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   The Donegal Fiddle Tradition
[Brief version] by Larry Sanger

A tradition, or set of coexisting traditions, at least 200 years old, of playing the fiddle in County Donegal, [dun"-ee-gawl']  Ireland.  Donegal is a remote, partly Irish-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.  Donegal's tradition of fiddle playing has completely eclipsed other instrumental traditions in the county.

There is a so-called Donegal style of fiddling, though one also might plausibly 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, and there is some disagreement as to the extent to which there is a common style at all.  But in general, aggressive and lively fiddling is very often heard in Donegal, which many listeners find exciting.  Donegal styles have been influenced to a great extent by southern Irish styles as well as Scottish and Shetland Island styles and repertoire, and by the sounds, ornaments, and repertoire of the Highland bagpipes (the so-called Scottish warpipes).  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, but relatively uncommon elsewhere, include barndances, also called "germans," and mazurkas.

There are, of course, a number of different 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 Frank Cassidy.  A great fiddler from Donegal who bears mention, but who did not play in a traditional Donegal style, 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, [m&-rayd' nee wee'-nee]  Paul O'Shaughnessy, and Ciarán [keer'-&n]  Tourish, are commonly regarded as brilliant, as are Mick Brown, Martin McGinley, Dermot McLaughlin, and others too numerous to mention by name.  Finally, although he is not known as a fiddle player, Dermot [derm'-&t]  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.

For Further Reading

Feldman, Allen, and Eamonn O'Doherty.  The Northern Fiddler: Music and Musicians of Donegal and Tyrone.  Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1979.
Mac Aoidh, Caoimhín.  Between the Jigs and the Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition.  Manorhamilton, Ireland: Drumlin Publications, 1994.  Includes a five-page discography.

Selected Discography

Altan.  The Best of Altan.  Green Linnet GLCD 1177.  Altan is one of the finest and most popular Irish traditional bands; these tracks are from the 1980s and 1990s.  Their fiddlers play in the Donegal style.
The Brass Fiddle.  Claddagh CC44CD.  A now-classic recording made in the late 1980s, with four of the finest fiddlers of the tradition: James Byrne, Francie Byrne, Vincent Campbell, and Con Cassidy.
Doherty, John.  The Floating Bow.  Claddagh CCF31CD.  One of the better recordings from the master.
The Donegal Fiddle.  Raidió na Gaeltachta RTE 196.  A fine anthology of older Donegal fiddling, from the 1940s and 1950s.  Includes much from Francie Byrne, Mickey Doherty, and Jimmy Lyons.
The Fiddle Music of Donegal, Vols. 1 and 2.  Cairdeas CNF 001 and 002.  A fine anthology, recorded in the 1990s, representative of styles found in the county today.
Fiddle Sticks: Irish Traditional Music from Donegal.  Nimbus NI 5320.  Another excellent anthology, made in the early 1990s.  Features Tommy Peoples and Dermot McLaughlin among many others.

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