Fiddle Music in Donegal

Donegal’s fiddle playing tradition is one of the most distinctive in Irish traditional music, which developed in part due to the close relations between Donegal and Scotland.

For example, in addition to the standard tune types such as Jigs and Reels, the Donegal tradition also has Highlands, a very popular couple dance common in parts of Donegal. Many of the tunes used as highlands are originally Strathspeys which have been adapted to suit the local dancing needs. 

The distinctive Donegal fiddle tradition, led to it’s being somewhat ostracised by people who took the stance that being different from their perception of what Irish music should be, meant that Donegal music was “not proper Irish music.” From this point of view some people thought that it should not be given exposure, encouraged or tolerated.

The tradition has several distinguishing traits compared to other fiddle traditions such as the Sliabh Luachra style of southern Ireland, most of which involves styles of bowing and the ornamentation of the music, rhythm and repertoire.

Among the most famous Donegal style players are John Doherty from the early twentieth century, and Mairéad Ní MhaonaighJames ByrnePaddy GlackinTommy Peoples, Martin McGinley and Ciaran Tourish in recent decades.

Such is the high level of interest in the instrument, there are several fiddle playing groups, such as Altan, the Sí Fiddlers and Fidil

Altan really need no introduction to lovers of Irish music, led by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on fiddle and songs, the SíFiddlers, initially a group of 13 female Donegal Fiddlers who first came together in 2018 during the Earagail Arts Festival. Fidil is a trio of leading fiddle players, Aidan O’Donnell, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Damien McGeehan and the largely family band Na Mooney’s. 

Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí’ (Friendship of the Fiddlers) is a group whose mission is to strengthen Donegal fiddle playing at its roots, according to Rab Cherry, a member.

“We try and do this through organising classes and offering support to teachers to improve standards of fiddle playing and promote participation in all aspects of Donegal fiddle music – both in  playing and understanding the folklore/history associated with the tunes and players of the past, and passing on the respect that the players of the past and the music itself deserve,” he said. The group also promotes and teaches the dances which the tunes are for.

Through its publications, ‘Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí’ also makes repertoire available and gives people the opportunity to hear Donegal’s fiddle music. “Our CD’s have the best sound quality possible and have extensive and well- researched sleeve notes,” said Cherry. “Our CDs also feature both archive and contemporary recordings.”


The fiddle has ancient roots in Ireland, the first report of bowed instruments similar to the violin being in the Book of Leinster (ca. 1160). 

The modern violin was ubiquitous in Ireland by the early 1700s. However the first mention of the fiddle being used in Donegal is from the blind harper Arthur O’Neill who, in his 1760 memoirs, described a wedding in Ardara as having “plenty of pipers and fiddlers.”

Donegal fiddlers participated in the development of the Irish music tradition in the 18th century during which jigs and slip-jigs and later reels and hornpipes became the dominant musical forms. However, Donegal musicians, many of them being fishermen and seasonal workers, also frequently travelled to Scotland, where they acquired tune types from the Scottish repertoire such as the Strathspey which was integrated into the Donegal tradition as ‘Highland’ tunes. 

The Donegal tradition derives much of its unique character from the synthesis of Irish and Scottish stylistic features and repertoires. While different types of art music were commonly played among the upper classes of Scottish society in the 18th century, the Donegal tradition drew from the popular types of Scottish music, as well as the general Irish repertoire.

Like some Scottish fiddlers (who, like Donegal fiddlers, tend to use a short bow and play in a straight-ahead fashion), some Donegal fiddlers worked at imitating the sound of the bagpipes. Workers from Donegal would bring their music to Scotland and also bring back Scottish tunes with them such as the music of J. Scott Skinner and Mackenzie Murdoch. 

Lilting, unaccompanied singing of wordless tunes, was also an important part of the Donegal musical tradition often performed by women in social settings. Describing the musical life of Arranmore Island in the late 19th century singer Róise Rua Nic Gríanna describes the most popular dances as: “The Sets, the Lancers, the Maggie Pickie [i.e. Maggie Pickins], Shoe the Donkey, the Mazurka and the Barn dances“. 

Among the travelling fiddlers of the late 19th century players such as John Mhosaí McGinley, Anthony Helferty, the McConnells and the Dohertys are best known. As skill levels increased through apprenticeships several fiddle masters appeared such as the Cassidy’s, Connie Haughey, Jimmy Lyons and Miock McShane of Teelin and Francie Dearg and Mickey Bán Byrne of Kilcar. These virtuosos played unaccompanied listening pieces in addition to the more common dance music.

The influences between Scotland and Donegal went both ways and were furthered by a wave of immigration from Donegal to Scotland in the 19th century (the regions share common names of dances), as can be heard in the volume of strathspeys, schottischesmarches, and Donegal’s own strong piping tradition, has influenced and been influenced by music, and by the sounds, ornaments, and repertoire of the Píob Mhór, the traditional bagpipes of Ireland and Scotland. 

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 and the use of pipe or fiddle music was common in old wedding customs. Migrant workers carried their music to Scotland and also brought back a number of tunes of Scottish origin. 

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), that 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.

The distinctive Donegal fiddle tradition led to it’s being somewhat ostracised by people who took the stance that being different from their perception of what Irish music should be, therefore Donegal music was “not proper Irish music.” From this point of view, some people thought it should not be given exposure, encouraged or tolerated.

Other older fiddlers disliked the ways Comhaltas sessions were organised with a committee player, often not himself a musician, in charge. Sometimes Comhaltas representatives would even disparage the Donegal tradition, with its Scottish flavour, as being un-Irish, and prohibit them from playing local tunes with Scottish genealogies such as the ‘Highlands’ at Comhaltas sessions. This sometimes caused antagonism between Donegal players and the main organisation of traditional music in Ireland.

Outside of the Comhaltas movement, however, Donegal fiddling stood strong with Paddy Glackin of Ceoltorí Laighean and the Bothy Band and later Tommy Peoples also with the Bothy Band and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh with Altan, who all drew attention and prestige to the Donegal tradition within folk music circles throughout Ireland.

Description of style

There is no single Donegal style but several distinctive styles. These styles traditionally come from the geographical isolated regions of Donegal including Inishowen, eastern Donegal, as well as The Rosses, GweedoreTeelinKilcarGlencolmcilleBallyshannon and Bundoran. Even with improved communications and transport, these regions still have recognisably different ways of fiddle-playing. 

Notable deceased players of the older Donegal styles include Neillidh (‘Neilly’) Boyle, Francie Byrne, Con Cassidy, Frank Cassidy, James Byrne, P.V. O’Donnell, and Tommy Peoples.

The Donegal style of fiddling is a label often applied to music from this area, though one also might plausibly identify several different, but related, styles within the county. To the extent to which there is one common style in the county, it is characterised by a rapid feel; a tendency to be more un-swung in the playing of the fast dance tune types (reel and jigs); short (non-slurred), aggressive bowing, sparse ornamentation, the use of bowed triplets more often than trills as ornaments, the use of double stops and droning; and the occurrence of “playing the octave,” with one player playing the melody and the other playing the melody an octave lower. 

None of these characteristics are universal, and there is some disagreement as to the extent to which there is a common style at all. In general, however, the style is rather aggressive.

Another feature of Donegal fiddling that makes it distinctive among Irish musical traditions is the variety of rare tune types that are played. Highlands, a type of tune in 4
4 time
 with some similarities to Scottish strathspeys, which are also played in Donegal, are one of the most commonly played types of tune in the county. Other tune types common solely in the county include barn dances, also called “Germans,” and mazurkas.

Fiddlers of the Donegal tradition

There are a number of different strands to the history of fiddle playing in County Donegal.

Perhaps the best-known and, in the last half of the twentieth century, the most influential has been that of the Doherty family. Hugh Doherty is the first known musician of this family. Born in 1790, he headed an unbroken tradition of fiddlers and pipers in the Doherty family until the death, in 1980, of perhaps the best-known Donegal fiddler, John Doherty

John, a travelling tinsmith, was known for his extremely precise and fast finger- and bow-work and vast repertoire, and is considered to be one of the greatest Irish fiddlers ever recorded. John’s older brother, Mickey, was also recorded and, though Mickey was another of the great Irish fiddlers, his reputation has been overshadowed by John’s.

Modern Era

Fiddle playing continues to be popular in Donegal. 

The three fiddlers of the Donegal-based ‘supergroup’ AltanMairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Paul O’Shaughnessy, and Ciarán Tourish, are greatly admired nationally and internationally.

Renowned player, Martin McGinley, has for the last six years been manager of the Donegal Music Education Partnership where hundreds of young people receive tuition in a variety of instruments, including the fiddle.

Examples of other fiddler-players from Donegal are Liz Doherty, Brid Harper, Tara Connaghan, Theresa Kavanagh,  Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, Clare Friel, Aisling Byrne, Melanie Houton, Roisin McGrory, Clodagh Warnock, Claire Gallagher, Denise Boyle, Eimear McColgan, Megan Nic Fhionnghaile, Jamsie Wray, Jimmy Campbell, Peter Campbell, Ronan Galvin, Mick Brown, Thomas Strain, Stephen Gallagher, John Byrne, Kevin O’Donnell, Iarla O’Donnell, Breffni O’Donnell, Derek McGinley, Christina McGinley, Peter Carr, Naomi Carr, Stephen Campbell, Nia Byrne, Oisin Duffy, Ella McGrory, Paddy McMenamin, Matthew McGranahan, Damien McGeehan and Michelle McGeehan.  

Another well regarded fiddle player hailing from Donegal is Aidan O’Donnell. TG4 Young Musician of the Year 2010 Aidan O’Donnell has been described as one of the finest young Irish musicians at present. He began his music making at the age of 12, and since then has performed with some of traditional music’s finest artists, including Donal Lunny, Micheal Ó’Suilleabháin and the Chieftains. In 2007, he won the prestigious ‘Oireachtas na Geailge’ fiddle title, and has been a regular tutor at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, at the University of Limerick for the past number of years.

The fiddle, and traditional music in general, remained popular in Donegal not only because of the international coverage of certain artists but because of local pride in the music. 

Traditional music Seisiúns are still common place both in pubs and in houses across the length and breadth of Donegal.

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