The Life, Times and Music of John Donovan

Ellen and John Gabriel Donovan

John Donovan was born in Malin Head in 1914 and died in Carndonagh Hospital in 1949. During his brief life he became Inishowen’s most popular entertainer and was the first singer from Inishowen to commit his songs to record. Many a household in Inishowen had copies of John’s three records (six songs) and many remember his songs, regularly requested on Radio Eireann.

John Donovan’s father, John Gabriel Donovan, a native of Dunmore East, Co. Waterford was born in 1885. He came from a seafaring family, with at least one of his brothers rising to the rank of Commodore and another to that of Captain. John Gabriel joined the staff of Lloyd’s Shipping Co. as a signalsman and telegraphist and was posted to the island of Inishtrahull, off the coast of Malin Head. There he met and married an islander, Ellen McLaughlin, daughter of Nellie Rua and Mickey Donal Neil. Like many Inishowen families, the McLaughlins were best known by their nickname, The Donal Neils. They were farmers and fishermen living above Portmore on the island.

John Gabriel and Ellen were married in the Star of the Sea Church, Malin Head in 1909. Their first son Charles Edward was born the following year and four years later in 1914, John Joseph, the subject of this article, was born. Most children were not born on the island, but in the houses of relatives or friends on the mainland, the women coming ashore a few weeks before the baby was due. Charles Edward and John Gabriel were born in houses near the present day Malin Head Radio Station.

John was reared, educated and grew up on Inishtrahull, living there until 1926, when the family moved to the mainland after Lloyd’s closed the Signal Station on the island.

The last inhabitants left the island in 1929

A gathering prior to a ‘Big Night’ on Inishtrahull. John Joseph Donovan centre foreground holding his leg.


After they were married, John Gabriel and his wife moved into one of the two houses built at the West End for the Lloyd’s employees. They lived here until leaving the island in1926. The house was later demolished to make way for The Helipad. The other house, occupied by Mr Sulman, the senior signalsman, is now a storehouse. John Gabriel’s work consisted of recording the passing of ships, relaying the information by means of semaphore (later by morse code) to the Tower at Malin Head, where it was then forwarded by telegraph to Lloyd’s in London. The Lloyd’s Signal stills stands just above the helipad.

Mr Sulman’s house on left. John & Ellen Donovan’s house on right. Extracted from research by Danny McLaughlin


John Joseph was educated in the island school. Because of his access to radio, he developed his love of music and sport. His best friend was Willie McLaughlin (Hudie) who later became a radio officer. Willie’s brother James became a Captain with Irish Lights and The Donovans and McLaughlins maintained their connection in future years. The Hudies lived near the school. John loved music and one of his first instruments was a fiddle, made from a tin box. The fiddle was John’s favourite instrument. No doubt he took part in his favourite activities, football matches and concerts and Big Nights held in the school, where parties of visitors to the island were often entertained.

John playing the fiddle on the schoolhouse wall

The Donovans moved to the Mainland in 1926.  Charles Edward went to Kevin St. in Dublin, qualified as a radio officer (due in no small part to his father’s early tuition), and subsequently spent six years at sea. He returned to Malin Head to take up a position in the local Wireless Station, married Celia Doherty (Jack) in 1943 and died in 1984. John Joseph also qualified later as a radio officer, but due to an eye defect, could not pursue that career. The Donovans first lived for a short time in Carndonagh and then moved to The Costguard Station in Malin Head, living first at No.6 then finally at No.2. Besides his job as a fisherman, John continued to pursue his main interests, music and sport. He was the goalkeeper for the very successful local soccer team, Sea Rovers.

Malin Head Sea Rovers

In 1932 Fr. Mc Namee in Malin Head decided to set up a band which he called The Victory Band, so called to commemorate the political achievements of De Valera. It was based in Malin Hall, which was built in 1924 by Fr. Morris, to counteract the “goings on” in the AOH Hall, built in 1913 on The Black/Back Mountain. Every parish at that time had at least one hall as a centre of entertainment for the parish. Dances were generally held on a Sunday night from 9 till 2. At the time, rural electrification was still a long way off. Tilley lamps were used. There was no amplification. Seating was wooden forms along the wall for the ladies. Cloakrooms and toilets were scarce. There were no relief bands but there was often an interval act e.g. a drill display by the local garrison. There would be a raffle and fights were common. Transport at the time was by foot or bicycles and if you could afford it, a hackney car.

The Victory Band/ Seaside Serenaders

Dances were arranged to suit the audience. The range was wide: ceili dancing, waltzes (old time and modern), quicksteps, foxtrots, polkas, barn-dances, military two-steps, shoe-the-donkey, highlands, quadrilles and lancers (very popular in Ballyliffin).  With the coming of radio a wide range of music was available from various cultures as well as Irish, Scottish and English. Although many a man came in his working clothes, fashion was a feature of these occasions; hair set with sugar, rouge from the cover of The Irish Messenger, summer frocks and trousers with 28 inch wide legs. However, a lift home on the bar of a bike limited the fashion possibilities.

This was the culture that John Donovan was part of. A good wash after a day’s fishing as a crew member of The Biddy James’ boat, and off in Jimmy John Donal’s hackney car to the venue. His mother kept his bulky hair in shape with the help of carrageen moss. He was a smart dresser, arriving on stage in a Trench coat and silk scarf.

One of his great talents was to pick up songs and tunes from the radio, Ireland’s Own, penny sheet music peddled on fair days, or bought in Davis’s on The Strand Road or Phillips of Shipquay Street in Derry. These he adapted for the band. His most popular song, My Lovely Irish Rose, was adapted and arranged from a poem by Carndonagh man, Fred Kearney. Many of the songs he sang are still popular today: The Hills of Donegal, Kevin Barry, Cutting the Corn in Creeslough, Roamin in The Gloamin, Marie’s Wedding and many more. The original band quickly renamed themselves “The Seaside Serenaders”. The line-up included Neil Toland, James and Michael Doherty (Sprigger) and John Donovan. John was often sought after to play on Big Nights, invited to Big Houses and asked to entertain the guests of Mr. & Mrs McFaul in Ballyliffin, and of the Selfridge family from Derry in Farren’s Bar in Malin Head.

John playing the fiddle on top of Craignahulla

At the height of his career in 1946, Stephen Butler, manager of Neal Doherty’s in Carndonagh, arranged through his connections in the recording industry for John to go to Dublin to record six of his songs: The Harvest Moon, As Years Roll By, The Tramp’s Mother, You’re as Welcome as The Flowers in May, My Lovely Irish Rose and the Rose of Moray. On these recordings he was accompanied by Albert Healy, who later appeared regularly on RTE. An original set of these recordings was presented to the Malin Head Community in 2003 by Mr. & Mrs. Kelly from Carndonagh. The publicity photo shows John playing a mandolin, but it was simply a prop. (He played the fiddle,). It also shows him playing lefthanded, but this was simply because when the photo was being printed, it was turned the wrong way. The fisherman’s sweater was borrowed for the occasion from a friend passing in the street.

John Donovan, (1914-1949) Inishtruhall Island

At the height of his career a darker side of John’s life began to emerge. In 1945 his father, who had suffered from ill health ever since he left the island, died. A year later his mother died. Now John was on his own. His failure to pursue a career in communications robbed him of stability in his life. He was admitted to Peamount Hospital with suspected tuberculosis. After six months there he returned to Carndonagh Hospital. In addition, he had been drinking heavily. His missed the life of a celebrity, drawing admiring crowds.

One afternoon, after lunch, John’s body was found in the Donagh River, which runs alongside the hospital. The inquest returned a verdict of asphyxia due to drowning. He was buried in Lagg alongside his parents. Their grave is just a few yards from the church door.

The obituary in The Derry Journal of Friday 29th of April, 1949 records:

“Expressing sympathy with the relatives, the Deputy Coroner said John Donovan gave freely of his gifted voice, and for that alone he would be long remembered”.

Text and images courtesy of Jim & Anne Toland December 2020