ALTHOUGH now an iconic figure of Donegal fiddle music, as a musician
John Doherty was very much an individualist. But more than any other
musician, he did draw attention to that county's distinctive fiddle
The musical lineage of the Doherty and McConnell families goes back
many generations of Travellers that alternated between settled and life
on the road, and includes Turloch MacSweeney, 'An
Piobaire Mór'. Johnny Doherty's grandfather Simon
played the fiddle, uilleann pipes and highland pipes.
John Doherty was born in Ardara, Co Donegal around 1895. His father Mickey
Doherty, played fiddle. He married the singer Mary
McConnell, also from a musical family - her brothers, Mickey
and Alec, were well-known fiddle
players and made tin fiddle makers - and they had nine children, six of
whom played the fiddle.
John was the youngest on the boys. His brothers Mickey and Simon and
his nephew, also Simon, were fiddle players.
He once told Padraig O Baoighill during a Gael-linn
recording session in the 1970s that he started to play the fiddle in
his teens, and that he practised out in the barn . He said that he had
to return to that barn again and again until his father was pleased
with his playing of Bonny Kate.
Although he greatly admired the Scottish fiddler and composer James
Scott Skinner (1843-1927) whose recordings he had heard,
according to his niece, Frances Rohleder of
Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, John's favourite fiddler has always been his
own father. Brother Mickey Doherty, on the other
hand, was influenced by the Sligo style of Michael Coleman.
He was a travelling tinsmith - a tinker, the term was not generally
used in the derogatory sense then in rural Ireland - travelling on foot
from place to place with his bag of tools making pots, mugs and buckets
for local farmers. He seldom carried a fiddle with him, knowing that
one would be provided at any house where he stopped for the night. He
wasn't too keen on playing in pubs but was always in demand for house
South-west Donegal, particularly around Kilcar, Glencolmcille, Teelin
and Ardara, is known for its rich fiddle music, particularly that of John
Mhosey McGinley, Frank and Con Cassidy and
Francie and Mickey O'Beirne.
He spent nearly all his life in County Donegal. However he travelled to
Dublin to compete in the Oireachtas Championships, winning the fiddle
category, with Aggie White of the Ballinakill Ceili
Band from Co Galway coming second. He also travelled to Belfast to
record for the BBC who were the first to note his distinctive style.
In his later years he stayed at O'Byrnes pub in Carrick where many
young musicians joined him in summer evening sessions. The Dublin
fiddler Paddy Glackin first met him in 1965 and
Doherty and his music was to make a lasting impression on him.
Though Bonny Kate was most associated with the
playing of Michael Coleman, Glackin observed that in Doherty's playing
of it "all the embellishment is here executed with the bow, so that
throughout the tune there is a great amount of single bowing."
In his book Between the Jigs and the Reels, Caoimhín
Mac Aoidh has this to say about John Doherty's style: "From
early on John appears to have adjusted his bowing style away from his
father's and his brother's Mickey's style to adopt the more dramatic
staccato style and by almost totally ignoring the strong Scottish and
lesser Irish dotted rhythms.
He continues: "This appears to have been much closer to the old style
of playing in Glencolumbcille which can be heard in the playing of James
"It may well be that Paudí Bhilí na
Rópaí, whom John would have met in his
youth, exerted an influence on him. At any rate through his approach,
John Doherty brought fiddle playing to new heights of mastery within
the Donegal context."
As well as being a musician and tinsmith, John Doherty was a native
Irish speaker and carried a large store of folklore and stories. He
also carried on another great Traveller tradition, that of bringing new
tunes from parish to parish in a time when radios and gramophones were
a rare luxury.
His compositions include Planxty Reel. UTV made a
documentary about him called "Fiddler on the Road."
He died on January 26, 1980.
Bundle and Go, Green Linnet
The Floating Bow, John Doherty, Claddagh
Taisce - The Celebrated Recordings, John
Doherty, Gael Linn 1977
Johnny Doherty, John Doherty, CCE 1974
Between the Jigs and the Reels: The Donegal Fiddle
Tradition, by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh. Drumlin
The Northern Fiddler, Allen Feldman and Eamonn
O'Doherty, Blacksraff Press (out of print)