Street Musician, Derry, Donegal, Scotch Boat and Moville Streamer
Written by Don McGinley, Moville
February 19, 2018
‘To the strains of O Mio on McDonalds Violin’
Thus ended Lily McSheffrey’s poem on life in Moville and the Paddle boat Steamers. But who was this McDonald? Other fiddlers had visited Moville over the decades, such as the blind fiddler, Paddy the Slithers, who visited Gortgowan as recorded by Honoria Galwey. Then there was Paddy from Grellagh who used to frequent Shroove as recorded in the Dúchas Schools Collection. Other musicians frequented the boats, such as McGarvey, an old blind Peter, and notably the blind fiddler Neil McColgan from Ballyliffin, mentioned by Charles McGlinchey in The Last of the Name
A search of the 1901 and the 1911 census returns reveal a Patrick McDonnell or McDonald, surnames which were used interchangeably, and his wife Mary Kerr, though her surname was sometimes spelled Carr or Carre. According to these and the birth records of his children, he was Patrick (Paddy) McDonald (McDonnell) born about 1880, and it looks like he set about a music career from the start.
His occupation on the records examined was noted as ‘musician’ but in one case he is described as a ‘militia man’ (1900). He was married in 1895 in St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry to Mary Kerr (Carr) and the 1901 census finds him living in Ballymacool, Letterkenny. His birthplace is given as Co. Louth and his occupation is recorded as a ‘street musition’ (sic). His wife’s occupation is described as a ‘dealer in soft goods’. He later moved to Derry and in 1911 the couple had 6 children from 9 pregnancies: John, William, Patrick, Margaret, Mary Bridget, and Joseph.
In 1910 Pat McDonnell attended the fair in Buncrana and was observed by a young local boy called Pat Mulhearne, who was then aged 10 years old. Pat Mulhearne had uncles who played the fiddle, but after following and listening to McDonnell through the fair, he vowed that he would learn to play the fiddle in earnest. Pat Mulhearne became the best known fiddler in the Buncrana district in his time, and went on to teach both Dinny McLaughlin and P.V. O’ Donnell. The circumstance of McDonnell’s visit could have been the catalyst that inspired and helped maintain the music tradition in the Buncrana area to the present day, as Dinny McLaughlin went on to mentor musicians such as Ciaran Tourish, Dermot Byrne and Liz Doherty and so many more.
Séamus Grant (1934-2005) remembered McDonald frequenting North Inishowen. Séamus also named other fiddlers, McGinley and Gallagher, as visiting the district and a piper called Gillespie. He also spoke of McDonald’s travels on the Scotch boat, where he entertained the migrant workers. A favourite platform was a herring barrel on the quay in Derry and even after a half bottle of whiskey, McDonald could balance remarkably well and play his fiddle. (Damhnait Mac Suibhne interview with Séamus Grant.)
In 1915 an article appeared in the Derry Journal pleading McDonnell’s case against a prison sentence of two months hard labour. While playing music at the Fair in Strabane McDonnell advised a young man to think twice about enlisting in the British Army, there being a big drive on for enlistment at that time in WW1. Patrick, having served a spell in the army, spoke to the young man who then withdrew his application. A recruiting officer overheard and objected to this intervention, and Patrick was charged under ‘Defence of the Realm’, and having given evidence to the magistrate, he was made an example of and received the two months sentence. The journalist commented that McDonnell the fiddler was the latest to suffer for indiscreet remarks, describing him as ‘the man with the curly hair and that he was well known in Derry as an itinerant musician of remarkable skill. His fiddling was admittedly vastly superior to the usual street musicians. He was to be found on the river steamers playing between Derry and Moville, Sunday after Sunday, during the summer and he was to the Moville Boat what the band is to the Atlantic Liner.’ He also referred to Mr McDonald’s time in the army (fifteen years in total, with two and a half in the Irish Rifles) the journalist went on to comment that ‘One would think that a record like this should carry some weight…a man, especially if he has a little drink taken, will say some foolish things.’
Patrick and Mary McDonald had addresses variously at 6, St Columbs Wells, 4 Joseph Street, and 4 Fahan Street in Derry. These addresses were convenient to the cattle market and to the Quays. His wife Mary had a hawker licence in the City. In 1905 the couple lost their baby two weeks after birth, and in 1908 Willie McDonald, age 9, died at the Derry Infirmary after burns to his lower legs, trunk, and meningitis. The death cert records he was a ‘musician’s child’. The children are both buried at Derry City Cemetery. Patrick McDonald Junior was born in 1900 and married Maria Hutchinson in 1925. His occupation was described as ‘Army’ and his wife was a ‘factory girl’.
In 1924 Mr. Patrick McDonald, Derry, won the County Fiddlers section of Feis Cholmchille and again in 1938 the winner was a P. McDonald. It’s possible that there were different generations of the McDonalds who carried on the music. In 1977 Simon Doherty (fiddler/tinsmith) referred to the McDonalds in an interview, when he said ‘There were the McDonalds, they used to play music in the streets’.
What became of Patrick McDonald senior or his wife, I don’t know. The 1915 court case made reference to his previous travels to Fermoy to re-enlist in the army, and that he was refused due to ill health.
There is no doubt that he was a significant musician and an accomplished fiddler who gave great joy to travellers on the paddle steamers to Moville, on the Scotch boat, at the Quays, and at fairs and rabbles through the North West. He played joyful tunes, airs and also played the lament, Farewell to Erin, for the emigrants leaving Ireland’s shore.
Just as bonfires were lit along Inishowen for departing local emigres, Paddy McDonnell bid them welcome and adieu. Perhaps a sculpture of a fiddler balancing on a herring barrel, playing a lively tune, would be a fitting tribute to all these musicians who were such a part of those sad and joyous times.