The Ulster Way

Caoimhín MacAoidh, a Derry Fiddler and traditional musicologist now residing in Ballyshannon, takes us on a walk through the diverse Ulster traditions.

By Caoimhín MacAoidh

Each of the provinces of Ireland can lay a rightful claim to a rich menu of unique cultural traditions. In coming to Ulster, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann has found a welcoming home in the province, which can proudly boast a heritage characterised by the greatest variety and diversity. This is the part of the country where musicianship is a strong, welding bond of brotherhood in a marvellous plethora of diversity.

Here you can savour the piping of Richard Parkes to Robbie Hannan, and the singing of Annie Bean Uí Laoí to Sarah Ann O’Neill not to mention any combination of Tunneys.

In Ulster we not only have a very significant element of the Irish language song tradition but in this territory, you will find the highest concentration from the ‘big ballad’ tradition in the English language. Places like Arranmore Island have not only served as a well spring for songs such as ‘Maidín Fomhair’ but they also nurtured the performance of full blooded versions of many of the Child Ballads.

You are in a part of the country where the local people typically recite Robert Burns before WB Yeats as their party piece.

Many of Burns and other ‘big’ songs of the Scottish repertoire popularly thrive here. This province is a very rich cultural crossroads.

In dancing terms you will find the full range of the Irish sets danced here and on top of that at least three versions of the ‘highland’ mazurkas as well as local versions of barn dances known as ‘germans’. Even the Scottish sword dance has been integrated in the form of the marathon, ‘The Maggie Pickie’.

As regards dance music performance, you’ll rub shoulders with the great number of flute players from the east of the province. Not only have the Ulster musicians been critical in the development of the performance of the music but they have palyed some of the leading roles in documentation and collection of the music. The fiddler James O’Neill, a native of the village of Seapatrick, Banbridge, County Down transcribed hundreds of tunes, which led to the publication of the renowned O’Neill’s Music of Ireland and Dance music of Ireland collections. The Gunn and the Jones’ Collections from Fermanagh, the Donnelly Collection from Armagh, the Bogue Collection from Tyrone and Monaghan and Cavanman, Ed Reavey’s Collections have all hugely enriched the tradition.

More locally, Letterkenny is a town of great welcomes and traditions and as such a fitting and ideal host for this international cultural event. Here you are in fiddle country. It would take the whole duration of the Fleadh and more just to talk about the well-known Donegal fiddlers. To cover the rest of them would take months again.

As you walk these streets you are treading in the footsteps of Jamie, Matt and George Peoples, Joe Cassidy and their kin, Tommy Peoples and Seamus Gibson. These fiddlers, who commuted into the town from the nearby vilage, St Johnston, cut much of their musical teeth in the sessions here.

Most notably of those were in the old Letterkenny Institute on the main street.

Appropriately, this is now the site of the Letterkenny Arts Centre. To those hallowed halls came Vincent, Jimmy, Columba and Josie Campbell, Frank Kelly, Charlie Patton, Hughie McGovern, Jeannie McGlynn, Jimmy Heuston, Packo Harper, Hughie Gillespie, Joe, John and Paddy Douglas.

When the chance presented itself the town feted by John and Mickey Doherty, Neily Boyle, Jimmy McHugh and Dinny McLaughlin. These musicians would gather, bows would fly and as it still does today, magic would happen.

This generation gave us figures of true statesmanship in the music such as Danny O’Donnell of the Rosses and Kathleen McGinley of Raphoe. Their commitment to the foundation stone of any living tradition, namely that of passing on the music and its historical information to the next generation has been a long lasting one.

The fruits of their success can be seen in the legion of inspired fiddlers in the current generation of Donegal fiddlers, Roisin McGrory, Damien Harrigan, Brid Harper, Thomas Strain, Liz Doherty, Mairéad and Ciarán Uí Mhaonaigh, Martin McGinley, Ciaran Tourish, Denise Boyle, Derek McGinley, Mick Brown, Ronan Galvin, James Byrne, Peter Campbell, Paddy and Cathal Tunney, Stephen Campbell, Stephen and Colette Gallagher, Hugh Hiuidaí Beag Ó Gallchoir, Terry McIntyre, Matt McGranaghan, Tara Connaghan, Oisín McAuley and this very healthy list goes on. If there is anything more encouraging than the current scene it is the fact that another generation is already queuing to take their place in the tradition.

Thanks to the outstanding labours of the local Hughie McGovern branch of Comhaltas and its working committee, like you, these musicians will come to Letterkenny; savour the tunes, dancing and song.

They will meet old friends and make new ones, forge lifetime memories and partake in an annual event of international cultural importance.

Tá fáilte fairsing’g fiche romhat go Leitir Ceannainn, áit shuimiúil, stairiúil agus cheolmhar.