At the age of 78, Dinny McLaughlin, or Dinny White Harra (Harrow) as he is known in this land of McLaughlins, finds himself still in familiar surroundings - in fact, in the very house where he was born, in Shandrum, near Buncrana.
And it was in this kitchen, when he was a child, that he first experienced the twin passions that stayed with him throughout his life, and made such an impact both near and far.
A neighbour man, Pat Mulhern, came in to play for the house dances. The magical sound of that fiddle made a little boy determined to have one of his own, while over the years that boy also picked up the dances and his natural talent flowered. Dinny became a renowned fiddle player and dancer, a performer at home and abroad, a composer of tunes. And high on that list of achievements is the gift he gave as a teacher to waves of young people of his native Inishowen - a love of music and dance, and the chance to play and perform, whether in a concert in Glengad or for a US President in the White House.
For a man who enjoyed close to a rock and roll lifestyle at times during a busy life, Dinny is in remarkable nick. And, as he shows in the kitchen, he’s playing as well as ever as he approaches his ninth decade. Eager to play a recent composition on the piano, he rolls off the armchair like a Russian gymnast and is soon turning out a striking tune with a good deal of gusto.
Dinny stopped teaching traditional music and Irish dancing in 1988, after three decades. He’s less involved in gigging compared to the times when the group Aileach were touring the country and internationally, appearing on the Late Late Show, throwing shapes and making tapes as one of the top trad groups going. Yet this prophet has been gaining more recognition for his achievements in recent years.
An RTE documentary, ‘The Pied Piper of Shandrum’, has described Dinny’s life and achievements. His contribution has also been celebrated in a piece composed in his honour by the renowned Apple Hill Quartet from New Hampshire in the US. The book by a former student Dr Liz Doherty, ‘Dinny McLaughlin: From Barefoot Days, A Life of Music, Song and Dance in Inishowen’, features his story and includes transcriptions of many of his compositions. And the highly successful Ar Ais Aris festivals in recent years highlighted the wealth of talent which has emerged from Buncrana, many of the musicians pupils of Dinny’s, some of them a new generation with Buncrana links.
It is an impressive list by any standards, including musicians such as Ciaran Tourish from Altan, Kevin Doherty from Four Men and a Dog, Liz Doherty, Teresa McClure, Roisin McGrory (nee Harrigan), Paul Harrigan, Edel McLaughlin, the O’Dowd family, and the Barron family. There’s Michael Carey, multiple All-Ireland winner on the tin whistle. Jimmy McBride, originally from Greysteel, was one of the greatest fiddle talents of his era, winner of the All-Ireland and the Oireachtas before his tragic death in a car accident. You could continue the list for some time. Then you’d have to start the dancers!
A visit to Dinny’s house should be part of the school syllabus. It’s a reminder of what’s disappearing as we lose the final members of a generation that developed in a time before the television.
In the corner of the kitchen, Dinny’s fiddle is sitting out. That simple fact is enough to bring the conversation down a back road involving a set of dictionaries, unusual nicknames, Du Pont, people’s drinking debts and much more. Turns out the said dictionaries are still around, holding up the kitchen lamp.
Dinny’s own story, when we get on to it, begins on 28th March, 1935.
Denis McLaughlin was born to James and his wife Mary, originally McCarron from Meenaduff, which is in truth “below the North Pole”, the local pub. Denis, or Dinny, was the last of a family of six - Pat, the eldest, Katie, Annie, Bridget, Mary and himself. He’s named after his grandfather, who played the fiddle though Dinny never got to hear him as he passed away before Dinny was born.
In the corner of the kitchen, Dinny’s fiddle is sitting out.
Dinny reckons he was about six when he first heard the noted local fiddler Pat Mulhern, from Fallask just over the way.
“I just sat beside him all night. I said, if I get one of those things would you teach me to play it? No bother, he said. I went over and asked my father, would you buy me a fiddle? and he said, I’ll get you one tomorrow, son.”
Dinny got the fiddle eight years later.
“I asked my father every day, what about this fiddle? Finally he was talking about Eddie Kavanagh, a neighbouring fiddler and friend, and he said he would take me to see him the first moonlit night. The moon finally came out and I asked him and he said, come on. When I saw the fiddle hanging on the wall of Eddie’s house I asked him would he give me a loan of it. He said he couldn’t refuse a son of James McLaughlin’s so I left with it under my arm and the very next night I got my first lesson from Pat Mulhern.”
By this stage Dinny had a good few tunes in his head. He thinks ‘Let Erin Remember’ was his first acquisition from Pat. Every Sunday for the next three years the sequence was the same - half eleven Mass, dinner, and then down across the river and up through the moor for the lesson with Pat.
A tape of my mother Kathleen’s reveals Pat as a solid player with a straightforward approach and excellent rhythm.
“He had a nice style, scarce of ornament with a lot of bow work,” Dinny recalls. “We sat chatting, with Pat telling stories - he was a great storyteller. I remember thinking he was the greatest person in the whole of Ireland.”
Dinny was a developing fiddler at 17, listening to the music of Michael Coleman and later Sean Maguire. Remarkably he was 18 before he got his first dancing lesson.
“Mary McLaughlin [a top Derry dance teacher] saw me dancing at a ceili in Buncrana and she asked me to join her dance team. I hadn’t learned a step at that stage. Soon I was practicing here on the kitchen floor. They thought I was bonkers. I started about September, October, and by April I was entering the Derry Feis. I remember saying to Eugene O’Donnell’s brother Danny, I’m on next. He said, J---s, when did you start the dancing? I tied for fourth with an All-Ireland champion that time. I ended up getting the teaching certificate and started classes here in the house. That’s how it all began.”
A string of All-Ireland and other successes was to follow for Dinny’s dancers.
Dinny’s fiddle career was also blossoming. He was playing in ceili bands and building a reputation as a solo player. Then Fr Jack Gallagher, one of the best-remembered priests in the Derry diocese and an accordion player, convinced him to give music classes.
“He said, it’ll be your fault if the music dies in Inishowen. He had me tortured. Finally I said, I’ll try one class in the Tech. I didn’t know who would turn up. I ended up with fiddles, guitars, whistles, any instrument going. Before long I was taking classes all over Inishowen.”
As the sixties stretched into the seventies and Dinny kept up a punishing schedule of teaching music and dance, it all developed into a golden era for Inishowen.
Buncrana hadn’t been known for Irish music - “it had always been a garrison town, and to try and motivate people to take an interest in Irish music wasn’t easy”. The town found itself hosting the Fleadh four times in the 1970s.
As if this wasn’t enough, the group Aileach were building a big following in the 70s, with a line-up of Dinny, singer Bernard Heaney, banjo player Brian McRory and accordionist Pat McCabe. Dinny’s party piece on the Late Late Show, dancing while playing the fiddle, cemented his reputation as one of Donegal’s best-known performers.
Here in the kitchen at Shandrum, the light is growing dimmer on this long summer’s evening. Dinny’s only getting started. He’s excited about the film, and the new compositions which are being recorded. These tunes will form another big part of his legacy. As he makes the tea for the second time, he plays a couple of tracks. His fiddle playing sounds as sharp as ever in a fine line-up of local musicians.
I ask him about some of the highlights in an eventful life.
“I suppose in the music it would be the All-Irelands - we had quite a few, both solo players and the groups and ceili bands. Same in the dancing. Rose Lynch was the very first to win an All-Ireland, you always remember the first. Then there was the dance ‘The Spinning Wheel’, we won three times in a row with that one. I composed it in 1984 and my mother died before I had it finished. I remember coming back after winning the All-Ireland and there was nobody here, no fire on.”
Dinny says the highlight he recalls for Aileach is Symphony Hall in Boston.
“It’s a big, big, hall, three tiers, you’d hardly see yourself on the stage, and we got a standing ovation. And one of the best nights I ever had as a solo performer was in Ardara accompanied on guitar by Ian Smith. They didn’t want the group, just me and a guitar player. I played the fiddle, the tin whistle, danced, said recitations, told stories, sang, did everything. A man told me afterwards he couldn’t get his mother out of the house but brought her along and she said, thank God I went, that was as good as a thousand pound.”
Some things never change.