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Tommy Peoples - 1948 - 2018

Donegal fiddler, Tommy Peoples, passed away on 4th August after a period of ill-health. Known the world over for his distinctive style, as a prolific composer of tunes, and as a member of one of Irish traditional music’s best loved bands, his passing leaves the music scene in Ireland a poorer place.

Tommy was born in Letterkenny, but grew up in St. Johnston in East Donegal. There were several musicians in his family, and he began learning the fiddle from the age of seven, being taught initially by his older cousin, Joe Cassidy. By his teenage years, Tommy was playing regularly at the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann sessions in Letterkenny, where he was particularly influenced by the older generation of players, often seeking them out to learn the traditions and repertoire of the area from them.

After leaving school he moved to Dublin where he worked a variety of jobs, including as a policeman. He continued to be part of the traditional music scene there, having already developed an individual style that marked him out as unique. During this time, he often played in O’Donoghue’s and Slattery’s bars, where he met other musicians who, along with himself, would go on to form the backbone of the traditional music scene in Ireland in years to come.

In 1970 he moved to County Clare where he married Maria Linnane, daughter of Kitty Linnane, the leader of the renowned Kilfenora Céilí Band, and together they began raising a family. One of their daughters, Siobhan, has also become a renowned fiddle player.

Tommy played with a number of different groups in his time, but is best known as a member of seminal group, The Bothy Band, which he joined to replace its original fiddle player, Paddy Glackin. The Bothy Band, whose members also included Mícheál Ó Dhomhnaill, his sister Tríona, Dónal Lunny, Matt Molloy and Paddy Keenan, was one of the most influential groups of the 70s and toured with great success. It is said that Tommy found life on the road difficult, however, and preferred to be away from the limelight, and so he left the band and began playing more often as a solo performer in the following years.

In the 70s Tommy recorded a solo album with accompaniment from Paul Brady, and also a trio album with Paul Brady and Matt Molloy. These were part of what was to become a prolific recording career, and, thankfully, much of Tommy’s music has thus been preserved for years to come.

He spent some time in Boston, before a desire to return home saw him coming back to live in Co Clare where he spent the rest of his days. It was while here in 2015 that he published his book, Ó Am Go hAm (From Time To Time), which includes a collection of 130 of his own compositions, historical and personal stories, and reflections on music.

Tommy was admired, respected and loved throughout the world of Irish music. He was the first recipient of the TG4 Traditional Musician Of The Year award in 1998, and also received the Composer Of The Year award in 2013 – becoming the first person to ever receive two Gradams. Earlier this year, although quite ill, he managed to attend a tribute event held for him at the annual Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, where he taught previously.

The esteem in which Tommy is held is well summed up by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh of the Donegal fiddle organisation, Cairdeas Na bhFidiléirí, who said of his passing: “Whenever Irish traditional music is played in the generations to come, the name and music of Tommy Peoples will hold a central and greatly revered place. Every generation of players produces its gifted, shining individuals. Some emerge as glistening stars of various shades. Very rarely there comes a dazzling, wondrous comet. That was Tommy Peoples, a player whose prodigious gift challenged us to comprehend its awesome beauty. The firmament of traditional music has darkened greatly with his passing.”