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