The fiddle music of Donegal is recognisable the world over, with many names being synonymous with the style – Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Tommy Peoples, Paddy Glackin and James Byrne being amongst them. But the name associated most with the area perhaps is John Doherty – a travelling tinsmith renowned the world over for his style, knowledge and skill.
John was born in February 1900 in the Ardara area of Co Donegal. He travelled widely around the southwest of the county, bringing his music into the homes of many local people, accepting their hospitality as he moved around. He died in early 1980, so many around the area still remember his unique character and incredible repertoire of tunes.
Ardara boasts a number of music festivals throughout the year, but The Johnny Doherty Festival is one where the town celebrates its connections with this legend, and where the traditional music of the area is highlighted and brought to a wider audience.
Billed as a festival of music and dance, the programme includes concerts, ceilis, sean nós dancing, set dancing, workshops and pub and street sessions. There is always a buzz in the town, with many visitors arriving from near and far. This year, the festival also coincided with the Donegal Senior Football team being in the All Ireland Final, which brought extra excitement to an already packed weekend. (Donegal won, incidentally, and the party is still continuing!!)
Pat McGill, the man behind the festival, works tirelessly to bring quality traditional music to Ardara, both during the festival weekend and throughout the year. This year was no exception, and once again the town was filled with the sound of great music and great fun.
Friday night saw the festival opening with Donna Harkin, Jim Byrne and Fiona Heywood, musicians who play regularly in the Beehive Bar – the main venue for traditional music in the town. The main guests were Derek McGinley & Tara Connaghan, two fiddle players who represent well the music of the area, and who have been influenced by John Doherty amongst others. Their recent CD, The Far Side Of The Glen, is a treasure trove of local tunes, and one worth looking into if you are interested in Donegal fiddle music.
The Saturday night concert saw the return of Cherish The Ladies, and once again they packed out the main hall of the Nesbitt Arms Hotel. As if Cherish weren’t enough to pull a crowd, they enlisted the vocal talents of Maura O’Connell for this tour, and together they provided a fantastic evening’s entertainment, more of a show than a concert, slick, yet with a lovely intimate feel – it appeared as if the Ladies were as at home as the crowd was. As they do wherever they play, Cherish involved musicians from the local area. Aileen Sweeney from Ardara, a previous All Ireland winner in the Under 12 Sean Nos Singing competition sang two songs in Irish. Hughie Boyle, father of Kathleen, the piano player in the band, lives near Dungloe and played a set of accordion tunes with them. And (nearly local) Tommy Sands joined them for a song or two and really got the crowd going.
Sessions were in full flow all weekend, with the Beehive and other bars full of musicians. The dance thread of the festival is a strong one, and various dances were well attended throughout the weekend, demonstrating a strong commitment to, and knowledge of traditional dance in the area. And those who couldn’t quite keep up could enjoy some excellent dance music in the process.
Ardara was recently crowned “the best village to live in Ireland” by The Irish Times. Festivals like this go a long way to making Ardara the special place that it is. A visit would be well worth it, but be careful, this wee town has a habit of not letting you go!