ALTHOUGH now an iconic figure of Donegal fiddle music, as a musician John Doherty was very much an individualist. But more than any other musician, he did draw attention to that county’s distinctive fiddle style.
The musical lineage of the Doherty and McConnell families goes back many generations of Travellers that alternated between settled and life on the road, and includes Turloch MacSweeney, ‘An Piobaire Mor’. Johnny Doherty’s grandfather Simon played the fiddle, uilleann pipes and highland pipes.
John Doherty was born in Ardara, Co Donegal around 1895. His father Mickey Doherty, played fiddle. He married the singer Mary McConnell, also from a musical family – her brothers, Mickey and Alec, were well-known fiddle players and made tin fiddle makers – and they had nine children, six of whom played the fiddle.
John was the youngest on the boys. His brothers Mickey and Simon and his nephew, also Simon, were fiddle players.
He once told Padraig O Baoighill during a Gael-linn recording session in the 1970s that he started to play the fiddle in his teens, and that he practised out in the barn . He said that he had to return to that barn again and again until his father was pleased with his playing of Bonny Kate.
Although he greatly admired the Scottish fiddler and composer James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) whose recordings he had heard, according to his niece, Frances Rohleder of Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, John’s favourite fiddler has always been his own father. Brother Mickey Doherty, on the other hand, was influenced by the Sligo style of Michael Coleman.
Bag of tools
He was a travelling tinsmith – a tinker, the term was not generally used in the derogatory sense then in rural Ireland – travelling on foot from place to place with his bag of tools making pots, mugs and buckets for local farmers. He seldom carried a fiddle with him, knowing that one would be provided at any house where he stopped for the night. He wasn’t too keen on playing in pubs but was always in demand for house dances.
South-west Donegal, particularly around Kilcar, Glencolmcille, Teelin and Ardara, is known for its rich fiddle music, particularly that of John Mhosey McGinley, Frank and Con Cassidy and Francie and Mickey O’Beirne.
He spent nearly all his life in County Donegal. However he travelled to Dublin to compete in the Oireachtas Championships, winning the fiddle category, with Aggie White of the Ballinakill Ceili Band from Co Galway coming second. He also travelled to Belfast to record for the BBC who were the first to note his distinctive style.
In his later years he stayed at O’Byrnes pub in Carrick where many young musicians joined him in summer evening sessions. The Dublin fiddler Paddy Glackin first met him in 1965 and Doherty and his music was to make a lasting impression on him.
Though Bonny Kate was most associated with the playing of Michael Coleman, Glackin observed that in Doherty’s playing of it “all the embellishment is here executed with the bow, so that throughout the tune there is a great amount of single bowing.”
In his book Between the Jigs and the Reels, Caoimhin Mac Aoidh has this to say about John Doherty’s style: “From early on John appears to have adjusted his bowing style away from his father’s and his brother’s Mickey’s style to adopt the more dramatic staccato style and by almost totally ignoring the strong Scottish and lesser Irish dotted rhythms.
He continues: “This appears to have been much closer to the old style of playing in Glencolumbcille which can be heard in the playing of James Byrne.
“It may well be that Paudi Bhili na Ropai, whom John would have met in his youth, exerted an influence on him. At any rate through his approach, John Doherty brought fiddle playing to new heights of mastery within the Donegal context.”
As well as being a musician and tinsmith, John Doherty was a native Irish speaker and carried a large store of folklore and stories. He also carried on another great Traveller tradition, that of bringing new tunes from parish to parish in a time when radios and gramophones were a rare luxury.
His compositions include Planxty Reel. UTV made a documentary about him called “Fiddler on the Road.” He died on January 26, 1980.
Bundle and Go, Green Linnet
The Floating Bow, John Doherty, Claddagh
Taisce – The Celebrated Recordings, John Doherty, Gael Linn 1977
Johnny Doherty, John Doherty, CCE 1974
Between the Jigs and the Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition, by Caoimhin Mac Aoidh. Drumlin Publications, 1994.
The Northern Fiddler, Allen Feldman and Eamonn O’Doherty, Blackstaff Press (out of print)