Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dermot Bolger: 'John Doherty's music was an Easter gift I've never forgotten'

UNIQUE: Forty years ago today Dermot Bolger had his mind - and ears - opened when he found fiddle legend

John Doherty. Pic: Eamonn ODoherty, courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive
John Doherty. Pic: Eamonn ODoherty, courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive
Dermot Bolger
Ciaran Mac Mathuna

Nowadays I often barely remember what I was doing this time last week, but I can never forget what I was doing, on this night, 40 years ago.

I had the privilege of encountering John Doherty, a reclusive genius and Donegal's last travelling fiddle player.

On Easter Monday 1975 there were no posters to advertise the fact that a master musician was playing in the Donegal village of Carrack. There - like Brendan Behan in 1950s Dublin - he was an everyday wonder, respected and honoured but such an integral part of life that his presence barely merited comment.

If someone in the youth hostel there hadn't mentioned that such a man was playing in the local pub then, aged 16, I might never have stumbled across the astonishing music - and astonishing life - of John Doherty.

On Easter Saturday a friend and I had set off for Donegal from Dublin, back when teenagers regularly hitch-hiked across Ireland from a sense of adventure.

Progress was pitifully slow. Frost gripped the streets when we finally reached Sligo town, where we spent the night in sleeping bags in a shop doorway: a passing garda kicking us awake at dawn.


With the optimism of youth we set out for Donegal on Easter Sunday. But no cars stopped as we walked beneath a merciless sun. When darkness fell one car finally stopped: two Republican activists who drove us to a hostel closed for the night.

Whatever they said to the warden he made us welcome, with tea and hot water to soak our blistered feet.

What were we searching for? Perhaps to encounter one of those transcending childhood moments that irrevocably alters your view of life. This happened on Easter Monday when I entered that pub to hear John Doherty.

Being under age, there was a thrill in simply sitting there. Old men and local women chatted until finally the woman of the house opened a door through which Doherty emerged, having been resting upstairs. He was an old man who sat quietly on a chair set apart, tuning the fiddle she handed him.

A hush descended as Doherty raised the bow and began to play. His chin and eyes were the only still parts of him. It seemed impossible for any old man to play so fast.

The sound was so rich it seemed more than one fiddle had to be playing. I wouldn't have been surprised if Doherty's fiddle had burst into flames.

During a break he spoke to me briefly, with the courtesy of a gentleman. Then he played on, while younger musicians gathered to learn, until finally - long after closing time - the woman of the house opened the side door again.

When he rose the entire bar rose also, as if for royalty. He excused himself, saying he was old and tired. Nobody sat down until he left the room.

Forty years have passed, yet the memory has never left me. If 1975 seems like a different world (in terms of popular music Olivia Newton-John dominated the charts), even then Doherty's way of life seemed to belong to a different century.

He was born in 1900 into a famous line of fiddlers stretching back to the 1700s. His father set high standards for his sons, Simi, Mickey, Hugh and the youngest, John.

Although field recordings of them all exist, John is the most famous. Yet often he didn't own a fiddle.

From early in life he travelled around a circuit of remote Donegal places, initially working by day as a tinsmith and peddler of small items carried on his back.

By night he played and taught music. At a time the travelling people were an integral part of the seasonal rural economy.

Although proud of his Traveller heritage, he was marked apart by his music. To have a Doherty stay in your house was regarded as an honour.

This was before television, when Every locality had 'visiting houses'. The arrival of a storyteller and musician like Doherty was a source of intense excitement. He walked everywhere, borrowing a fiddle in every hamlet. Although a local legend, he was little known outside Donegal.

RTE's Ciaran Mac Mathuna (inset) described the task of tracking down the shy Doherty in the 1950s.

He went with a local doctor from hamlet to hamlet until finally discovering Doherty on a lonely mountain road.

Field recordings from that time are remarkable, often made in houses without electricity: the only power source being the battery of a car left running outside.

When I met him Doherty was 74, with his recordings not well-known. Slowly however, listeners to Irish music were realising that here was a master musician and the last living link to our tradition of wandering harpists.

Doherty knew how much history he held between his fingers, and although he died in 1980, his music survives on several posthumously released CDs.


His extraordinary generation - people like Joe Heaney, Seamus Ennis and Mary Ann Carolan - kept Irish music alive, sometimes in poverty and neglect, until a new generation brought those tunes to a worldwide audience in bands like Altan, Clannad and Planxty.

Sometimes when driving I hear a tune on the radio played with gusto by one of the new generation of musicians and I remember those same notes being played by that solitary old man, his eyes and hands alive with passion, in a small pub on this night 40 years ago.

It was an Easter gift I've never forgotten.

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