An Article from Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on
Regional Styles in Irish Fiddling
North Donegal / West Tyrone / Northwest Tyrone
I find the music of this general area can be summarised in one word—aggressive. It is basically fast paced music where even the lighter sounding melodies come out with a very hard punch There is a sense of urgency and power greatly involved within it. Players as diverse in personal style as Neil Boyle and the Dohertys still exhibit the common link of being consistent players of a very attacking type of music. Some players I associate with this style are Felix Kearney of Tyrone, the Dearg Brothers, Danny Meehan, Tommy Peoples, Proinnsias Ó Maonaigh and his daughter Mairéad Bean Uí Chinneaide as well as Vincent and Columba Campbell of Donegal. Dermot McLaughlin from Derry is also a magnificent player.
East Derry / Antrim/ Southwest Tyrone
Compared to the above mentioned style, this type region has fiddlers who tend to play a slower (though not much) type of music which is not as aggressive as the latter and more highly ornate. While the Highlands are not as popular in this region as they are in the western part of Derry and Tyrone as well as Donegal the Scottish influence is very well represented in the number of strathspeys played. Excellent examples of typical players in this style are John Loughran and Bobby Martin of Tyrone, Vincey McLaughlin and Paddy Kelly of Derry and Willie McKendry of Antrim.
South Donegal / Fermanagh / North Leitrim
I see this region as a link between the areas of aggressive, powerful musical provinces of Ulster and the more rhythmic, bouncy musical districts of Sligo. This are shows a change from the more northerly styles in that the mood and rhythm of the tunes become slightly lighter and bouncier in contrast to the "full steam ahead" type of playing in Donegal, yet the power of the northern music is still retained in this area. In many ways the players in this style exhibit the best and most magnificent traits of two worlds. Some very good examples from this region are Ben, Maurice and Charlie Lennon, Leitrim, the late John Gallagher, Leitrim, Tom Mulligan of Leitrim, now living in Dublin, Mick Hoey, Seamus Quinn, Tommy and Ben Gunn of Fermanagh, the late Patrick Kelly and Terry McIntyre of South Donegal.
The music of this area is probably better documented than all other regions as a result of emigration. The players of this county filled the dance halls of New York and paid tribute to their native country by sending back some of the most magnificent recordings of Irish music to date. Players such as Paddy Killoran, Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Sweeney, Michael Gorman, John Frank Vesey, Martin Wynne, Seamus and Manus McGuire, Fred Finn, Peter Horan and Joe O'Dowd are amongst several of the excellent exponents of the light and bouncy style of this county. The music is characteristically fast and the overall mood favoured is a light one with the rhythm being as stated above, bouncy or with great "lift".
The music of this district differs greatly from that of Sligo. the pace of the music is greatly reduced which allows the player to concentrate more on the mood of the music. The tunes in this area are often highly ornate but the overall impression always seems to be one of wistfullness. A great contributing factor towards this often eerie feeling is the common occurrence of playing tunes in keys such as E flat and B flat which lend themselves to this type of sound. Excellent exponents of this style are Paddy Fahey, Paddy Kelly, Mairtín Byrnes, Connor Tully and Liam Lewis.
In the early part of this article I tried to impress that a link exists between local fiddle styles and the former use of dialectical Irish. I think this proposed connection is best demonstrated taking a tour down from east Galway through east Clare and further down into west Clare. On such a journey one can hear the present day English slowly flow into a local dialect from one area into another. Linguistic experts tell us that the Irish of these areas died not so long ago. I suspect that the music of these districts can offer indirect supporting clues to the latter. If you were to listen to the wistful music of Paddy Fahey and then travel a short distance to Scariff in County Clare I do not think you would find a drastic difference when you would hear Martin Rochford. As you move further westwards in Clare the music still retains the slow pace of the Galway style, yet gradually relinquishes the eerieness in the music, taking on a more lighter aspect to the melody. There are nearly innumerable representatives of all the traditional styles from this district. Among them are Patrick Kelly, late of Cree, Bobby Casey, Joe Ryan, Mick and Tom Eustace, Junior Crehan, John Kelly, Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes and Martin Hayes as well as Tony Linnane.
This district takes in parts of Counties Kerry, Limerick and north Cork, which lie on an elevated plain north of the Macgillycuddy Reeks, Derrynasaggart and Boggeragh Mountain chain. The music of the district shows a return to a faster pace of music which has an incredible range of musical emotion. There is tremendous life and joy in the fast moving light melodies yet at the same time many of the older players such as Con Curtin of Brosna are able to play magnificent lonely tunes at the drop of a hat. Probably the great distinguishing trademark of this area is the dominance of the slide and polka. These rhythms which appreciated such great popularity up until a generation ago would seem to be suffering a setback in the area most likely due to the impact of recordings of fiddlers from outside the area. Several players from this district are nearly household names. they include Pádraig Ó Caoimh, Denis "The Weaver" Murphy and his sister Julia, Paddy O'Connell, Donal O'Connell, Jerry McCarthy, Paddy and Johnny Cronin, both in the U.S.A., Pat Fitzgerald and Buddy Furey.
The existence of distinct styles are correlated with the existence of dialectical Irish, and the premise that these styles are, in part, due to and related to natural geographic barriers is postulated. The recent negative effects which mass transportation, the various mass media and recordings have had on the preservation of fiddle styles are noted. The suggestion that fiddle styles be evaluated by a series of several interacting criteria producing a unique resultant sound or mood, as opposed to bowing and ornamentation techniques, is forwarded.
The above third posting finished the original article. The portion below did not appear in the original article but may be of some help in understanding the some of the unique history and influences in the east Galway style.
Paddy Fahey often told me that during the end of the last century and the first decade or two of this century the local fiddlers of east Galway were always very anxious to play with the famed uileann piper Dinny Delaney. Dinney's chanter was pitched in B flat. Rather than tune the fiddles down to the chanter, the players regularly re-learned the tunes in flat keys to play with him without tuning down. As such, the local players became highly conversant in playing flat keys. When they started to compose themselves or re-arrange tunes in more common keys, they would often opt for playing them in flat keys as after only a few years, the "wistful flat key sound" was very much the aim of players.