddlers ever recorded. John's older brother, Mickey, was also recorded and, though Mickey was another of the great Irish fiddlers, his reputation has been overshadowed by John's. Other representatives, now dead, of older Donegal styles include Neillidh ("Neilly") Boyle, Francie Byrne, Con Cassidy, and his older cousin Frank Cassidy. A great fiddler from Donegal who bears mention, but whose style more closely resembled that of his Sligo mentors, was Hugh Gillespie.

Some great Donegal fiddlers are still alive, including James Byrne, Vincent Campbell, John Gallagher, Paddy Glackin, Danny O'Donnell, and Tommy Peoples. Among the many younger players, the three fiddlers of the Donegal "supergroup" Altan, Maireád Ní Mhaonaigh, Paul O'Shaughnessy, and Ciarán Tourish, are commonly regarded as brilliant, as are Mick Brown, Martin McGinley, Dermot McLaughlin, and others too numerous to mention by name. Although he is not known as a fiddle player, Dermot Byrne, the button accordion player currently with Altan, has a style and repertoire that is firmly within the Donegal instrumental tradition; he is widely regarded as one of the finest button accordion players in Ireland.

It is a testament to the vigor of the tradition that the local practitioners, and the children of local practitioners who have moved elsewhere, frequently return to Donegal to support a yearly Summer School, the first week of August, the Glenties Weekend in October, as well as the Frankie Kennedy Winter School, which take place over the New Year holiday. Not surprisingly, there are many excellent younger players, and the county's strength in fiddle playing seems likely to continue for some time to come, at least.