By Eamon Sweeney
The word legend is one which is bandied around far too often these days.
However, twenty years ago today, Derry lost one of its truly legendary figures. The passing of renowned musician James MacCafferty in 1995 brought to an end a lifetime spent dedicated to music and passing the love of the discipline to many generations of young people.
For those who competed or even just attended Feis Doire Colmcille in the past few decades the sight of James MacCafferty was an utterly familiar one.
The dapper, softly spoken gentleman, who had a permanent smile and was always puffing on a pipe seemed to be an ever present fixture in the Guildhall during Easter week.
To mark the twentieth anniversary of James’ passing his family have added substantially to a website dedicated to his memory and which reveals the huge contribution that the man made to the cultural life of the city that he loved.
The website can be viwed at www.http://jamesmaccafferty.com/
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ James MacCafferty’s son Pat said: “Over the past few years my brother Seamus and myself have been working on the website which charts my fathers life from day one to the end of his career and its now complete.”
Originally the website contained some brief pieces of information about James MacCafferty and some photos of a career that spanned 50 years. Now added to the site are recordings of his music and a film that covered the span of his life and his career as well.
“People are interested in his life, especially some who left and moved to America for example. Also, young people in Derry now don’t know about James MacCafferty and the contribution he made to Derry.
“There is no better time now, than 20 years after his death to let people know that they can see what he was about and what he actually achieved,” said Pat.
James McCafferty would have marked his 100th birthday last month. Born in the lower part Francis Street in 1915, the family later moved a few houses up to number 25 and that is the house to this day is still most associated with the man himself. As Pat MacCafferty recalled, the late comedian Frank Carson referred to his family home as ‘Frantic Street’ because it was always a hive of activity.
At the outset the young James learned to play piano under the tutelage of Maude Butler and took some exams.
“His first professional fee was when he was 15 and it was in Bridge Street at Osman Hall. He had been offered a job in Cavendish’s and was due to go to the interview, but he said to his brother Don ‘go you up instead’, and Don spent the rest of his life working in Cavendish’s. He had no interest in that sort of job, his only interest was music,” said Pat.
“My father was an accompanist, he was probably one of the best in the whole country. It was his forte. You rarely heard my father play on his own. He preferred to accompany people. And, he learned that skill very early on. I believe it was a gift from the man above, a gift that raised him above the normal musician,” Pat continued.
Feis Doire Colmcille was founded in 1922 by Mrs Edward Henry O’Doherty and the first Feis Secretary was Fr McGettigan. In the fraught political climate surrounding partition the object of the Feis was clear.
“This Feis has been established with one outstanding object-the revival of the national language-and this object must not be lost sight of in the enthusiasm of the work for the revival of our national music. Both must go hand in hand.”
To this day the syllabus of the Feis contains competitions centred on the Gaelic language, traditional music and of course Irish dancing. Coincidentally, Mrs O’Dohertry hailed from Francis Street too.
Pat McCafferty said: “I suppose this was a transition of sorts from Mrs O’Doherty to my father, one that would end up spanning the entire 20th century. She started the Feis in 1922 and passed away in 1969. My father had already inherited a lot of that and it continued until the end of his life in 1995. He was official accompanist for 50 years. He played and sang in the Feis when he was a boy. Then he saw he could create a school of music and thankfully my sister Una had the talent to come in with him and when he passed away she continued on with it.”
The ‘Journal’ asked Pat MacCafferty exactly what Feis Doire Colmcille meant to James MacCafferty.
Pat said: “Everything. I would say the Feis meant more to my father than anything. I mean, his grandfather was on the second committee, his mother sang at the first Feis. He and his brother Don competed at the Feis and in 1946 he became an accompanist. He was there every year playing for children and adults alike. He was part of Derry Feis and it was part of him and he transmitted his love for it to so many other people. A lot of people who performed at the Feis and later became famous would probably say their inspiration came from him.”
“As a family we had no option. Easter was about the Feis and that was it. We didn’t go away. We never asked to go away. You went to the Feis and we all did our bit. My father was there day and daily. He got paid a pittance for playing at the Feis from nine in the morning until midnight. Who else would have done that?
“He also saw the value it gave to our community. If you look at the amount of people who emerged from the Feis, for example, Rosemary Brown (Dana), Patrick O’Hagan, Phil Coulter, Roma Downey, Nadine Coyle, Feargal Sharkey and so on, it’s phenomenal. I’m not saying that the Feis made them what they became, but somewhere along the line they may have thought ‘this is the life for me’. But, it is where they began to learn their trade and it provided them with the confidence to get in the stage and perform.”
The career of James MacCafferty was one which was completely multi-faceted. In his time he had his own bands, was involved with many choirs and even took the MacCafferty Singers to the final of the Choir of the Year back in 1984. Of course the Little Gaelic Singers and their many tours of the USA are still remembered in this city to this day and James MacCafferty will forever remain the only Derry man to have ever appeared on the famed Ed Sullivan Show in America.
Many offers to move to work in America as an arranger and accompanist were rebuffed by James as were offers from Derry’s own Josef Locke who often tried to get him to come and work for him exclusively.
“It was his ability to sit and play for anybody and his ability to make musical arrangements that saw these offers come in,” said Pat MacCafferty.
Also fondly remembered to this day are the famed concerts in St Columb’s Hall which began in 1962. Organised by the future Bishop of Derry, then Fr Edawrd Daly they rose above the normal local concerts and began to attract performances from world famous performers. These included the likes of Jim Reeves, Chubby Checker, Roy Orbinson and The Seekers. In later years these concerts involved into hugely popular pantomimes spearheaded by characters such as Frank Carson and people of the calibre of the late Don O’Doherty.
“These were phenomenal times,” said Pat McCafferty.
“Bishop Daly was a genius. He was willing to invest money to get money back. He was the man responsible for attracting such big names.”
Pat continued: “My father was a working musician, it was his bread and butter and the thing about it was he didn’t value money. My mother God bless her, said to him time and time again, ‘James for God’s sake will you take the fee’ for things he was involved in. The young boys used to come into singing classes in the house and the practice was they sat their money for the lessons on top of the piano. At the end of the lesson he handed it back to them and told them to go and buy sweets.
“The reality is that when he passed away he left enough money to bury him. If you look at the video on the website my father says that Don O’Doherty always jokingly said he was a millionaire, but he wasn’t. What he did say however was that he was a millionaire in the friends that he’d made.
“He was never motivated by money. He was a Derry man at heart and he loved Derry. Sometimes I think people don’t realise what he did for this town. He loved this place for what it was. Some might say he lacked ambition, but that has to be measured against happiness, peace of mind and enjoyment. He was not interested in the rat race.”
It would be good to let the young people of Derry know about the warmth of the man and the genius of the man.”
James MacCafferty passed away aged 80 and continued his love affair with music until the end.
Summing up his father’s life, Pat MacCafferty told the ‘Journal’: “Music meant everything to him. He wasn’t never a musical snob. The only value he placed on music was that it was fine as long as it was good enough.
“So may young people took inspiration from the love he had for music and it was his gift that he could transmit that to them.”