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.

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