16 Oct 2021 update: Good BBC programme on The Northern Fiddler (also being shown on TG4 Sunday 17 Oct 2021) – check it out by clicking on the image below and hitting play on the BBC page when it opens up (photo below is of the late John Loughran from Pomeroy; I remember him playing at late night sessions in my parents’ house in the 1970s):
Some personal memories of SW Donegal, and its magic fiddle players, below. Links to 2 tunes by Vincie Campbell, and by a great young band, FullSet (fantastic uilleann piper from Italy), also below, and well worth a listen;
Pre-Tiger Donegal was a forgotten, magical place.
Between them, cowboy property developers, a supine county council, a take-the-money-and-run attitude and an invasion of post-Troubles SUV yuppies from Belfast and Dublin have done their brash best to destroy all that was sacred and beautiful in the county. That they haven’t, yet, fully succeeded in doing so is testament to the deep-rooted nature of the county’s charm.
I grew up in Co. Tyrone, a few miles from the Donegal border. In Dublin, listening to my accent, taxi drivers used to assume I was from Donegal. We half grew up in the place. Day trips were common, and the annual family holiday was always to Donegal.
Donegal really is two counties in one – North Donegal, up around Glenveagh, the Poisoned Glen and the Bloody Foreland; and S.W. Donegal, from Donegal town through Killybegs (we used to drive to Killybegs to buy iceboxes of weird and wonderful “non-standard” fish that were no use to the fish factories there; superb food, and practically being given away), Kilcar, Carrick, Sliabh Liag and Glencolmcille (though no local ever refers to “Glencolmcille” – a simple “Gleann” suffices).
The Poisoned Glen
In the 1970s, given the wonderfully appalling state of the narrow, bumpy, sheep-filled “roads”, getting from South to North of the county could take most of a day:
Road, Donegal, 1970s
Even though driving slowly on deserted roads to nowhere is wonderful:
Road to Lough Salt, Donegal
– we tended invariably to stick to the SW of the county. We had a massive old suitcase. So much stuff was crammed into the family Renault, you’d have sworn we were emigrating instead of merely going down the road on holiday.
During the Troubles, travelling in the North was always slightly tense – every journey over say 5 miles, you’d invariably be stopped:
Working class Brits meeting working class Paddies in the 1970s
The feeling of relief, of lightness, once you crossed the border, was palpable. Everyone started chatting again, and we always then stopped for a cone. The ones in the South were better, milkier. One day, after a long delay on the Northern side of the checkpoint at Pettigo, as we drove past the small wooden hut with the solitary unarmed Guard on the Southern side, we smiled as we noticed that the Guard, like us, was having an ice cream cone. He waved us on casually, smiling, and we all waved back.
In the 1970s, we mostly had Donegal to ourselves. Thanks to the Troubles, nobody from the South went to Donegal. And Nordies who weren’t from border areas generally just wanted to avoid “crossing the border”. We were border people though, and checkpoints were a way of life. Northerners who did go to Donegal mostly were from bordering areas of Fermanagh and Tyrone, and few of those ventured past the clichéd seaside attractions of Bundoran (since re-invented as a surf mecca) or the pubs and hotels in Donegal town. Sure, we liked Bundoran fine. Kids love fun fairs and amusement arcades (not “dodgems” – we called them “bumping cars”, to reflect the obvious fact that it was the bumping, and not the dodging, that was the point) and seaside chippers and toy shops.
My parents disliked the crowds though, and the “beach” at Bundoran is rubbish – small, rocky, and with vicious rip tides. Nor did it help when we drove the Renault up on top of Roguey Rock one hot day, and stopped for an arrival picnic. The two long-haired young people going at it under a blanket on a rocky ledge just below were un-fazed by our presence; but poor Mum, appalled, shoo-ed us back into the car and we found another spot without any heathen fornicators (Mum’s morality was of the 1950s variety, and the anything-goes 1970s culture was a godless tide stoutly to be resisted, though she was well aware of the futility of her one-woman crusade in the prevailing 1970s permissive culture). Nearby Rossnowlagh, with the quaint little museum at the monastery beside its massive golden beach, generally was completely deserted:
Beach at Rossnowlagh
Once past Bundoran and Donegal town, you were in pure time-travel territory. Wonderful, deserted beaches, litter-free countryside, stunning (pre bungalow / McMansion blight) scenery, hilarious twisty “roads” to nowhere, cheap-as-chips chippers (each with a cone machine), and the world’s friendliest people. Everybody waved and smiled. I mean, everybody.
Including <the hippies>. The only other tourists we saw tended to be young hippy types from mainland Europe. Generally, from France, from Germany and from Sweden. Sometimes just hitching, often on ten-speed racers, lean and tanned, with massive pannier bags and guitars. They all waved too.
One holiday, we stopped somewhere and asked a shopkeeper if they knew of a cottage or caravan going spare. Sure enough, they did. The caravan was clean and new, sitting by itself, close to a twisted thorn hedge behind dunes. Literally, about 5 metres from the beach. And, apart from some Swedish hippies, we were the only people there – we had the beach to ourselves. I’ve travelled a fair bit, and Donegal’s beaches – clean, uncrowded, copious amounts of sand (and none of your gentle Med or Irish sea for us, as Heaney puts it, we had the “secular powers of the Atlantic, thundering“) – easily stand comparison with the best anywhere in the world:
Silver Strand, Malin Beg
Beach at Fintra
Beach at Culdaff
Beach at Marble Hill
Beach at Ardara
The hippies had a few tents in fields along the way. My 12 year old self had a crush on one of them, a leggy blonde young woman in faded denim shorts and flip flops who smiled cheerfully at the blushing small boy. There was a communal water tap, and Mum became a fan of theirs when they cheerfully assisted her in carrying water back to our caravan. At night, they lit a camp fire and sat around it, playing old Swedish folk songs. Then one morning they were gone, with just some small burn marks from their fire showing where they had been.
Once we met a young man with curly hair. A cheerful, gentle soul, he knocked on the door of our caravan in Teelin. He had heard Dad’s music. He was good on the guitar, and the two of them played a few tunes together. We figured he was on the run. We took care not to ask where he was going next, and he took care not to tell us.
You got decent fish grub in Nancy’s in Ardara (pronounced “Ard-ra”, if you’re visiting):
(Other Michelin-starred type places for today’s foodies include e.g., the restaurant at Harvey’s Point (biggest and best hotel rooms in Ireland, too) outside Donegal town, the Olde Glen Restaurant in Carrigart, Blás in Donegal town, and the Lemon Tree in Letterkenny.)
Our “touring” tended to favour the South West. For some reason, we often picnicked at Glengesh Pass – there was a place to pull in, the view was great and we tried to scramble up to the top of the hill:
Before they banked and repaired the road, it was a hairy enough trip in an under-braked and over-loaded 1970s Renault. Of course, all these “bad” roads were great roads for other purposes dear to my heart:
Ballinamallard’s late Bertie Fisher on the charge in Donegal in 1978:
Looking back, I was an observer at some cultural plate tectonics. Donegal was a last redoubt of an un-curated peasant culture, both traditional music and the Irish language. Donegal generally was ignored by the rest of the South; politically, it largely still is. (That’s why, even today, you see young Donegal folk with Donegal number plates on yellow NI-type number plates.) Irish traditional music was on the way out though. The old guys bowing it higher, for love not money, in isolated cottages were fading fast, the dying embers of a defeated culture.
That culture was rescued though, by outside intervention. My late cousin from Canada, Dr. K[ ], a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the 1950s, was instrumental in that endeavour. He and his wife stayed with us every year, while he and my Uncle went on a major drinking and music session to the annual All Ireland Fleadh. Although by that stage, Dr. K. had stopped the booze completely, after the “waking up naked in a morgue with a John Doe number on his toe” incident, but I digress : ) Dr. K. and I wrote to each other throughout his life. He was an extraordinary, Hemingway type character (music, boxing, car rallying, literature, drinking, revolutionary politics). I thought the world of him, and he was a major influence on me as a child.
CCÉ provided a platform and a new PR focus for trad music. Obviously, the Irish middle classes openly detested it. The sniggering references to “diddle-aye” music from the corporate lawyers I worked with in Dublin was a cultural eye-opener; I had never encountered any comparable cultural hostility in England. Now alerted to its existence, traditional music was revived by counter-cultural young people, people of the kind we met in Donegal in the 1970s. I remember my parents, dressed conservatively like Richard and Hyacinth out of the Keeping Up Appearances TV series, chatting to a young German bloke with a tin whistle. Hair down to his arse, anti-nuclear badges, presumably drugs in his back pocket, yet he and my parents bonding away happily over a shared interest in traditional fiddle music. “That music … goes to my heart“, he proclaimed, solemnly, to my parents’ surprise. And, as we all knew, the best traditional fiddle music was in Donegal. Donegal fiddling has a fierce, driving energy, fast paced and with precise slurs and that characteristic use of the bass string to simulate the Scottish bagpipes. Check out this tune from Vincie Campbell – it may sound like a ridiculous comparison, but it in some ways it’s an acoustic version of hard rock – it has that same head-banging intensity, and refusal to compromise for untutored easy-listeners:
That generation of rooted traditional musicians, men who played that way because they knew no other way, included people such as:
Francie Dearg Byrne
Mickey Bán Byrne
Con Cassidy etc
When John Doherty or Francie Dearg played the reel called “The Glen Road to Carrick“, they merely were paying tribute to a rough mountainny road that they’d have tramped over in all kinds of weather:
Nowadays, young trad musicians who may never have set foot in Donegal, have preserved it for a new generation:
A young New York academic from NY University, Allen Feldman, was active in Donegal and Tyrone in that period also, recording old musicians. His resultant 1980 book, The Northern Fiddler, was an anthropological tour de force:
– and he also produced an album for John Doherty, then in his 80s, entitled, fittingly, given that John was a travelling tinker (long before the word acquired any pejorative overtones), Bundle and Go.
My late Dad was a superb traditional fiddle player, and much of his social life in his later years was mediated through music. A violin was a social passport. We would drive to a stranger musician’s house, knock, and my Dad would introduce himself as a fiddle player from Tyrone. If it was nowadays, you’d be chased; but I remember all of us being invited in to Francie and Mickey Byrne’s house, and a great music session ensuing. Mickey was un-married, but Francie’s son and grandchildren were there. One year, their US cousins were there as well, and more chairs had to be borrowed from the village community hall. Everyone had to do their party piece. We stayed until the small hours and were fed twice, and my parents and the Byrne family became lifelong friends, and we visited them every year. I well remember Francie and Mickey sizing up my Dad on that initial gate-crash visit – was this Tyrone man any good, or was he just a tourist? Of course, once Dad broke out the Fritz Kreisler and Scott Skinner Highland compositions, and the German hornpipes in flat keys, broad grins of approval broke out, and then Francie and Mickey cut loose themselves. They wouldn’t bother playing anything too complex until they (ever so tactfully) had sussed you out and were sure that you had sufficient musicial understanding.
In later years, Dad, by then a very old man himself, was attending the annual <Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí> concert in West Donegal, and it was humbling to see a room full of younger Donegal fiddle players getting to their feet and applauding as he came in. Enthusiasts of the tradition, they had that instinctive respect for someone who, by then, was a living embodiment of that tradition.
I admire and enjoy the scenery in the North of Donegal – it too is stunning. Yet for all the reasons noted above, a corner of my heart will always be in South West Donegal, in places like Teelin and Sliabh Liag
among people like me, who just happened to be blessed with better scenery and ready access to beaches : )
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