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The following article appeared in Fiddler Magazine, Spring 1999 issue. The article as printed was edited to a slightly shorter length. I also included a transcription of "The Devil's Dream", a tune that James plays (not the American tune of the same name). It is not convenient to reproduce the transcription on-line, but I believe that back issues of this edition are still available. Since that time I've visited James again, and he confirmed that both the transcription and the interview were reasonably accurate. I may add pictures at some later point.

James Byrne:
Carrying on the Donegal Traditions

by Michael Robinson

The Donegal style of Irish fiddling, once little known, has been popularized in recent years by musicians such as Tommy Peoples, the Glackin brothers and Altan. Yet one of the most influential performers in the style is little known outside the county itself. James Byrne, known locally as "An Beirneach", from Glencolmcille in the Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking district), travels rarely and lives much as the preceding generations of fiddlers did. He is nonetheless considered one of the foremost performers in the Southwest Donegal style; for example, he is credited on five of the eight Altan recordings. While James is only in his forties, the strong fiddling tradition and relative isolation of Glencolmcille allowed him to learn the local style undiluted by the influence of modern mass media. His generosity in passing on his musical legacy to younger players is now helping to ensure its continuation.

I interviewed James one afternoon in the summer of 1995, while I was attending Irish language courses in Glencolmcille. I had been asked to play that evening for a dance in the local hall, Halla Mhuire, by another local musician, Mícheál Carr, the son of Mick Carr who is mentioned by James. (Mícheál passed away in 1998.) James's descriptions of the Dohertys performing on the very same stage ran through my mind the whole night!

Were there fiddlers in your family?

Oh, there was, yes. My father played the fiddle, and my uncle Francie, but I never knew him. He went to America. But I believe he was a good player, you know. And my father too was a good enough player. Maybe he didn't have all that much time for practising, you know, like some of the present day players. But he played it very well, and he was also very good teaching. So I started to learn from him when I was about eight years old.

He would have been your first big influence, then.

He would have been, yeah. He was very particular about the style—bowing and all this. You had to bow the right way according to the style. Well, he would tell you, you know—he wasn't too strict. But at the same time he would tell you all these things. He would even tell you some things that he couldn't even do himself. You would be trying them things—when you're very young you'll try anything. Of course, eventually you start to improve a bit. Well then, all the neighbourhood, there was players, like my next-door neighbour, another cousin of my father's, Paddy Hiúdaí Byrne, he was a player as well, and his son Anthony, who's still alive. They were playing a lot in them days. You'd wander in there and pick up a tune there. On the other side of me there was a man called John McGinley, who had a store of old tunes that, you know, some of them are even forgotten now. There was no tape recorders or anything in them days, and they would be playing there, the wee tunes. You wouldn't get them all, anyway. I got lots of tunes from them, but you wouldn't get them all. So it wasn't too hard to learn in them days.

Did you just visit people and play tunes? Was there playing for dances in those days, or anything like that? Going to the pub?

Oh, there was no such thing as going to a pub to play at all in them days. No, that was long after that when the pub scene started. You went to people's houses. Somebody might come visiting, you know, and one thing or another. There was another man called Mick Carr, who lived across the hill in Mín an Aoiridh, and he used to come to our house a lot. Himself and John McGinley and my father and Paddy Hiúdaí, they would get together. They were playing tunes, you know, you would never have heard them in them days. Some of them you wouldn't have heard them now, even. So there was lots of that sort of thing.

In those days, if you had a big crowd like that together, would they all be playing away together at the same tune, or did they take turns?

Well, sometimes, they would play together. At other times, then, one might have a tune that the others mightn't have, and they would play, and listen to that person. More so than they do now. I think they're inclined to be ... you know, the session thing now, that everyone sort of has to be playing. I think in them days there was more solo fiddling, where everybody got a chance to play their own variations on to a tune. They played a lot together as well, but they also played a lot when they would be warmed up and settled down. They would play a few tunes together first of all, for an hour or two. Then every one of them would play tunes that they used to specialize in themselves, with their own variations to them. There was a lot to that. I think that's something we've forgotten, the house dances and the "big nights". They were great go in them days.

Was it a regular thing or would somebody say let's go to some place, and everybody would go there?

Sometimes it used to happen, maybe somebody would come visiting or something like that, so the fiddlers would come in, and the next thing the house would be full, and they would decide to have a dance. So they would set up a table in the end of the house, move all the furniture out the door, or into the next room, or back to the wall or whatever. They would get up on the table and play and dance away.

What were the dances that they would have done?

They danced highlands, mazurkas, waltzes, quadrilles—sets was a great dance that had eight parts. Lots of them sort of jigs that I play come from being played for parts of the sets. There was reels played for a part of it, there was marches played and there were jigs. And there was other types of tunes which are nearly lost now, which were neither jigs nor reels, they were in between somewhere. I think some people call them a single jig. They were a very strange sort of a tune. I think maybe you'd hear very few of them now. I think maybe John Doherty on a record that he made for an American company years ago has one or two of them on. They sound very strange, you wouldn't know what's happening. There's sort of no beat to them at all till you listen to them a while. And they were used for a certain part of the sets as well. Oh, there was many others—lancers. There was another dance then that they played, that must have originated in France or somewhere. It was called the cotílan [cotillon or cotillion], which was an Irish version of it, and it was danced. There was various other dances that you would never hear of them now at all. I just barely remember to see them danced and I don't even know what they were called. And then there's a dance called the breakdown. That was danced towards the end of the night, with a row of men and a row of women facing one another, and there were reels played for that, and they all danced on their own, and moved around over and back. That was a great go. That would finish the night, the breakdown. There was another dance then, called the twelve hand reel, that twelve people would dance. I don't remember how it goes, but there would be reels played for that as well. And at those dances, well, there were a bit of singing. There were lots of good singers as well, and between dances they would be resting themselves, the singers would take off.

Sounds like a great evening!

Oh they used to be great evenings, you know, some of them, ah, they used to be. They went on to a good part of the morning as well, sometimes. Sometimes they didn't finish until eight or nine o'clock in the morning. And sometimes towards the end of these nights, that's when the good music would be played, when the dancers would be kind of tired out dancing, and they would sit down, and the fiddle players would start playing. And then the music was for listening. There'd be some good music played at that stage of the night. So at all times there was music played for dancing, and music played for listening.

There was another great fiddle player who played at a lot of these house dances, a man called Padaí Bhillí na Rópaí, he was Paddy Boyle. You might have read about him in some of these books. I think he was mentioned in the one that was written by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh. He was called Paddy Boyle but his nickname was Padaí Bhillí na Rópaí because his father used to make ropes out of the bog fir and he used to sell them at fairs, so they used to call him Billí na Rópaí. Well, he was a great house dance player. There was one night in particular, he was playing at a dance near Killybegs, and Frank Cassidy and Johnny Cassidy arrived there as well, and they all played for the dance. But towards the end of the night, anyhow, they started to play selections for listening. So Johnny Cassidy was playing at this particular stage, and he played some very complicated hornpipe, and begod, Paddy had some notion that it was getting into a bit of a competition. So he was a kind of a man that wouldn't like to let anything go like that, you know. So he figured he was no match, in playing anyway, for Johnny Cassidy, so what he done was he started a tune up on the stage, and he jumped off the stage and he danced around the floor, playing the tune. And he jumped back onto the stage, he could even finish the tune. [Laughs] He must have been a great character! So lots of his tunes would survive as well, like a reel that I play myself that's called "The Harvest Moon". He was a great player.

Could you say something about the style of playing around this area, the bowing or whatever? Is there something about it that makes it a bit different?

The bowing is very different, very different now from the Sligo style or the Clare style. The main difference about the bowing is that any part of the tune that's sort of stressed, like having a drone or something, it's usually done using the bow up, on the upbow, they used to call it. You get a different sound from using the bow the other way. So that even leaves a bit of a difference. And then they went a lot for using drones, which they don't use as much in Sligo playing. Well, they use it in Clare, but it would be a different sort of way. Also, every player then has his own approach to it, you know. 'Twas a very nice style of playing the older players had.

Would you say your playing is much like those older players?

I would say the style would be mainly like the older players, because I heard lots of them when I was very young.

I notice you don't use a lot of rolls like some of the players in Sligo would use.

No, well there would be different types of rolls. Sometimes they use sort of rolls on finger and bow here, while in other places there'd be sort of rolls mainly done with the finger. So that would be another sort of a difference.

In the old days, would there be differences just around the area, say between here and Kilcar or Teelin? Could you hear somebody and tell where they came from?

You could, by their playing, you know, yeah. But the style at the same time was very similar. But in Teelin they had a different approach to it. One way, they played faster than the players in here, on this side of the glen. And also, they played a sort of lighter approach to the style. They didn't play as strong. The people like Frank Cassidy—Frank Cassidy I met when I was very young as well, and he was one of the greatest players, the greatest player in Teelin at that time. The greatest thing about Frank was his tone, the tone he got out of the fiddle. He got a brilliant tone out of the fiddle. You could give him any sort of an old fiddle, you know, and it would sound different. He was very, very good. He always used lots of his own variations of a tune, but they all seemed to fit in to the tune, different to what you hear some of the present-day players doing. They have variations that don't fit there at all, that would be better left out, some of them. Of course, myself sometimes as well, but …

Two other players I met when I was about nine years of age, since I was about four or five I had always heard of these players, the Dohertys. I knew them before I'd even seen them, but at the same time I was around nine years of age, and there was an old-time dance in the hall across the road there [Halla Mhuire in Glencolmcille]. Father MacDyer was here at that time, and he had great interest in music as well, and he got John Doherty and Simon in to play at this old-time dance. They were to play selections between dances. They also played for the dance as well, along all with the rest of the players. I remember well, when I went into that hall there, I went in the door and the two of them were up on the stage, standing on the stage, John Doherty and Simie. I never heard anything like it, even the way they looked, they stood up there, and the way the bow moved, it was something I had never seen before, or heard. So that night I met John Doherty for the first time, and Simie. And Simie advised me that night, he gave me a bit of advice. Now, at that time there was a tendency to listen to records and all this, and Seán Maguire was one of the great players in them days, a player I admire myself as well. But Simon Doherty, that was called Simie, he says, you have the old Glen style of playing now, he says, and you can listen to all these players and pick up their tunes, and you can try things with the tune all right, and do your own variations and all this sort of thing, but he says, never change your style of playing. Play just the way you're playing now. So I think it was maybe good advice. So John played that night. There was old players alive at that time that came in to hear John, and even during the dancing, the dancing was going on and John was out the back of the stage playing for these [fiddlers], and I was sitting out there listening to John. And after that, every opportunity I got, I was listening to John Doherty. And I learned a lot from John, between touches on the style and lots of tunes that I had never heard before.

I notice that you and some of the other players around here, there'd be a tune that would be well known, but you'd have a unique version of it.

Oh yeah, sometimes the versions of a tune that'd be well known all over the place would be quite different. Well, they sort of vary from player to player as well.

Would the old players have worked away at trying to come up with their own particular version?

Oh yeah, they were always doing this sort of thing, but they were always very particular to do nothing that would spoil the tune, which can be done too. Most people can do maybe some variations, but they mightn't fit there. They were very particular in them days, because I remember hearing a story about two brothers, John Leslie and Pat Leslie, and they were great players. And there was another man who lived a couple of miles up the road called Johnny Boyle. He was one of the greatest players on this side of the parish. And he would be down in the Leslie house, and they would be practising variations on tunes, and then, when they would have them practised, they would play them, and a couple of them would get up and dance to them, to see if they could still dance to them after all this doctoring around. I heard that from a man that used to be in there raking [visiting in the evening]. He used to wonder what was going on. He didn't have any music at all. When he used to be sitting in there, two men would get up and dance to it—highlands and all this sort of thing.

Do you think people play faster now than they did then?

Some do, you know. Some are inclined to play very fast now—too fast.

They play faster than you could dance to?

Yeah, this is it, once you do that, I think it's too fast, even for listening to. It may have a sort of a rhythm to it, all right, but I think it's too fast even for listening to. Most of the great players, like John Doherty, they played fast but at the same time you could hear every note. They didn't sort of rush the tune like some of them are inclined to do now. I think it's nicer when they're at a reasonable pace, not too slow and not too fast.

Do you think there's a relationship between fiddling and singing?

Oh, definitely there is, indeed, especially in the playing of slow airs. When you heard Frank Cassidy playing a slow air, you could almost hear the words of the song. He got this sort of thing into it. That's something else that all these older players had, they listened to a lot of people lilting [performing dance music vocally], and they had that sort of quality in their playing as well, that sort of a lilt. So there was great lilters as well, that could put all twists and turns into a tune. You don't hear so many of them now.

Do you think there was a lot of influence here from Scotland? People say there's a Scottish influence...

Well, there would be a good bit, in that some of the tunes that are played in Scotland are played here as well.

They seem to be a bit different, though.

They're very different. There's no influence from the style of fiddle playing in Scotland. The style here is very different to most of the Scottish style. But lots of the tunes were brought over from Scotland, and some of them were sort of doctored round to suit the type of dancing they were doing here. Like the highland, lots of them are Scottish tunes, but they're played different, at the same time, to a strathspey which they play in Scotland. There's a difference there. There would have been lots of tunes, like James Scott Skinner. His music was well known here from his old records. John Doherty played a lot of his music, and he had great time for the playing of Scott Skinner as well. So when the records of Scott Skinner appeared, they learned lots of tunes from those records. But I would say as well, you'd find tunes here that seemed to have made their way over to Scotland, and were played there as reels or strathspeys. I would say they went both ways.

I notice that you and some of the other players here don't stay in first position, you play up the neck.

Yeah, oh sometimes.

It's a bit unusual, you wouldn't see much outside this area.

Well, maybe not, no. They all used to play some tunes that went into positions, and they also played lots of hornpipes in flat keys and all this sort of thing.

For a bit of an exhibition?

Yeah, that would be it. There were tunes like, sort of fancy tunes. "The Star Hornpipe" was a great favourite of all these players, and they all played different versions of it, like I heard Frank Cassidy play it, and John Doherty. "The High Level" was another one. All these were played, and they had their own little turns. You'd hear Frank Cassidy playing it one night, and you'd hear him another night and it was played different. There were some great players. Teelin was a great area for fiddlers as well. Like there was Mick McShane there. He was a great player. I never heard him, but from hearing people talk about him he must have been a very good player. Conny Haughey, Jimmy Lyons I heard on tape, he was a great player, and of course Con Cassidy, who's only dead for a year or two. I learned a lot of tunes from Con as well. He was always a nice man to call to the house and have a tune and a bit of craic with! He was a nice player. He had sort of a light Teelin style, the fast sort of light style of playing.

It seems like the people here listened to the other players a lot more than they would have listened to any records?

Well, they listened to the records as well, but I think the style was probably strong here at that time and there were so many good players in that style, that they never lost their style anyway. They listened to the records, the like of Coleman and James Morrison and all these, and they admired them as great players, but they never tried to play like them—very few, anyway. They liked to learn some of their tunes, but when they played them, they played them in the style from around here. I think the style around here, in this part of the Glen—there was a man who was born in the early part of the last century, between here and Carrick, in a place called Loch Inse, a man called John Mhosaí McGinley. He was supposed to have been the greatest fiddle player of all time, according to anybody that heard him. He composed lots of tunes as well as playing, and they would have a lot of his tunes. The style of Francie Dearg Byrne, that would be very close to the style of the Moseys [the children of the fiddling blacksmith Moses McGinley were known as "the Moseys"], because he got his style from players out there called Pat Harvey and another man called The Nailer. They had learned from John Mhosaí, and he got a lot of his music from them, so his tunes, lots of them would be tunes of the Moseys as well. And then again, up at Mín na Croise where I come from, John Mhosaí had relations and he used to spend a lot of his time up there. My father and all them would have lots of his tunes as well. And there was another man, who lived out in the same area between here and the village of Carrick, who was a blind fiddler called McLaughlin, and he had all the tunes of John Mhosaí as well, and he travelled around. He used to go up to Mín na Croise and all these places and play for a week. There would be music night and day in the wintertime. There wasn't much work to be done. He used to stay in a neighbour's house. Now this is long before my time. He used to play lots of nice tunes.

Did many people besides John Mhosaí compose tunes?

I would say quite a few did. Some that weren't maybe very good players at all could compose nice tunes. But John Mhosaí 's tunes would be the better known ones, because he was such a good player as well, and he could put these tunes across, and everyone would want to learn them. But I think he was a very good player. He was a loud player as well, because according to my grandmother, when she lived on the other side of the valley from where I live, and he used to be playing in the house next door to us, they could hear him clearly across the other side of the valley, playing.

So he was a great player for playing in flat keys, as well. They didn't even know at that time what to call these flat keys. They used to call them playing off the step of the fiddle, which meant you played back at a different position. So he must have been a good player in these keys as well.

There was another fiddle player called Paddy O'Gara that I got lots of tunes from. He only died in the last year. He had plenty of tunes I never heard anyone else play, I never heard my father or any of them, and he got them from his father, so they would be very old tunes. He used to come visiting when I was young as well, up to Mín na Croise on his bicycle on a nice summer's evening, and all the neighbours would gather and play away there for hours.

Are there still people now learning the old style?

Oh there is, there is indeed. At one time I was getting a bit worried that it was disappearing, that there weren't many people left with this old style at all. But in the last few years again, younger people have taken up the style. There's quite a few of them now that's got the style very well. That's possibly not an easy thing, maybe you're already playing in some other style, to change over. But some of them have managed to do it very well.

If people are interested in the style and they'd like to learn it, do you have any sort of advice?


It's a bit different if you grow up in it ...

You don't really have to learn the style if you grow up with it. You just sort of fall into the swing of it.

Well, the main advice would be to listen to the music, to listen quite a bit, and the next step would be to go to somebody that plays in this style, and get some tips on the way of using the bow and all this sort of thing.

What about playing the different kinds of tunes, like reels or highlands or jigs? Would you go at them a different way, would there be something different about how you would play a jig than a highland?

Well, I think they're all played in the same style. You might approach them in a different way, but the same things are done in highlands as reels. It's a difficult enough style to learn to do it right, like all styles.

There was no record players or anything in my father's time. That was the only way they picked up the tunes, when these travelling musicians like the Dohertys, and uncles of John Doherty's, the McConnells, they came around as well. And I believe that the McConnells were very good, according to my father, they were very sweet sort of players, especially Alec McConnell. So there was plenty music in them days. Well, it's great to see that it's still surviving, anyway. Hopefully will survive.

It seems to me there's a lot of interest in it now.

There is—great interest in the last few years in the old style. Some of the people take it very seriously, to get every detail of the style right, so it's a nice thing to hear that. There's one young player now from Dublin called Mick Brown. Well, he plays exactly in the style from around here. Of course, he has studied it very carefully. There's a good few of them. Another chap from Dublin as well, Ronan Galvin, he plays in the old style as well, because his grandfather was Padaí Hiúdaí. So when he started to play, he came around to myself and wanted to know everything about the old style. Those players are very good, you know.

Present day players like Tommy Peoples and all these, have still the style but they've developed their own sort of approach to it. I think Tommy Peoples is a very good player. And Vincent Campbell. Vincent is good. He has a very old style, you know. There was plenty good players around that area as well, where Vincent is from. There's plenty great players.


Claddagh 4CC44 / CC44CD
The Brass Fiddle - Vincent Campbell, Con Cassidy, James Byrne & Francis Byrne

Claddagh 4CC52 / CC52 / CC52CD
The Road To Glenlough - James Byrne, with Dermot McLoughlin, Dermot Byrne, Peter Carr & Sean Byrne

For further information:

An invaluable resource for anyone who is interested in Donegal Fiddling is the book Between the Jigs and the Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition, by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh (Drumlin Publications, 1994, ISBN 1 873437 08 0)

Copyright 1999. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited

An introduction to Donegal fiddling.

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)

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