EWAN McCOLL described him as “the greatest lyrical folk singer in the English language. Paddy Tunney was one of Ireland’s foremost singers. He was also a champion lilter, an entertaining raconteur and an accomplished writer.
He was born in Glasgow on January 28, 1921, one of eight children. His father was also named Patrick and his mother was Bridget Gallagher before their marriage.
He grew up in Mulleek, near Beleek in Co Fermanagh, and went to Derryhallow Public Elementary School. Once, during a visit by a school inspector, one Mr Doak, the teachers were taken aback when he requested “a song of the people.”
The young Paddy Tunney stepped forward and sang Boolavogue with all the fire and feeling he could muster. The teachers were petrified. When he finished singing, the inspector thanked him and gave him half-a-crown.
He grew up in a ramblinghouse frequented by traditional musicians, dancers and storytellers. He began singing, on his grandfather’s knee, at the age of four. His mother, herself a renowned source singer, then took him in hand and taught him to lilt and sing. “She never gave me a song until she considered I was able to sing it properly.”
When The Irish Press started publication in the 1930s, it included a weekly feature for children by Roddy the Rover. Prizes were offered for poems, rhymes and pieces of local history.
Paddy Tunney was one of the first prizewinners. By the time he progressed to Ballyshanny Technical School, he was a local correspondent for the Donegal Democrat. At Ballyshanny he found “new heights of learning to be scaled.” He was enthralled by Tolstoy’s Resurrection, loaned to him by his English teacher, although he was uncomfortable about encountering strumpets in a classic work of literature.
“The word prostitute was almost as detestable as that of Protestant in those enlightened days,” he wrote later. Like the vast majority of Irish boys and girls growing up in the 1930s, family circumstances forced him to cut short his formal education and at 14 he took a job as a tea-boy with the forestry workers in Castlecaldwell demesne. On his promotion to lumberjack, he felled trees, which were then cut and prepared for use as pit props in British coal mines. He later found better paid work as a road-roller flagman with Fermanagh County Council.
He joined the IRA in his late teens. In 1943 he was arrested in Enniskillen and sentenced to seven years for the possession of explosives.
He resumed his education in Crumlin road prison, studying Irish history and language. After serving a four and a half year sentence, he moved to Dublin where he qualified from UCD as a public health inspector.
In 1955 his work took him to Letterkenny where he and his wife, a public health nurse, joined forces to counter the conditions that facilitated the spread of TB. The disease claimed more lives in Donegal than the Famine and Paddy and S?le Tunney played their role in bringing it under control.
He transferred to Galway for seven years before returning to Letterkenny in 1972. He began broadcasting, first on Radio Eireann and later on BBC, working closely with Sean Mac Reamoinn and Sean O’Boyle. Programmes like Nine Counties of Ulster and Music of the Hearth introduced the old songs to a new audience.
He continued to broadcast, collaborating with Ciaran Mac Mathuna on Ulster Folk for Radio Eireann in the 1980s, and in the new century was the subject of a programme in the TG4 series S? Mo Laoch. He also featured ina BBC award-winning documentary.
He made a total of eight solo albums and can be heard on Where the Linnet Sings with his mother, sons and daughter.
In 1967, at the invitation of Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, he made the first of many British tours. He was a special guest of McColl’s in a benefit concert for the miners during the great strike of 1984-85. He toured the United States as part of the bicentenary celebrations in 1976, touring again in 1981. He regularly performed at the Traditional Club in Dublin.
Ever eager to expand his repertoire, he learned songs from Geordie Hanna, Len Graham, Gerry Hicks, Liam Anderson and Frank Harte. Singers were often reluctant to give the source of a song. Paddy Tunney remembered one who, under pressure, eventually blurted out, “I was courtin’ a girl and I stole it out of her pocket.”
Among the singers influenced by Paddy Tunney were Dolores Keane, John Faulkner, Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine and Geordie McIntyre. He was always ready to encourage emerging talent and conducted master classes for young singers.
He counted Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy among his friends and wrote a song in memory of Ennis following the piper’s death.
He was a mainstay of Feis Thir Chonaill and also enjoyed fishing, particularly for trout.
His publications include the autobiographical The Stone Fiddle: My Way to a Traditional Song, a selection of song and stories, Where Songs Do Thunder, Ulster Folk Tales for Children and two volumes of poetry. He also wrote plays for radio and translated the poems of the Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, into Irish.
He drew from an enormous store of songs. Author Benedict Kiely recalled listening to him “Sing the night through in a house in Clontarf, all the night through on cups of tea, singing from the heart and never once repeating himself.” Ewan McColl described him as the “greatest lyrical folk singer in the English language.” To Paul Brady he was a “giant.”
Paddy Tunney can be heard at his best on two albums, The Man of Song (1962) and A Wild Bees Nest (1965). His renditions of Moorloch Mary, Mountain Steams, Where the Moorcock Grows and Highland Mary are regarded as definitive versions.
His singing has clear links with the instrumental tradition, incorporating runs, stops and grace notes, much like pipe and fiddle music.
He was an unapologetic traditionalist. “A dedicated hater of pop and cant and shamrockery.” He was a lover of “old ways and rare songs and raving poetry.”
He passed away on December 7, 2002.