A tribute to Dinny McLaughlin

In an article written in 2009, musician Tom Byrne looks at the impact of the legendary musician and dancer, teacher and storyteller Dinny McLaughlin, in Inishowen – and far beyond!

Dinny McLaughlin and Tom Byrne pictured in The Wee Hall in Culdaff in 2013.

Much has been written, documented and recorded regarding the life of Dinny McLaughlin from Shandrum, Buncrana, in Inishowen. After a lifetime devoted to music and dance, his legacy to the world of traditional music and the culture of Ireland is immeasurable. Countless generations to come will remember this great man. They’ll pay homage to his talent, his teaching achievements, the great music he has composed for them and the magnificent way he has pioneered the establishment of Inishowen as an area of excellence for traditional music, song and dance.

Above all, Dinny’s life has been a celebration of people, a realization of the importance of community and a constant desire for the pursuit and attainment of excellence. Dinny’s vision governs everything he does. What is striking is his most particular attention to detail which demands the highest standards from himself and from those he is working with.
Many diverse yet cohesive factors combined to shape Dinny’s life and his development as an individual and a musician: a natural talent and intellect; a musically passionate father, James; a strong, pragmatic mother Mary; an inspirational teacher, Pat Mulhern; an inbuilt desire and drive to succeed; and the stimulus derived from the intrinsic beauty of the landscape and the support and admiration of the community. In addition to all of this, Dinny’s house, even before he played music, was a mecca for house sessions and parties. Music lovers would come from all over Inishowen to enjoy the music, song, dancing, storytelling and great fun. As a tiny child, Dinny was assimilating all this and, whether he knew it or not, his mind and his whole being were being prepared for an explosion of art and creativity.

Spellbound at six

When this little boy of six first heard Pat Mulhern playing this beautiful instrument the fiddle, he was hypnotised. As soon as Pat laid the bow on the strings, Dinny was spellbound. The magical few hours listening to Pat and his wonderful music clarified everything for the young Dinny. Even then, he knew that the fiddle was for him and that in one way or another music was going to have to be a part of his life.

In those early days the opportunity to have your own instrument was limited, compared to the wide availability of instruments these days. Eight long years Dinny waited to get his hands on a fiddle. Eventually he got the loan of one from his neighbour and he began his weekly lessons with Pat Mulhern. From this moment on, the theory of music and the wonder of it all was replaced by the practical, as he learned to play. In those early years there were no spare minutes for him – he was consumed with fiddle playing and tunes, and his weekly lessons with Pat were interspersed with good humour, storytelling and craic. Dinny’s composition ‘Over The Moor To Paddy’ commemorates the special times and the great bond that he developed with his teacher, which became a lifetime’s friendship.

Within a few years Dinny established himself as one of Ireland’s leading players, entering and winning fiddle competitions all over the country. He was inspired by the great recordings of Michael Coleman and Andy McGann. He listened to a wide variety of recorded material. He learned ‘The Friendly Visit’ hornpipe from a recording by Peter Wiper, one of the great Scottish accordionists who recorded in the early 1900’s. Dinny was also the first person to arrange for the virtuoso fiddle player Sean McGuire to come to play in the Buncrana area, in The Swilly Hotel Folk Club.

Remarkably Dinny was eighteen before he started to dance. He quickly excelled at this as well. He even managed to play and dance at the one time, which soon became his party piece. Later on he bought a piano and began to teach himself to play. Some of his greatest tunes and melodies have been composed on the piano.
Dinny was always open to new ideas and possibilities, whether this was in choice of instrument, coming up with new arrangements in music and dance, or composing a tune or even a dance if required. Most importantly, he made a priority of encouraging the youth. He pointed them in the right direction, opening their eyes to the possibilities of music and nurturing their young interest. He motivated them through his teaching and his charismatic persona, characterised by an equal measure of passion and positivity.
In a music shop in Dublin he saw a harp, bought it and took it to Buncrana. He taught himself how to play tunes with accompaniment on it. He then presented it to Brenda Barron who, in time, became one of its leading exponents in Ireland. In a lifetime of teaching, Dinny has produced a prolific array of great musicians and dancers, many of whom have had professional careers.

Developing talent

One notable occasion comes to mind. A musical colleague from a southern county told Dinny that traditional Irish singing couldn’t be taught to the standard required to win an All-Ireland competition. Dinny, to prove a point, taught two children to this standard. Their success in the All-Ireland dumbfounded the man involved, who congratulated Dinny profusely.

Sometimes it might also be suggested that only children from families steeped in the tradition could reach the highest standards in traditional music. Dinny turned that hypothesis on its head by teaching a series of children of all backgrounds who, over a period of thirty years, were successful not only in competition but in their careers as musicians.

The first place Dinny taught music was in the Technical School in Buncrana. From there he went on to teach music and dance in every school in Inishowen. He played with The Crana Céilí band, The Clonmany Céilí Band, and the Four Provinces Céilí band. His first commercial recording, in 1971, ‘A Rake of Reels and a Clatter of Jigs’, helped to establish his name as a virtuoso fiddle player. This led to regular radio and television broadcasts and many high-profile concerts all over the country. Dinny went on to tour the world with the very popular group ‘Aileach’. In recent years he has played regularly with Tom Byrne and Michael Gallanagh in the group Shandrum.

A number of years ago, in Dinny’s honour, the famous Apple Hill String Quarter from New Hampshire (US) composed a piece called ‘Dinny’s Suite,’ which included their arrangements of some of Dinny’s compositions. In 2001, RTE made a documentary on his life called the ‘Pied Piper of Shandrum’. In 2005 the book, ‘From Barefoot Days’, by Liz Doherty, chronicled Dinny’s life and his influences. He has appeared on the ‘Late Late Show’ and on countless traditional music programmes. He has also adjudicated competitions all over Ireland and in the US.

Dinny’s life could be compared to a performance of classical music, with Dinny as composer, conductor, and first violin, not to mention organiser and head of marketing! In all his endeavours, his love of people and his need to interact with good will and humour have shone through.

Pioneers in every era, and in all walks of life, often don’t have it easy. They lead the way, put their head above the parapet and often face derision and negativity as much as praise. Dinny is without doubt the person who has pioneered the establishment of Inishowen as a centre of excellence in Irish traditional music and dance. In so doing, he has rightly elevated our indigenous culture, and in his own lifetime has lived to see it consolidate and flourish.

These simple words can hardly do justice to a man who has given of his time so freely and who has achieved so much in his lifetime.

May Dinny continue to play, to inspire and to compose such wonderful music. His music will live on in future generations. It is an honour to call Dinny our most valued friend and it is only fitting to pay our heartfelt tribute to him on this momentous and special tenth anniversary celebration of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project.

An update by Tom Byrne in 2013 –

Dinny’s ‘Ark of Tides’ a stunning production

Dinny McLaughlin, accompanied by many great young musicians, has recently completed the recording of ‘Ark of Tides’, a CD and DVD which features many of his most valued compositions.

As well as wonderful musical performances on both formats, the DVD features a fascinating series of interviews with Dinny which include stories full of humour and wit, told as only Dinny can tell them. The DVD gives a tremendous insight into Dinny’s influences, particularly in terms of the older musicians who have influenced him.

Filming was carried out by two outstanding talents in this field – Brian McVeigh from Buncrana and Mark McCauley from Derry. The overall production is stunning. The sound engineer was Neil McGrory, whose expertise and experience has produced a wonderful recording of warmth and clarity.

Both the CD and the DVD are an absolute requirement for everybody’s musical collection and will be launched at this year’s All Ireland Fleadh in Derry 2013.

We can all be thankful that Dinny is still very active in music, both in performance and composition.