A Derry fiddle player who passed away last month has been described as ‘legendary’ by a former bandmate.
As well as being a renowned fiddler, Eugene O’Donnell was also regarded as the Michael Flatley of his day and was also a handy footballer in his youth.
Eugene sadly passed away on June 29 and is survived by his sons Eogan and Shane, grand-daughter Alexandra and sister Celine.
One of seven children, Eugene grew up in Argyle Street and returned to live there in 1995 after many years in America.
His father Charles came to Derry from Donegal Town during the First World War, while his mother was McNulty from Stranorlar.
He began Irish dancing at the age of three and was the first Irish dancer ever to dance on television in London at the age of twelve.
As a teenager, Eugene won an unprecedented five consecutive All-Ireland Dancing Championships.
He began to learn the violin in Derry with an Italian called Caffola as a young boy, eventually perfecting Derry-style Irish fiddling.
This wasn’t the end of Eugene’s talents as he also signed for Derry City as a teenager, playing for the reserve team.
In 1957, Eugene moved to Philadelphia where he frequented the Irish Centre and continued to promote the Irish arts.
He helped to create a Ceili band that would go on to win the New York Fleadh in the mid-60s. Eugene also won six All-Ireland fiddle championship titles.
In 1978, he teamed up one of the best known musicians and academics in the US, Mick Moloney, to create Slow Airs and Set Dances and released a second album The Foggy Dew in 1988.
Eugene left such a mark on Irish arts and music that a special tribute event was held in his honour when the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention was staged in the city in 2012.
The event was held in An Culturlann and was attended by former bandmates Mick Moloney, Seamus Egan, who tours the world with the band Solas; Grammy-nominated fiddler Liz Carroll from Chicago; and Derry musicians Dermot McLaughlin, Frank Gallagher, Marcas O’Murchu, Maurice Bradley and Paddy McCafferty.
Mick Moloney, who arrived in Philadelphia himself in the 70s, told the packed crowds at the event of the impact of his meeting with Eugene.
He also shared stories of his many years gigging with him and played some of Eugene’s tracks.
Paying tribute to Eugene, Mick told the ‘Journal’ he was the ‘mightiest of musicians and the mightiest of men’.
“We were beyond friends – more like blood brothers, joined at the hip for over 26 years. Despite Eugene holding a full-time job as a draughtsman near the great city of Philadelphia, we made many LPs and CDs and played locally and all over the USA for decades at a time when it was not very fashionable to sing or play Irish traditional songs or music.
“The colourful story of our rambles would fill a good-sized book and in time it will. He was the best of company, the mightiest of musicians and the mightiest of men.”
Mick said that Eugene was ‘full of passion, mischief and devilment in equal measure’.
“He was a champion step dancer in his youth, the finest Irish dancer in the world at that time.
“He was a great and indeed legendary fiddler who specialized in the passionate performance of the ancient slow airs of Ireland and the majestically beautiful set dances composed by the masters in centuries long gone. He was a great composer himself and accompanied songs like none of his generation.”
Mick added: “Above all he was loyal to the very core of his being. All who knew him will be heartbroken at his loss.”