On the 22nd of November 2004, at the age of 70 Seamus Grant recorded 17 tunes with Ryan MacNeil. At the time of recording it was intended that along with these solo tunes from Seamus’ repertoire that the Two-Hand dance tunes and the music of the Clonmany Ceili Band would also be recorded. Sadly, Seamus became ill and passed away in November 2005. Fortunately, Seamus’s dance music repertoire is preserved in a number of private and archive collections while the present collection – the only collection of Seamus’ music to be commercially available – allows a real glimpse into the technical mastery and the diverse musical tastes of this most unassuming of musicians
A life in Music
The townland of Gortnahinson overlooks Clonmany village on the Inishowen Peninsula. This place, nestling in the foothills of Bulaba, bounded by Lough Swilly to the West and the Atlantic to the North is where Seamus lived most of his life. This is where he worked the land he loved and shared in the music, song, dance and storytelling of a place of great natural beauty and vibrant culture.
When Seamus was growing up, strong links existed with Scotland and this is evident in the Dance Music of Inishowen. Being only 40 miles north by sea many Inishowen people travelled there for seasonal work. Likewise, visitors returned during summer holidays and for ‘Scotch Fairs’. Scottish music was more easily accessible on radio than Irish music and recordings of some of the great Scottish fiddle masters could be bought in a local shop in Carndonagh, where Seamus was a regular customer. The fiddle style in Inishowen was notably different to the Donegal Fiddle style associated with South West Donegal. Also, while the fiddle dominated in the South West of the county it was the melodeon that was most popular in Inishowen during Seamus’s early days. Seamus recalls “the melodeon and the fiddle would be the only two instruments you’d hear at the time, and it would be mostly the melodeon”.
Seamus had a natural gift for the music passed down to him by his parents, both musicians. He learned also, from the playing of his uncle, Willie Joe Grant and from a neighbour, (White) Dan Doherty who was later to become his father in law. White Dan was a fiddler, singer and dancer and a great source of tunes, many learned during harvest time in Scotland. As a young boy White Dan often assisted in taking the blind fiddler Paddy Kelly to the many local house dances. A noted fiddler of his day, Paddy was much in demand until his death in the 1920s. Another fiddler influential in the music of Clonmany was Neily McColgan, a blind fiddler from Ballyliffen. When not entertaining on pleasure boat trips on the Foyle or boat trips to Scotland, Neily was called upon to play for big events in the community. Seamus also recalls travelling musicians by the name of McGinley and Gallagher visiting the area as well as Pat McDonald and the famous Doherty brothers.
From the age of about fifteen, Seamus was in big demand to play at house dances. These “Big Nights” were central to the musical culture of Inishowen and marked occasions in the community such as weddings, christenings, and emigration.
These nights were filled with storytelling, music, song and dance. They were lively events that often went on all night. The furniture would be removed to make way for the dancers and a make shift stage set up for the musician. One fiddler recalls an old door being set over the bed to create a stage for him, and to keep him out of harms way for when the dancing became too enthusiastic. It was often daybreak by the time someone would call to “Bag the Fiddle” before the dancers made their way home on foot or bicycle.
The dances popular in the area at the time included the Lancers, Highlands, Four-Hand Reel, Military Two-Step, Barn Dance, Haymakers’ Jig, Lannigan’s Ball, Maggie Pickins, Shoe the Donkey, the Polka Round and the Pin Polka. Other dances included old-fashioned waltzes termed the Versovienna and the Veleta. Solo pieces, songs and recitations would be performed as well as step – dances, generally hornpipes, performed by men. Another favourite was the Cripple Dance, a dance performed in a squatting position by men in competition with each other. It was danced to the reel ‘The Swallow’s Tail’ known locally as ‘The Bonnie Fair of Carn’. Thankfully through the dedication of Seamus and others, many of these dances have survived to the present day.
Seamus had many humorous stories of his adventures as a musician and his eagerness to improve. When he was about 14 years old there lived in Carndonagh, a clergyman, who played classical violin. Seamus thought he would approach him for some lessons. To avoid interfering with the farm work he waited for the next wet day to make the 20 mile round trip by bicycle to Carndonagh. At his mother’s request he purchased a metal boiling pot and a couple of pounds of boiling beef. Armed with pot and beef wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string, he continued in the rain to the parochial house. As the rain persisted to pour, Seamus’ enthusiasm dampened and so too did the parcel of meat. The door was opened by the priest’s housekeeper and as she pondered the drenched visitor and peculiar baggage, Seamus realised that he had no hope of furthering his career as a classical violinist on that day. The priest was not receiving visitors.
Undeterred by the reception he received at the Parochial House Seamus continued to seek guidance with his music. Seamus was later introduced to a publication by William C. Honeyman, ‘The Young Violinist’ (1922). This publication and the many others in the Honeyman series became a great source of learning technique for Seamus. Having accomplished the technical skill Seamus expanded his repertoire, collecting the latest recordings of the great Scottish and Canadian fiddle masters.
In 1961 Seamus married Brigid Doherty. Seamus and Brigid made a happy home, with their seven children – Billy, Danny, Seamus, Martina, Sally, Sheila and Rosaleen. Visitors to their home were made very welcome by Seamus and Brigid. Seamus had a wonderful memory, a great love of reading and a keen interest in world and local affairs. An evening spent in their home, in conversation and listening to the great stories and knowledge that Seamus could impart was always a pleasure.
“Big Nights” began to die out in the early 1950s. Musical tastes were changing as popular music and modern dance became more accessible. Music and Irish culture were becoming associated with a backward way of life.
The Clonmany Céilí Band was formed in 1956 by local curate Fr. Desmond Mullan to promote céilí dancing and to represent the Parish at Feiseanna.. The early members, along with Seamus were Ned and Jimmy Doherty (drums and double bass), his lifelong friend Maeliosa Doherty (button accordion), John McCarron (button accordion), Neil Mc Gonigle (fiddle) and Desmond Kavanagh (piano) and in later years Pat Hughes (piano). Dinny McLaughlin (fiddle) also joined them regularly for céilí dances and Feiseanna in the early days. The band was hugely popular and played regularly at céilí dances throughout Donegal, Derry and Tyrone up to the early 1970s. Later Seamus continued as a duo with his good friend, the late Connie Doherty (piano accordion) supporting céilí classes, dances and concerts. During this time, many of the céilí dances and concerts were organised by Clement Mac Suibhne of Ballyliffen. Clement was a great supporter of the tradition. He was later elected President of CCE. Many dancers will remember fondly the GAA Monthly céilí dances organised by John Friel and Colm Toland in the Strand Hotel in Ballyliffin during the early 1980s.
At those events Seamus was joined by Jimmy Cuddihy (accordion) and Garda Sergeant Mick McIlkenny (Fiddle) and regularly by two young Ballyliffin musicians, sisters Blaithin (concertina) and Damhnait Nic Suibhne (flute). Damhnait went on to study music and Seamus is featured in her undergraduate thesis ‘Links between Donegal and Scottish Fiddling’ UCC 1989.
From around 1990 the band, led by Seamus with various local musicians would reform a few times a year to play the original reportoire for céilí dancers. The 50th anniversary of the band was celebrated in 2004 as part of the McGlinchey Summer School programme of events. On the night Seamus was joined by Patsy Toland (banjo), Mick Denieffe (accordion) Roisin McGrory (fiddle) and Angela McLaughlin (piano). It was a great night and for many, brought back fond memories of earlier days.
Seamus especially enjoyed small gatherings, with other musicians, remembering old tunes, their origin and history and the association the tunes had with people who mattered to him. His playing in this type of gathering brought out his true talent and was very special indeed. Seamus liked to visit Pat Mulhern at his home in Drumfries. Pat was a wonderful fiddle player and inspiration to many. The great Dinny McLaughlin, musician, dancer and poet was a neighbour and former pupil of Pat and would cross the field to Pat’s house for these great nights of fiddle music and conversation. Seamus did not frequent public houses very much but in his final years he attended on occasion the Tuesday and Friday night sessions in the Front Bar in McGrory’s Hotel in Culdaff whose owners at the time were by Anne, John & Neil Mc Grory. He greatly enjoyed these gatherings and was always a very welcome guest.
The Inishowen Traditional Music Project was formed in1999. Seamus, always a supporter of local initiatives was delighted with the resurgence of interest in the traditional music among the younger generations in the area. He enjoyed hearing visiting musicians, often attending the events with his grand- daughter Christina Grant, also a fine fiddler. Of the many visiting musicians his favourites were Trevor Hunter, Pierre Schyrer and Frankie Gavin.
Seamus admired the music of the great fiddle masters. Their music and technique influenced his style of playing. On his album Seamus Grant, Traditional Music from Inishowen, he performs compositions of Scott Skinner, James Hill and Neil Gow and from further afield, the music of the great Canadian Fiddlers such as Rudy Meeks. Seamus had a great affinity with the music of both Scotland and Canada. Already, an admirer of the music of the MacNeil family of Cape Breton, he was very pleased at the prospect of Ryan MacNeil providing piano accompaniment on his album. Ryan and Seamus met through their mutual friend and fellow musician, Liz Doherty. Neil Mc Grory recorded the album in the Backroom bar, a room Seamus frequently attended for concerts and sessions. Seamus enjoyed the whole recording experience, the hours of practice with Ryan and conversation encompassing musicians, tunes and life. Although coming from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, we catch a glimpse on Seamus’s album of their shared understanding and love of the music.
Thankfully, Seamus had the opportunity to devote some time to solo playing and through invitations from the McGlinchey School, Seamus met and performed with Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, followed by recordings for Lyric FM. He also took part in the programme, ‘Geantraí’ on TG4 with Roisin McGrory (fiddle), Tom Byrne (accordion) and John McGrory (guitar).
Seamus remained true to the repertoire of his area, gave generously of his knowledge and music and while always striving to reach his potential. With every considered note Seamus enriched it with the generosity of his spirit and the charm of his soul. Since his death in 2005 Seamus is dearly missed by many. His music will forever be found in the mountains of dark Inishowen.
Roisin Mc Grory & Mick Denieffe 2010/2021
Sleeve notes Seamus Grant CD, Traditional Music from Inishowen
Catalogue No; ITMP001CD
Although Seamus’s only made one commercial recording Seamus Grant, Traditional Fiddle playing from Inishowen, other material exists as follows:
- Field recording (1988) of Seamus Grant by Damhnait Nic Suibhne, Traditional Music Archives, University College Cork.
- Cairdeas na bhFidléirí Summer School Recital 2004 (UCD Archives)
- RTE Lyric FM
- ‘Big Nights and Bygone Days’ published by McGlinchey Summer School Issue 7. 2004
- Other private collections