Obituary: Gerry O’Neill - A man who loved ‘the music’

Gerry O’Neill passed away peacefully at home in Greenfield, Glengarry, Canada on Saturday evening 8th January, 2022, after a long illness bravely borne. His passing was peaceful in the arms of his ever-attentive wife Linda and daughter Paula and son-in-law Peter. Gerry also leaves behind three sons; Desi, Gerry and Ciaran; daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Roy Arbuckle and Gerry O'Neill:  Fiddlers Elbow.
Roy Arbuckle and Gerry O'Neill: Fiddlers Elbow.

Gerry was raised in Ivy Terrace, Derry, the second son of Samuel and Mary O’Neill and devoted brother of Mary, Eileen, Philomena, Alice, Frank, Olivia, Marie, Delia and Gretta and the late Hugh [Whitey], Samuel [Junior], Myra and Perpetua.

Gerry was educated for a short time in Buncrana because of the onslaught of the Second World War with the family moving between Derry and Fahan in the interest of safety. When they returned to Derry, after some years, his parents had some trouble getting their first three children into school because they were taught through the medium of Irish, but Gerry’s mum secured places for them in St Joseph’s Convent, Artillery Street, through the intervention of a relative, who was a nun in Pump Street. Eventually Gerry started his secondary education at St Columb’s College where he stayed until his senior year.

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Both Gerry and Whitey received tuition for the violin and were entered in competitions at the Derry Feis. Music lessons were held twice weekly in Ivy Terrace, with the Kelly sisters, Noreen and Molly putting the boys through their paces, and they were encouraged frequently by their mum. All this effort paid off when between them they won the Gregorian Cup, finishing alternatively first and second place.

They also won the Boys’ Duet for both singing and playing the violin. Gerry went on to play at the Derry Feis and accompanied the Little Gaelic singers on their many world tours. Still in boyhood Gerry started a career with the then famous ‘Four Provinces Ceili Band’ and played for Irish Dancing competitions at Feishanna all over Ireland and England for several years and appeared on numerous TV shows with the BBC, UTV and Telefis Eireann. He toured the east coast of America in ‘70 with the Associated Irish Artists Award winning cabaret show ‘This is Ireland’. By this time, he was an accomplished Irish traditional fiddler.

Gerry and his good friend Ray Doherty worked delivering confectionery for a company in Dungiven, known as Dan’s of Dungiven, and it was during this period that, with Gerry on the violin and Ray on guitar, they would practice in the van and then, when they finished work, would sneak off to Donegal to perfect their musical talent by playing in local pubs. Incidentally Ray Doherty went on to establish ‘The Big Four’ which became very famous in the early 70s. Gerry soon became an all-round musician and was fluent with the banjo, piano, mandolin and bass guitar.

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His love of music took him away from the academic route his parents had mapped out for him, and into a very successful career as a musician. Although both brothers worked in the betting offices for their father, they were away touring Ireland nightly with their respective bands. Gerry played with the Westerners Showband, the Kingston All Stars Showband and then went on to form, and manage, the Flingels showband. Eventually he formed a very successful 5-piece group, the Saoirse Folk and would produce a few albums and single records, namely Ireland Live On, The Ballad of Eamon Lafferty, Roisin Dhu etc. They were always in high demand when they played locally.

Gerry settled down, married and went on to have four children, Desi, Paula, Gerry and Ciaran. He mixed family life and work life comfortably and still managed to tour the length and breadth of Ireland with his band. In June 1974 Gerry emigrated with his family to Canada to meet up with his good friend Richard Duffy and made Canada his home. He travelled around Canada and the United States for many years with Richard under the stage name Sons of Erin - Duffy and O’Neill, and soon were much sought after in Northern America. They produced an album ‘Home Boys Home’ which brought them further success. They eventually settled in Montreal where queues formed nightly outside the ‘Cock and Bull’ to hear them play.

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Gerry teamed up with another of his lifelong friends Roy Arbuckle, who to the present day is an accomplished musician, and together with their two-piece group Fiddler’s Elbow became an instant success. They had a massive fanbase and were in high demand for some years to come, returning to Ireland on occasions to appear on local television.

Gerry and Roy remained friends for life and indeed Roy travelled to Glengarry to see Gerry pick up his Award at the Glengarry Highland Games Ceremony in 2018.

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From 1989 Gerry teamed up with Brendan Nolan and became another instant success story. They produced a very successful CD. (Brendan has paid a tribute below).

Gerry played at every function imaginable in Glengarry: concerts, dances, pubs, weddings, funerals and more. He was also generous, donating his time and his talent to many charities, fund raisers, benefits and organizations that needed his presence. He performed in concerts for the Friends of the Ruins, recorded tracks to aid The Glengarry Pipe Band, and helped The Glengarry Highland Games with their fundraising efforts, to name but a few. It was on the Glengarry Highland Games CD – “Building on Tradition” that his one take, unique and beautiful rendition of the tune “Hector The Hero” cemented the recording into being a Glengarry treasure forever.

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Gerry has also been an avid promoter of Glengarry talent, encouraging young performers and musicians, as well as the “veterans” in their musical pursuits. It was often due to Gerry’s recommendation that most local talent found themselves on stages in Montreal and Ottawa. Gerry had great confidence in Glengarry talent and thanks to his “nod,” for many young musicians, new doors were opened.

With his genuine love of “the music” and his Irish charm Gerry is a “Glengarrian” for sure, despite his “wee” teasing of Glengarry fiddlers when he quizzes if they knew the “Irish Roots” of that “Scottish Tune” they just played and the original key that it was played in?

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Two of Gerry’s favourite words when describing a special occasion or performance were “magic!” and “grand!” It is more than fitting that the “magic” of Gerry’s musical contribution and his friendship to Glengarry be honoured in The Glengarry Celtic Music Hall of Fame. Now, isn’t that “grand!”

Gerry will be sorely missed by his wife Linda, his sons and daughter, son-in-law and daughters-in-law, his grandchildren and great grandchildren and all his siblings and friends, and in particular his friends in Glengarry.

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Gerry will be playing his fiddle from the Heavens above for a long time to come.

A tribute by Brendan Nolan

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I contacted Gerry way back in 1989 to see if he’d be interested in playing at The Old Dublin Pub in Montreal one night a week with me. Thankfully he said yes. I think we had two rehearsals and if my memory serves me correctly, we never rehearsed again. It just seemed after a while that when we were on stage we just knew what the other one was thinking musically.

Before me, Gerry had played with several musicians including the late Brian Davis from Dublin, Roy Arbuckle from Derry, and the late Richard Duffy, also from Derry.

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After he had emigrated from Ireland in the mid-seventies he and Richard became the regular act at the Cock and Bull pub on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. People would be lined up outside the venue waiting to get in.

Gerry also played, along with several other fiddlers, at the opening ceremonies of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.

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However, it didn’t matter what the stage or the setting was, from a pub to a concert hall, Gerry approached it with the same enthusiasm. He was just a wonderful and charismatic musician and he gave everything when he performed.

It’s been barely two weeks since I last saw him. The final song I sang for him that day was in the Irish language. It’s called “Treasna na dTonnta” (Over the Waves). Whenever I play it I usually couple it with the Scottish song “Westering Home” because the melody is the same though the lyrics are different in the Scottish version. The translation from the Irish is:

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“Over the waves, going back, going back

Goodbye to the loneliness, goodbye to the pain

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Bright (happy) is my heart, as bright as the sun

It’s bright (happy) that I’m going to Ireland.”

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I also include the chorus of a song we used to sing, usually at the end of the night, and which was recorded on the album “Across the Great Divide”. It was the last track on the album and I always liked Gerry’s playing and the honesty of his understated vocal harmony:

“Hooray me boys, hooray! No more do I wish for to roam

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For the sun will shine in the harvest time to welcome Paddy home.”

If there’s a heaven then I’m sure they have lots of great fiddlers there. Still, I’d say they won’t know what hit them after Gerry rosins up the bow and launches into a jig or a reel.

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Godspeed me ould segosha.”