In 2013 Martin McGinley paid a visit to Dinny McLaughlin in his home in Shandrum, a few miles outside Buncrana, for a chat about his new CD and DVD, ‘Ark of Tides’. It was a memorable occasion.
A remarkable life in music and dance
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Epic’
At the age of 78, Dinny McLaughlin, or Dinny White Harra as he is known in this land of McLaughlins, finds himself still in familiar surroundings – in fact, in the very house where he was born, in Shandrum, near Buncrana. And it was in this kitchen, when he was a child, that he first experienced the twin passions that stayed with him throughout his life, Irish traditional music and dance.
A neighbour man, Pat Mulhern, came in to play for the house dances. The magical sound of that fiddle made a little boy determined to have one of his own, while over the years that boy also picked up the dances and his natural talent flowered.
Dinny became a renowned fiddle player and dancer, a performer at home and abroad, a composer of tunes. But his contribution has been even greater than that. As a teacher, he has passed on a precious gift to waves of young people in his native Inishowen – a love of music and dance, and the chance to play and perform, whether in a concert in Glengad or for a US President in the White House.
For a man who enjoyed close to a rock and roll lifestyle at times during a busy life, Dinny is in remarkable nick. He may be approaching his ninth decade but, as he soon demonstrates in his kitchen, he’s playing as well as ever. He has also retained his boyish enthusiasm. Eager to play a recent composition on the piano, he rolls off the armchair like a Russian gymnast and is soon turning out a striking tune with a good deal of gusto.
Dinny stopped teaching traditional music and Irish dancing in 1988, after three decades. He’s also less involved in gigging now compared to the times when the group Aileach were touring the country and internationally, appearing on the Late Late Show, throwing shapes and making tapes as one of the top trad groups going.
Yet this particular prophet has been gaining more recognition for his achievements in recent years, both in his own land and in the wider traditional music scene.
Fiddler and academic Dr Liz Doherty, also from Buncrana and a former student of Dinny’s, took the lead in producing a book on him, Dinny McLaughlin: From Barefoot Days, A Life of Music, Song and Dance in Inishowen (2005). It features his story and transcriptions of many of his compositions.
The highly-successful Ar Ais Aris festivals in recent years has highlighted the wealth of talent which has emerged from Buncrana, much of it as a result of Dinny’s teaching. The festival has featured many talented musicians who were pupils of Dinny’s, as well as a new generation with Buncrana links.
It’s an impressive list by any standards. There’s Ciaran Tourish, fiddler with internationally-renowned Donegal group Altan. Kevin Doherty, singer-songwriter and member of another leading trad band, Four Men and a Dog. Liz Doherty herself, acclaimed fiddler and lecturer in music at the University of Ulster. The McGrory family from close to Dunree, outside Buncrana. The O’Dowds, the very talented Sligo family who lived locally for a time. Michael Carey, multiple All-Ireland winner on the tin whistle. Jimmy McBride, originally from Greysteel, one of the greatest fiddle talents of his era, winner of the All-Ireland and the Oireachtas before his tragic death in a car accident.
You could continue the list for some time. Then you’d have to start the dancers!
A visit to Dinny’s house should be part of the school syllabus. Dinny is a living reminder of another way of life, of a generation who had to make their own entertainment in a time before television, never mind the mobile phone. He’s a repository of stories and tunes, what’s been called ceol, caint agus craic.
In the corner of the kitchen, Dinny’s fiddle is out of its case, on the sideboard.
The remark, “You have the fiddle sitting out”, is enough to set off a stream of stories that somehow involves the Du Pont factory in Derry, unusual nicknames, dictionaries, and much more (the dictionaries are underneath the kitchen lamp nearby).
Dinny’s own story, when we get on to it, begins on 28th February, 1935.
Denis (Dinny) McLaughlin was born to James and his wife Mary, who was one of the McCarrons from “below the North Pole”. The North Pole bar is just up the road.
Dinny was the youngest of six – Pat, Katie, Annie, Bridget, Mary and himself. He’s named after his grandfather, who played the fiddle, though it seems he rarely did.
Dinny was about six years-old when he first heard the noted local fiddler Pat Mulhern, from Fallask just over the way.
“I just sat beside Pat all night. I said, If I get one of those things would you teach me to play it? No bother, he said. I went over and asked my father, would you buy me a fiddle? and he said, I’ll get you one tomorrow, son.”
Dinny got the fiddle eight years later.
“I asked my father every day, what about this fiddle? Finally one time he was telling me about this good old fiddler and he said he would take me to see him the first moonlit night. The moon finally came out and I asked him and he said, come on. When we got to the man’s house I saw the fiddle hanging on the wall and I asked him would he give me a loan of it. He said he couldn’t refuse a son of James McLaughlin’s so I left with it under my arm. The very next night I got my first lesson from Pat Mulhern.”
By this stage Dinny had a good few tunes in his head. He thinks ‘Let Erin Remember’ was his first tune from Pat. Every Sunday for the next three years the sequence was the same – half eleven Mass, dinner, and then down across the river and up through the moor for the lesson with Pat.
“He had a nice style of playing, scarce of ornament with a lot of bow work,” Dinny recalls. “We sat chatting, with Pat telling stories – he was a great storyteller. I remember thinking he was the greatest person in the whole of Ireland.”
Dinny was a developing fiddler at 17, listening to the music of Michael Coleman and later Sean McGuire. Remarkably he was 18 before he got his first dancing lesson.
“Mary McLaughlin [a top Derry dance teacher] saw me dancing at a céilí in Buncrana and she asked me to join her dance team. I hadn’t learned a step at that stage. Soon I was practicing here on the kitchen floor. They thought I was bonkers.
“I started about September, October, and by April I was entering the Derry feis. I remember saying to Eugene O’Donnell’s brother James, I’m on next. He said, J—s, when did you start the dancing?
“I tied for fourth with an All-Ireland champion that time. I ended up getting the teaching certificate and started classes here in the house. That’s how it all began.”
A string of All-Ireland and other successes was to follow for Dinny’s dancers.
Dinny’s fiddle career was also blossoming. He was playing in céilí bands and building a reputation as a solo player. Then Fr Jack Gallagher, one of the best-remembered priests in the Derry diocese and an accordion player, convinced him to give music classes.
“He said, it’ll be your fault if the music dies in Inishowen. He had me tortured. Finally I said, I’ll try one class in the Tech. I didn’t know who would turn up. I ended up with fiddles, guitars, whistles, any instrument going. Before long I was taking classes all over Inishowen.”
As the sixties stretched into the seventies, Dinny kept up a punishing schedule of teaching music and dance. It all developed into a golden era for Inishowen. Buncrana hadn’t been known for Irish music – “it had always been a garrison town, and to try and motivate people to take an interest in Irish music wasn’t easy”. Now, with the help of the likes of local man John McCracken, influential in the Irish music organisation Comhaltas, the town found itself hosting the Fleadh four times in the 1970s.
As if this wasn’t enough, the group Aileach were building a big following in the 70s, with a line-up of Dinny McLaughlin, singer Bernard Heaney, banjo player Brian McCrory and accordionist Pat McCabe. Dinny’s party piece on the Late Late Show, dancing while playing the fiddle, cemented his reputation as one of Donegal’s best-known performers.
Here in the kitchen at Shandrum, the light is growing dimmer on this long summer’s evening. Dinny’s only getting started. He’s excited about the new ‘Ark of Tides’ DVD and CD, and the new compositions which are being recorded. These tunes will form another big part of his legacy.
As he makes the tea for the second time, he plays a couple of tracks. His fiddle playing sounds as sharp as ever in a fine line-up of local musicians.
I ask him about some of the highlights in an eventful life.
“I suppose in the music it would be the wins in the All-Irelands – we had quite a few, the solo players and also the groups and céilí bands. Same in the dancing. Rose Lynch was the very first to win an All-Ireland, you always remember the first. Then there was the dance ‘The Spinning Wheel’. We won three times in a row with that one. I composed it in 1984 and my mother died before I had it finished. I remember coming back after winning the All-Ireland and there was nobody here, no fire on.”
Dinny says the highlight he recalls for the group Aileach is Symphony Hall in Boston.
“It’s a big, big, hall, three tiers, you’d hardly see yourself on the stage, and we got a standing ovation.”
He remembers one of the best nights he ever had as an individual performer. It was in Ardara.
“They didn’t want the group, just me and a guitar player. I played the fiddle, the tin whistle, danced, said recitations, told stories, sang, did everything. A man told me afterwards he couldn’t get his mother out of the house but brought her along and she said, thank God I went, that was as good as a thousand pound.”
Some things never change.
Martin McGinley, July 2013