Jimmy Campbell - 1937-2022

Tue, 03/29/2022 - 11:13
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Every story for every tune

Will hold a secret smile

That will cover every mile

From Glenties to Heaven

(Donna Harkin)

Irish music, and Donegal music in particular, lost one of its very finest ambassadors on 22 January 2022 when Jimmy hung up his fiddle for the last time at the age of 84. Despite his increasing age, he’d remained healthy and active, enjoying good company and good music far more than many people half his age, so his death came as a shock to his legions of friends all around the world.

Jimmy was born into a family whose souls were steeped in music and, along with younger brother Vincent, he started playing the fiddle at around seven years of age. A couple of years later, following his grandmother’s death, there was the then universal cessation of music for a year’s mourning, but the two boys would sneak the fiddle out when their parents were out of earshot, unable to resist the temptation to play. While he never sought the musical heights to which Vincent aspired, Jimmy was a very competent carrier of his local tradition, realising the value both of the music itself and of the culture and stories that went along with that. His style was straightforward and natural, and always true to his mentors, notably John Doherty, a frequent visitor to the family home. He was so much at home in company – especially at his beloved Glen Tavern, known as ‘Dinny’s’ locally – that it could sometimes be difficult for him to tear himself away from the bar to pick up the fiddle. But once he started, he always had the stamina to outlast anyone else – I remember (most of) a night in our house where everyone else had dropped off to sleep by about 3 or 4am, but we woke to hear Jimmy still playing and singing away; his appetite for music was as strong as it was for Guinness (and the ”wee half one” that invariably went with it).

Jimmy had spent much of his working – and playing - life in England, after a spell working on the hydro dams in Scotland. He spent most of that time in Slough in Berkshire where he played regularly with Paddy Conroy, an accordion player from Maam Cross in Connemara.  Fiddler Brendan McGlinchey also lived in the area and was a good friend of Jimmy’s.  A regular feature at Slough Irish Club, Jimmy also visited London to play fairly frequently, and when there, would have met up with fellow Donegal fiddler, Danny Meehan.

It was in England that he met his wife-to-be Yvonne Casey at a dance near Slough where he was part of the band. Her family background was in Roscommon, and they went on to have four daughters and a son. But eventually, the call of home became too much to resist, and Jimmy and Yvonne (followed later by son Peter) moved back to a home at the top of a remote glen a few miles from Glenties. Their home was always a wonderful, warm place to visit, where conversation never flagged and the hospitality was so overwhelming as to be positively dangerous if you intended going anywhere else that day.

Jimmy was genuinely loved by so many people, as was evidenced by the huge outpouring of sadness and loss at the news of his passing.  The impact he made on so many lives cannot be overstated.  His neighbour, friend and fellow musician Paddy Toye puts into words what many of us feel: “I only knew Jimmy for the last four or five years of his life when I happened to buy a house close by, but the impression he made on me in those few short years is almost impossible to put into words. I can only say that I was blessed to know such a man and call him a friend. So many of my own songs are based around old yarns and stories that Jimmy told me.  It was always such a pleasure to spend time in his company, whether down in the local with a few drinks or sitting at his kitchen table looking out the window talking about the weather. A nicer man you couldn't meet - a heart full of gold and a glass full of whiskey. That was Jimmy! He was the rock around which our little community of musicians revolved, and we all miss him so very much.”

Another friend and musician, Allaye O’Connor, said in her recollections of the man: “I think Jimmy just loved life. He didn’t just love life, he gulped it down like a hungry man coming off the bog from cutting turf. And that love of life, that generous energy, instantly drew people to him. He could woo the world because he loved the world. And there was nothing that he loved more than the music of the Glen played in Dinny’s with all the musicians who made it come alive for and with him.”

After Yvonne’s untimely passing, Jimmy seemed determined to make the most of his time, whether it was in his fine vegetable garden, in the workshop where he made beautiful wooden benches, or in music sessions as far afield as Tipperary, Belfast, Dingle and Dorset. He was widely acknowledged to be an excellent Fear an Ti at music concerts across Donegal, and he could sing a good song. But most of all he was a very fine human being who I’m extremely proud and grateful to have had as a good friend for the last 25 years. Condolences go to Teresa, Vanessa, Fiona, Donna and Peter and the wider family.

John Waltham