Dance Hall Days with Tremone Dance Band

by Seán Beattie

While the late 1950s and early 1960s are recognised as the era of the great showbands, they have their origins in the local bands performing in rural towns and villages in the early 1950s. This was the post-war era with life returning to normal, and people were keen to get out and enjoy themselves (sound familiar?). The Tremone Dance Band was one of the precursors of the great showband era.

The Tremone Dance Band came into being in the early 1950s. The band played Country and Western music, traditional Irish music, and jigs. Sets of Lancers were very popular.

The first band, formed around 1953, had four members: Robert Carey, Dan McCann, James McSheffrey (drums) and Andreas Kelly (melodeon). Andreas drove the band around with instruments in the boot. He took ill with a spinal problem shortly after the band was set up and had to be helped on stage. He died in the 1950s. Kathleen Deeney often played piano with them. Few halls had a piano at this time. Charlie O’Kane also doubled up as vocalist.

Founder member Robert Carey, whom I spoke to recently, first got tuition from Eddie O’Kane in Lecamy on the fiddle. Robert injured a finger in an accident with a baler and dropped the fiddle in favour of the saxophone.

The band rehearsed in Packie McCann’s house in the Row, Ballyharry, three nights a week. Packie was a single man who enjoyed the music.

The Tremone Dance Band played all over Inishowen, as well as farther afield in venues such as the Castle, Dungiven, and Crossroads, Killygorden. LDF (Irish army reserve) dances were very popular on Saturday nights in Carndonagh and drew large crowds. Money was plentiful as the shirt factories were providing employment for hundreds in the town and district.

Robert recalls playing in a variety of venues around the peninsula. There was a dance hall in Alex Mullin’s house in Glenagivney near the old school, where Eddie Gillen played the music rather than the full band as the venue was too small. McSheffrey’s Barn in Cruckaveel was another popular dance hall. James McSheffrey was a founder member of the Tremone Band. In Shrove, they played in a small hall at the beach, which is still there in the carpark.  Cullinean Hall at Quigley’s Point was also very popular before Borderland was built. The band also played in Clonmany.

Closer to home, they played in O’Kane’s hall in Lecamy. In Carey’s Hall, Carrowbeg – Robert’s home place – the Moville District Nurses’ Association organized fund-raising dances with the band as entertainment. Before her death, Lady Montgomery, mother of the Field-Marshal, was often in attendance as she was very active in philanthropic work in Moville.

The “Socials”

The Church of Ireland organized ‘socials’ – dances with an interval for tea, home bakes and scones. The largest of these was held in Culdaff Hall (the Wee Hall) but Robert Carey also remembers playing at Carrick Hall in Carn. Gleneely School was another venue for dances. In some venues, the organisers asked them not to play the Soldier’s Song at the end of the night and to play Auld Lang Syne instead. In July and August, the socials were thronged with visitors and local people on holidays, and the band insisted in playing the national anthem instead to keep the dancers happy. People of all religions attended the Socials and religion was not an issue.

Many will recall crowds of 2,000 on a Friday night in the popular dancehall Borderland, Muff, as they danced to the top bands such as the Capitol, the Melody Aces, the Royal and the Clipper Carlton. Carndonagh had its own bands and, while I never heard them play, I recall the Michael Galbraith Orchestra and the Paul Anthony Orchestra. The Atlantic Ballroom in Ballyliffin and the Plaza, Buncrana, were top rank venues. The eventual success of the showband era is certainly rooted in the local parish bands on the early 1950s.

Many thanks to Robert Carey for sharing his memories of those golden days (20th February, 2021)

Music around Culdaff, Inishowen.

A Living Tradition

By Roisin Mc Grory 2012,

Published in Donegal Fleadh Programme, County Fleadh, Culdaff 2012, Updated 2021

Culdaff is rich in historical landmarks and still holds a strong link to an ancient civilisation. Monasteries such as Both Chonais (Carrowmore) cultivated names such as Mael Iosa O’Brolchain, a monk who wrote many religious poems and hymns. One of these hymns, Deus Meus, written in Irish and Latin is still sung 926 years after his death.

There are many references to the music of Inishowen in the ancient history of Irish music. One of the most celebrated of contributors to the ancient music of Ireland was harper Denis Hempson from Magilligan, Co. Derry. At the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, Denis Hempson was one of 12 harpers and the main source of a collection of music that was titled the ‘Ancient Music of Ireland’. Inishowen had it’s part to play in this history, as Hempson studied under the harper Carragher at Buncrana Castle and was married to a woman from Inishowen, however in the records of Hempson’s life his wife is never named.

The family of the famous seventeenth century Culdaff playwright Charles Macklin also has a part to play in Inishowen’s musicial history as Charles’ nephew the Rev. Charles Macklin was noted as one of the finest uilleann pipers of his day and officiated at the baptism of the Irish novelist Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson). It was she who later commissioned an account of Hempson’s life to be written down.

Like every townland in Ireland, the names of musicians, singers, dancers and ceili houses are known by the local people, but often this information gets lost as it is often not recorded. We are fortunate that the music has survived and at various points in history it has been recorded and documented however it is in the oral tradition that the music survived and has naturally filtered down through the ages.

Characters such as Pat Mc Daid, Dunross, Culdaff otherwise known as ‘The Bard of Inishowen’, played the fiddle and won prizes at Derry Feis. Pat was a Justice of the peace, fluent Irish speaker and taught classes in Culdaff. He was renowned for his song compositions and was a singer in Bocan chapel for 50 years. He had a shop in Culdaff, married to Fanny Ann. He died in 1938.

When I moved to Culdaff in 1997 I was aware that there was a strong musical heritage. All types of music were enjoyed in the Village. Stories were told of the legendary musician and singer John Donovan from Malin Head who often played at socials in the Wee Hall.  The Gleneely Ceili band performed at local dances around the area playing music for céilí and popular songs of the day. Jim and Archie Warnock, James Bradley, Frank Griffin, Mickey Curley, John Mc Gonagle and on occasion Deirdre Mc Grory (nee Doherty) joined them on vocals.

During the 1950s the O’Kane family band, the Tremone dance band, George Mc Laughlin and his band played in O’Kane’s Hall, Lecamey, Bob Carey’s loft and dance halls further afield in Culdaff and Moville. John Joe Mc Grory and Michael Byrne from Malin often played in Bocan Hall and it was from Michael’s nephew Tom that I learnt a tune titled the ‘Bocan Waltz’.

Other musicians around the Culdaff area were William Knox and George Mills (Carthage). George had a publication of ‘Allan’s Irish Fiddler’ priced 2/6 which is a collection of 120 dances tunes and airs. Among the tunes he played were the Stack of Barley, Showman’s Fancy, Maggie Pickens, and Garden of Daises. Members of the Logan family (Culdaff/Scotland) also toured with the legendary Jimmy Shand Band (Scotland).

Musicians who came to the area influenced the people and their music. ‘Pat the Fiddler’, (Patrick Doherty), a travelling fiddler and tin smith from Sligo is reported to have spent a great deal of time around the Culdaff/Malin area in the 1950s-60s.

In the 60s Mick McIlkenny while stationed as a guard in Culdaff taught music in the Wee Hall. Under Micks direction the Culdaff Recorder band was formed playing at local events such as the Easter Parade in Carndonagh. Without exception Culdaff like every other Village in Inishowen was fortunate to have had the musical and dancing influence of Dinny Mc Laughlin. A number of young dancers from Culdaff under Dinny’s direction won awards at Feisanna were, Eugene Cannon, John Cannon, Joseph Cannon, and Gerard Davenport.

In the Malin area there has always been an abundance of musicians, singers and dancers, among them the Malin Head Folk group, Seaside Serenaders, Malin Town Band and musicians such as Neil Toland, Tommy Laurence, Frances Fullerton, Patsy Kelly, Paddy and Cara Byrne, Joe Mc Laughlin (Closha), can all be listed for their influence in the Malin music scene.

Recently I was fortunate to have an opportunity to talk to Shunie Cramspey a well known musician in Ireland and abroad. Shunie grew up in a house steeped in music his father Eugene, brother Philip, Uncle Charlie and Grandfather Philip Crampsey all musicians who played a huge part in the local music scene. Shunie began playing while still in national school.

It was when Nellie Mc Clean got a supply of whistles in her shop she suggested that the school (Aughaclay) would start music classes. Clement Sweeney taught the tin whistle for a time with great success, forming a marching band and a céilí band which consisted of Damhnait Nic Suibhne, Shunie Crampsey, Páid Mac Suibhne, Leonard Houton and Joe Mc Callion. When the County Fleadh was held in Malin in the 1970s the young band was ready for competition. Later Clement asked Dinny Mc Laughlin to assist with the demand for music classes resulting in the tradition being firmly placed with new generations of traditional musicians emerging.

At an early stage Shunie became known for his great musicial ability on the accordion. His first solo gigs took place when Shunie as a teenager was collected by Bill O’Brien to play in Cornies Bar Culdaff. Shunie played the tunes popular at the time such as Harvest Home, Mulhaires Reel, The Teatotaller, Boys of Bluehill and many more. One tune mentioned by Shunie was a tune titled ‘Joe Charlie’s Polka’, named after the musician who played them. Grace Charlie Phil played the accordion, she was a dancer and lilter and the source of many tunes.

The Wee Hall and Bocan Hall were the main source of dance and entertainment in Culdaff area up to the 1960s.  The Marquee (Culdaff Carnival) during the Summer and the Culdaff Arms run by Brendan Faulkner brought to Culdaff the top musical acts touring Ireland at the time.

Sessions were regularly held in Mc Guinness’, Culdaff Arms hosted many ceili nights and Mc Grory’s held sing songs nightly over the summer. Established in 1992 by Neil, John and Anne Mc Grory, the Backroom Bar at McGrorys of Culdaff, brought many top music acts to Culdaff up until their departure in 2015.

In Inishowen today many traditional musicians have had international success and have full time careers with their music. Among them are Ciaran Tourish, Dermot Byrne, Liz Doherty and local band The Henry Girls. The music is today vibrant and the musicians playing it have brought a new life to it. The future for traditional music looks bright and credit and thanks must be given to the hundreds of musicians through the years that have keep our tradition alive.

Gleneely Céilí Band

The Gleneely Céilí Band performed at local dances around the area, playing traditional tunes and popular songs of the day. Members included Jim and Archie Warnock, James Bradley, Frank Griffin, Mickey Curley and John Mc Gonagle. On occasion Deirdre McGrory (née Doherty) joined them on vocals.

THE GLENEELY DANCE BAND members 1940s-1950s
Back row, L-R, Archie Warnock, Moville (piano accordion), Mickey Curley, Gleneely (drums), John McGonigle, Ballintroohan (button accordion), Jim Warnock, Moville (button accordion).
Front Row- James Bradley (fiddle), Frank Griffin, Gleneely (fiddle). John Mc Gonigle & Frank Griffin were the founding members of the band

‘Pat the Fiddler’

‘Pat the Fiddler’ (Patrick Doherty), a travelling fiddler and tinsmith from Sligo, is reported to have spent a great deal of time around the Culdaff/Malin area in the 1950s-60s.

A new set of musicians has been emerging recently in the Malin area. These include The Henry Girls (Lorna, Karen and Joleen McLaughlin); Paula and Melanie Houton; and Eimear Mc Colgan, Ruardhrí McCarron, Breda Doherty and the O’Connor family to name a few.

Paddy Byrne

Paddy Byrne and his brothers Michael and Cara, all fiddlers, played a major role in the music of Inishowen. Alongside  traditional music, they were able to perform the popular music of the day for dancing.

Paddy Byrne (1918-2003), Malin Head

Neil Toland (1911-2008)

By Lauren O’Connor, Malin Head, May 2021.

Lauren is a grand-niece of Neil Toland. She plays both fiddle and piano and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin with a BA in Music and Irish.

Neil Toland was born on the 11th May 1911, son of Patrick and Catherine Toland of Malin Head Co. Donegal. Neil was one of Patrick and Kate’s fourteen children. His inspiration to music came from his father who played the fiddle which inspired Neil to pick up the instrument. He began his musical life playing the violin by ear but wasn’t happy with it therefore used the ‘Peter Wiper’ violin tutor book and later attended lessons with Sheila White (McGonigle) from Ballyliffin which he continued for eighteen months. Sheila encouraged him to go into an exam which led him to obtain his distinction on the violin. Despite his playing of the violin, it is his accordion playing that became his trademark up to his death. In his younger years, Neil had worked on a farm in the local area and this is where he learned to play the button accordion. The man whom he worked for owned an accordion and gave Neil the opportunity to play it while on his breaks. From this job, he saved his wages and bought himself his first accordion.

From L-R, John (Addy) McLaughlin, Eamon Gallagher, Jim Neery and Neil Toland all original members of Malin Head Folk group

Neil spent 43 years of his life serving as Postman in the local Malin Head area which allowed him to get to know the people. He served as a postman throughout the day and would play music at night for all types of audiences. Neil had many musical companions including his good friend John Donovan. Neil and John played together on several occasions including a concert in Malin Head hall on St. Patrick’s night in 1933 with John on the fiddle and Neil on the accordion. Their friendship extended beyond the music. John was present as the best man at Neil’s wedding to Bridget McLaughlin in the Star of the Sea Church in Malin Head on the 10th November 1938 as well as becoming godfather to Neil’s second child. In 1932, around the time when Eamon DeValera got into power, the Victory Dance Band was formed with two of its members including John Donovan and Neil Toland. An interview with Neil conducted by ICRfm in 2004, allowed Neil to recall his memories with his dear friend as he stated; ‘We didn’t go anywhere without one another’. Neil was truly devastated to have lost his friend when John died aged 35.

From L-R, Eugene Crampsey, Malin, William Boyle, Derry, and Neil Toland Malin Head

Alongside Neil and John, the Victory Dance Band consisted of musicians John and Michael Doherty (Sprigger). The band played dances which ranged from ceilís, waltzs, polkas, shoe the donkey etc. The original line-up of the Victory Dance Band later renamed themselves ‘The Seaside Serenaders’. Aside from the Victory Dance Band, Neil was also part of the Malin Head Folk Group. He enjoyed playing many events including his casual performances in the local sessions as well as for those in Kathleen Connolly’s Village Homes in Malin Town where he played in the Daycare Centre. Anyone who had the pleasure of meeting or playing with Neil will understand the passion he held for his music. He was and still is a very well-respected musician in the Malin/Malin Head area. Neil sadly passed away on the 31st August 2008 aged 97.

Neil Toland, Malin Head 2005

John Donovan

John Donovan (1914-1949) from Inistrahull island was a major influence on the music in the Malin area. John was born in 1914 and learnt his music primarily by ear. However he could read tonic solfa, and later his good friend Neil Toland taught him to read staff notation.

John Donovan was a popular singer and entertainer and in 1945 he made commercial recordings of six songs accompanied by Albert Healy.

John was a fine fiddler and also used the fiddle like a ukulele to accompany his singing. He died in 1949.

John Donovan, (1914-1949) Inishtruhall Island

For more information on the Life, Times and music of John Donovan click here