Paddy Tunney 'A Man for All Seasons'

By Connie Duffy, Editor - Donegal on Sunday

This week its only right and proper we recall the late, great Paddy Tunney, particularly that the Fleadh has returned to Donegal for the first time in over a quarter of a century.

His huge influence and work at preserving traditional songs in particular has already carved out and defined his legacy but there was much more to the man than that. He was Irish to the core and unashamedly so!

Paddy was born in Glasgow on January 28, 1921, third in a line of eight children. His father, also named Patrick, came from Fermanagh and his mother was Brigid Gallagher from a place known as Rusheen on the road between Laghey and Pettigo. She was born in 1886 the second child of Michael Gallagher and Mary Meehan.

There was a rich singing tradition on both sides of Brigid’s cradle - going back at least four generations with the Gallagher’s and at least two (generations) in the case of the Meehan’s. Paddy frequently spoke about the singers from whom his mother learned her songs; people such as her aunt Mary (known as Mary of the Mountain Streams - for obvious reasons), also her grandfather Pat Meehan and old William Monaghan (a neighbour).

Paddy considered that many of her songs might have been brought to the area by journeymen, tailors, cobblers and weavers, who would have been encouraged to sing by the music-loving folk of the area.

When the family returned home sometime around 1924-25, they settled in the parish of Mulleek, approximately six miles west of Beleek in Co Fermanagh and went to Derryhallow Public Elementary School and later Ballyshannon’s Technical College. His earliest influences stemmed from his maternal grandfather, William. He probably listened to and enjoyed his full repertoire from the locality, which was as much at home with traditional English songs as the Irish influences of the south-east Donegal - cross border Fermanagh areas.

Paddy immersed himself in the influences discovered in ‘rambling’ or ‘ceiling’ houses’, which were frequented by traditional musicians, dancers and storytellers. He began singing, on his grandfather’s knee, at the age of three and Paddy used to boast he even remembered the very song itself - ‘A Lark in the Morning’. His mother, herself a renowned source singer, was also a huge influence on the young Paddy and spent much time satisfying his thirst for new songs. She also taught him how to lilt as Paddy once recalled: ‘She never gave me a song until she considered I was able to sing it properly.’

Thanks to her huge stock of traditional folk songs which she picked up in Scotland and at home Paddy’s ear was bent in one certain direction, one which he was to continue to develop and enhance throughout his life. His repertoire of fine songs, the quality of his voice - particularly in the early years, his inimitalbe singing style and mastery of grace notes, phrasing and momentum, the feeling passion and sheer excellence of his performance in full flight; all these qualities ensured that Paddy Tunney set an exceptional standard not only for his peers but also for the several generations of singers who have followed in his footsteps.

Paddy came to Donegal in 1949 as the county’s first Health Inspector. Ironically his wife, Julia Bradley from Manorcunningham was the county’s first Public Health Nurse. They married in 1955 and as they began to rear a family, music and song was never far away.

Comhaltas was formed in 1951 and the first Fleadh arrived a year later so the outlets and opportunities for Paddy to develop and indeed spread his love of traditional music increased. Indeed he was to be found wherever traditional music and singing was taking place. In those early days no one had a repertoire like Paddy Tunney and thanks to him today we have songs like Moorlough Mary, Lough Erne Shore, Craigie Hill, The Green Fields of Canada, Easter Snow, As I Roved Out, The Banks of Dunmore, The Blackbird, The Mountain Streams Where the Moorcocks Crow, Sheila Nee Iyer, The Rambling Boys of Pleasure and My Charming Buachaill Rua. More importantly perhaps Paddy shared many many tunes and in return only asked they be sung with the respect and feeling they deserved. He hated to see a good song ‘butchered’.

Paddy’s close associations with the Fleadh stretch back to the very beginning. He only missed one, Enniscorthy in 1967, due to ill health and it must have been serious to stop him travelling. Incidentally he felt his last Fleadh in 2002 was the best ever! Not only did Paddy serve the cause of Irish Traditional singing with exceptional loyalty, he also adjudicated at Fleadhanna all over the country.

He was readily available for seminars and workshops and served for 20 years at CCÉs annual Scoil Éigse where he passed on his love, his techniques and enthusiasm for the songs he loved so well. Paddy also had an exceptional command of the English language and his writings, poetry, translations and prose manifested themsleves both inprint and in oral form. Two of his books spring to mind, ‘The Stone Fiddle’ and ‘Where Songs do Thunder’ - both gave a fascinating insight into his life and songs.

He also toured extensively in Britain, Canada and the United States giving lectures, recitals and appearing frequently at festivals passing on his great knowledge of traditional songs. He also presented several radio programmes, performed regularly on television and left us many records as a recording artist. Add to that the fact he was also a champion lilter, an entertaining raconteur, an accomplished storyteller and step dancer then you can just begin to imagine the resource that was Paddy Tunney. His numerous recordings are still available, his songs are still being sung, and his influence still lives on.

This week in particular it is quite appropriate we should remember his name. He may have left us on December 6, 2002 aged 81 but his mighty spirit has never really gone away.

Thank you Paddy.