The following article appeared in Fiddler Magazine, Fall 1995 issue.

The Fiddle Music of Donegal

by Michael Robinson


County Donegal lies in the far north-west corner of Ireland. It is noted for the beauty of its rugged coastline and heather-covered moors. The wildness of its geography has provided a defence against invasion for many centuries.

The older name for Donegal is Tyrconnell ("land of Conall"), commemorating a monarchy founded in the fifth century by Conall Gulban, the son of the famed king Niall of the Nine Hostages. (The name "Donegal", meaning "fort of the foreigners", is thought to derive from a Viking settlement on the site of present-day Donegal Town.) During the Middle Ages Tyrconnell was the principality of the O'Donnells, one of the two major branches of the Uí Neill dynasty that ruled Ulster for more than a thousand years. In 1601 the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell and their cousins the O'Neills of Tyrone were defeated by the English at the Battle of Kinsale and fled to the Continent from Lough Swilly in northern Donegal. After this "Flight of the Earls" the English government began a long-term program of pacifying Ulster by giving land to Protestant settlers from Lowland Scotland. Because of the poor quality of the arable land in Donegal, however, most of these settlers preferred to remain in the rich agricultural lands of eastern and central Ulster. As a result, in 1922, when the present border of the Irish Republic was established, predominately Catholic Donegal was separated from the rest of Ulster and it became a part of the Republic, to which it is connected by a narrow corridor of land.

Donegal has a long connection with Scotland. Before the Flight of the Earls, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland were one region united by a single language and culture. Even today, Scotland is jokingly said to be "the northernmost county of Ulster". During the days when the O'Donnell chiefs ruled Donegal, they based their military might on "gallowglasses", mercenary soldiers from the Scottish Isles, which were ruled at the time by another of the great Gaelic dynasties, the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles. Musicians—at that time the harpers were the most prestigious—moved freely among the courts of the Gaelic nobility in both Ireland and Scotland, and there was no distinction made between the musical styles of the two countries.

After the fall of the Gaelic aristocracy, Scotland became the key to the economy of Donegal. The English landlords demanded rents in cash from their tenants, but the struggling farmers could barely grow enough to feed and clothe themselves, and the local economy was based mainly on barter, with very little money circulating. The system that evolved was that virtually all the adult men in the poorer areas spent the summer months working as migrant farm-workers in eastern Ulster and Lowland Scotland, earning the money to pay the farm rents. Meanwhile the farms were tended by old men, women and children to grow food and wool for clothing. Although the worst excesses of landlordism were abolished by the late 19th century, Donegal remained a poor region and the pattern of seasonal migration to Scotland continued well into the 20th century.


While Donegal may have been financially impoverished, culturally it is one of the richest areas in the Western world. It is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Irish language, and preserves as well a wealth of folklore and traditional customs. The ancient epic poems of the Celts, composed when the Roman Empire was still in existence, were handed down by memory there to be collected by scholars as late as the 1930s. The poetic tradition of sean-nós ("old style) singing in Irish preserves a body of literature that has its roots in the medieval troubadours. And today Donegal is becoming known for its rich and unique musical tradition.

The noted Tyrone harper Arthur O'Neill (1734-1818) mentioned in his memoirs that in 1760 he was invited to a wedding in Ardara "without my harp, for there were plenty of pipers and fiddlers". It was once a proverb that in Donegal there was a fiddle in every house. While many parts of Ireland have a wealth of traditional music, the music of Donegal has certain unique features which set it apart from the rest.

It is generally agreed that the piping tradition is the heart of modern instrumental Irish music. During the Middle Ages, bagpipes of various kinds became popular with the common people all over Western Europe. In most of Ireland, the uilleann ("elbow") pipes predominate. These are bellows-blown bagpipes played while seated, and are known to be several centuries old (they are mentioned by Shakespeare). In Donegal, however, uilleann pipes were the exception, and the more usual type of bagpipes were the píob mór ("great pipes"), an older type of bagpipes similar to Scottish Highland bagpipes. The sound and range of the píob mór have had a great influence on the Donegal fiddle style.

The uilleann pipes have a rather burbly sound, and the fiddle styles heard in most of Ireland are similar, featuring a burbly ornamentation accomplished mostly with the left hand. The bowing is very legato, with several notes to each bow, and bow changes are de-emphasized by being placed on rhythmically weak notes. In contrast, however, the typical Donegal fiddle style imitates the crackly, sputtering ornamentation of the píob mór. Most notes are played with single bows and there is frequent use of staccato bowed ornamentation. These features are also characteristic of the Cape Breton fiddle style, which is also based on the sound of the Highland pipes.

The characteristic ornaments of the Southern Irish fiddle style, the long and short roll, are totally absent from the style of most of the older Donegal players, although the younger generation has adopted them to a limited extent. The dominant ornament remains the so-called "bowed triplet"—actually two 16th notes followed by an 8th note. The bowed triplet follows the feel of the characteristic piping ornaments of the píob mór.

Preceding the pipes, the origin of Irish music can be found in the sean-nós singing tradition. It is a highly ornamented, complex style featuring elastic rhythms and continuous variation of a basic melody. Sean-nós singing is almost always a solo art. The exception is found in Donegal where occasionally singing in unison or octaves can be heard. Because of the improvisational nature of the continuous melodic variation, such a feat would seem almost to require mental telepathy, and in fact it is only very close relatives who attempt it.

A similar feature is found in fiddle music. Until modern times, Irish music was almost always played by a single solo performer (as is still the case today in the related Cape Breton Scottish tradition). Yet in Donegal there is a long-standing tradition of duo fiddling, again usually performed by close relatives. The fact that so many of the tunes come from the piping repertoire has influenced this style. The range of the píob mór is nine notes—a single octave from A to A, plus the G below. Any tune confined to this range can be played in two different octaves on the fiddle without leaving first position. This is called "reversing" or "bassing". (Fiddling in octaves is also heard in the Kerry fiddle style.)

There are other differences between the Donegal style and the rest of Ireland. Instruments such as the tin whistle, flute, concertina and accordion were very rare in Donegal until modern times. Traditionally the píob mór and the fiddle were the only instruments used. Also, there was a much wider variety of social dance steps in common use there, so musicians were required to play for mazurkas, Germans or barndances, lancers and highlands in addition to the usual jigs, reels and hornpipes found elsewhere in the country. In fact, the music for the highland (a couple dance with a hopping step) is almost as common as reels or jigs in the Donegal repertoire. Many Scottish strathspeys were converted into highlands, as the basic rhythm is quite similar.

The use of pipe or fiddle music was common in old wedding customs. These traditions relate much more closely to Scotland than to the rest of Ireland. The bride would enter the chapel with the fiddler playing Haste to the Wedding. As she walked toward the altar, The Wedding Jig was played. When the marriage contract was signed, The Girl Who Broke My Heart was played on behalf of the local bachelors. At the end, the crowd would return to the bride's house to the tune of Tá Do Mhargadh Déanta ("The bargain is made") or Kiss the Maiden Behind the Bier. Almost as important as the wedding was the "hauling home", which occurred about a month after the wedding—a triumphal procession to bring the bride with her household goods to her husband's house. At this occasion, Bring Home the Bride and Oro, 'Sé Do Bheatha Abhaile ("Oro, welcome home") were among the appropriate tunes.

The most influential musicians in Donegal during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century were travelling musicians who also worked as tinsmiths. The best known of these is the Doherty family. These travelling musicians were honoured guests in houses throughout the county. During the early times when instruments were hard to come by, they also made fiddles out of tin.

Similar itinerant professional musicians were known throughout Ireland in the 19th century, but in many cases they were jealous of other musicians and very protective of their repertoires. The great collector Francis O'Neill describes a number of such musicians who took countless tunes to the grave with them rather than teach them to anyone else.

Unlike these, the Donegal musicians were generous with their music and the travellers spread a wealth of local tunes to settled musicians elsewhere in the county. The men who worked in Scotland during the summer also brought back a number of tunes of Scottish origin, as well as books of fiddle music and instructional material for the violin. The Donegal fiddlers may well have been the route by which Scottish tunes such as Lucy Campbell, Tarbolton Lodge (Tarbolton) and The Flagon (The Flogging Reel), among many others, entered the Irish repertoire.

These players prided themselves on their technical abilities, which included playing in higher positions (fairly uncommon among traditional Irish fiddlers), and sought out material which would demonstrate their skills. This included tunes learned from brass bands playing with travelling circuses and the British Army (which sent bands out into the countryside during recruiting drives), and the compositions of virtuoso fiddlers such as J. Scott Skinner (1843-1927), the Scottish composer of, among others, The Spey in Spate and The Gladstone Reel, and James Hill from Newcastle (c. 1815- c. 1860), the author of such tunes as The High Level Hornpipe and The Hawk (also called The Belles of St. Louis). Although such virtuoso pieces are elsewhere played nowadays in a semi-classical style, particularly by Scottish performers, the Donegal fiddlers never lost sight of the folk tradition and successfully adapted these tunes to the traditional playing style.


John Doherty was one of the last of the old travelling fiddlers. The musical tradition of the Doherty family can be traced back at least 200 years. John was based in Finntown, but spent much of his life wandering throughout Donegal, where he was a welcome guest wherever he went. He seldom carried a fiddle with him, knowing that one would be provided at any house where he stopped for the night. John was very gifted technically, with an immense repertoire of uncommon tunes which were handed down through his family. His strong, austere playing shows great influence from the píob mór. It is our good fortune that his talents were recognized during his lifetime and a number of recordings of his playing were made. He was one of the last remaining links to the lifestyle of the old traditional musicians. John's brothers Mickey and Simon and his nephew Simon are also known as fiddlers.

Vincent Campbell comes from the Cruacha Gorma or Blue Stack Mountains of central Donegal, an area renowned for its rich traditional culture. His father was a well-known fiddler and the Dohertys were frequent and welcome visitors to the Campbell home. Vincent's vigourous playing makes frequent use of double-stops and fourth finger unisons. He has many unique tunes, which are now being picked up by the younger generation of players.

Francie and Mickey Byrne, from Kilcar in southwest Donegal, epitomise the Donegal duo fiddling style. Kilcar has long been renowned for its fiddling tradition. The brothers were also influenced by a travelling piper named Mickey Gallagher, a relative of the Dohertys. Francie spent a number of years in Scotland, like many of the Donegal players. The duo playing of the brothers mixed deadly accurate unison passages, octave playing, drones and the occasional harmony note. Their playing had a major influence on the duo fiddling featured on recent Altan recordings.

James Byrne, from Mín na Croise in Glencolmcille, is the most well-known modern exponent of the long-standing fiddle tradition of Glencolmcille. This tradition can be traced back to a number of influential 19th century players who traded music freely with the travelling musicians. The blacksmith John Mosey McGinley was perhaps the most famous among many. James Byrne's father John was also a noted fiddler. James is a strong, technically gifted player with a great stock of local tunes. The genial Byrne has done much to ensure the continuation of the Glencolmcille style by generously sharing his knowledge with many younger musicians.

Con Cassidy exemplifies the Teelin style which is a contrast to the fiddle style heard in Kilcar and Glencolmcille, which were known as fiddling areas for generations. Nearby Teelin had no fiddlers until the early 20th century. However, there was a strong tradition of vocal dance music, known as lilting or mouth music. Con's cousins John and Frank Cassidy were among the first fiddlers in Teelin, and they were strongly influenced by the travelling fiddlers Alec and Micky McConnell (relatives by marriage of the Dohertys). The McConnells' style bears the influence of the píob mór, but unlike the Kilcar style where the píob mór sound is imitated by the use of mostly single bowing and staccato bowed triplets, the McConnells used long bowstrokes to imitate the drone of the pipes and copied the complex piping ornaments with the left hand fingers. Their playing is said to have been very similar to that of Angus Grant, a well-known present-day fiddler from the Scottish Highlands. The Teelin style combined the influence of the McConnells and that of the old lilters. The left hand ornamentation is more complex than the short bow style, making use of rolls and chromatic ornaments. The repertoire holds many marches and waltzes in addition to the usual highlands, jigs and reels.

Tommy Peoples Tommy Peoples came originally from St. Johnstown in northeast Donegal, not far from the city of Derry. He learned to play fiddle from his cousin Joe Cassidy. He has travelled widely throughout Ireland and now lives in County Clare. He played with an early version of the Bothy Band in the 1970s, but left the group after their first album. He subsequently made several solo albums. He has introduced many tunes into the Irish repertoire through his own recordings and via other musicians, particularly The Boys of the Lough and Altan. He has a unique personal style, based on the Donegal single bow style, but influenced by Scottish and southern Irish playing as well, featuring driving single bowing, limited melodic ornamentation and a unique "stuttering" bowed triplet that is reminiscent of píob mór ornamentation.

Paddy, Séamus and Kevin Glackin grew up in Dublin, but they learned from their father, Tom Glackin, who came from the region of Dungloe in northwest Donegal. Paddy was particularly influenced by John Doherty, and has recorded a number of Doherty's tunes on his recent recording Rabharta Ceoil. He has also drawn influences from other parts of the Irish music tradition, particularly the uillean piping repertoire.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh grew up in the Gaeltacht area of Gaoth Dobhair in north-west Donegal. Her father, Prionsias Ó Maonaigh, is also a noted fiddler. In addition to her superb fiddling, Mairéad is an excellent traditional singer, steeped in the sean-nós tradition. Mairéad married Frankie Kennedy, a flute player from Belfast who spent his summers in Donegal, and after a stint as school teachers they embarked on a career in music, forming the very successful group Altan (named after a lake in the Gaoth Dobhair area). Altan based their style on the Donegal tradition, combining an energetic guitar and bouzouki accompaniment with classic duo fiddling and Frankie's nimble flute-playing. Their repertoire of tunes is drawn from sources such as Mairéad's father Prionsias, the Dohertys, Francie and Mickey Byrne, Con Cassidy, Tom Glackin, Vincent Campbell, Tommy Peoples, James Byrne as well as a host of less well-known players. Currently Mairéad is joined on fiddle by Ciaran Tourish from Buncrana in northern Donegal, who learned from Dinny McLaughlin, a noted local fiddler. Altan's success has done much to increase awareness of the Donegal tradition in the rest of Ireland, and indeed throughout the world.

Sadly, Frankie Kennedy died in autumn 1994 after a long battle with cancer—a loss felt keenly throughout the world of traditional music.



The following recordings should be available from sources stocking traditional music, and are all recommended to those interested in further study of the genre:

Fiddlesticks: Irish Traditional Music from Donegal (Nimbus).

Paddy Glackin, Rabharta Ceoil (Gael-Linn).

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy, Ceol Aduaidh and Altan (Green Linnet).

Altan, Horse with a Heart, The Red Crow, Harvest Storm, Island Angel, (Green Linnet), Blackwater (Virgin).

James Byrne, The Road to Glenlough (Claddagh).

The Brass Fiddle: Traditional Fiddle Music from Donegal (Claddagh).

John Doherty, John Doherty (Gael-Linn).

John Doherty, Master Fiddler of Donegal: Bundle and Go (Green Linnet).

Larry Sanger is attempting to construct the definitive website on Donegal fiddling. It's a good place to find further information.

An interview with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

Kells head Go to the traditional music instruments index page.

BookGo to music encyclopedia directory

Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)

Stonehenge border