The Donegal Fiddle

The County Donegal is in Ireland, in the northwestern corner, with geography rugged and wild. It relates a long history with Scotland, and the Scottish Highlands were, in fact, part of Ireland before the Flight of Earls in 1607. They were united both in language and culture. Musicians at that time entertained for nobility in Scotland and Ireland equally and without difference in style of the two countries. After the fall of the aristocracy in Glasgow, many adult men found it necessary to travel from Donegal to Scotland for work while the older gentlemen, women, and children stayed behind to tend to the farms. This further strengthened the ties between the two areas. Donegal is often referred to as the “forgotten county of Ireland” due to its tendency to be cut off from the rest of Ireland, both geographically and economically. Tourism does not flourish there as readily as it does in the other parts of Ireland, partly due to its inaccessibility. This can be endearing if one wishes to get away from the commercial aspects of Ireland, but facilities are limited on the off-seasons.

Fiddle playing is a long tradition in Donegal, and there was once a proverb that stated that there was a fiddle in every house in Donegal. Arthur O’Neil (1734-1818), a famous harpist, once noted in his memoirs that he was invited to a wedding once in Donegal without his harp, because he had no need for it due to the fact there were so many pipers and fiddlers. The ties between Donegal and Scotland are quite obvious in the music of Donegal as well, and some of Donegal’s fiddle music imitates the Scottish highland music, some even strives to imitate the sounds of bagpipes. One distinguishing factor of the Donegal fiddling style is that it is often performed as a duo, usually in the case of relatives. Until modern times, Irish music was most often performed solo.

The Donegal style of fiddling is short, staccato, and rapid. It is an aggressive style of bowing with sparse ornamentation. It has a tendency to be “un-swung” when playing fast dance tunes such as jigs. Often one player will play the melody, and the other will “play the octave,” or play the melody an octave lower. Donegal fiddlers enjoy the use of bowed triplets rather than rolls as ornaments in their tunes, and one will hear double stops and droning, which is the act of playing on more than one string at a time.

There have been a number of families of inherent importance to the introduction of Donegal fiddling to the world. Probably the most well-known is the Doherty family, of whom Hugh was the first. He was born in 1790, and he began a tradition of fiddlers and musicians until the death of John Doherty in 1980. Some players of the oldest Donegal style include Neilly Boyle, Con Cassidy, and Francie Byrne. Even today fiddle playing is popular in Donegal, and its style is heard all over the globe. The group Altan has had a top Billboard album, and other artists such as Paul O’Shaughnessy and Dinny McLaughlin are known for their fiddle skills as well.