Fiddle master Danny Meehan chats to Geraldine Gilmartin about life in the capital, retirement in Donegal and his Return to Camden concert this month.
Danny Meehan left Donegal for England in the 1950s aged 16, and spent most of his life working as a master paver in London, playing his fiddle in the pubs and by his own admission being his “own boss”.
Meehan became steeped in the London Irish traditional scene and was a major force in creating and shaping that scene. After 50 years’ exile, he retired home in 2007 and is now settled in his ‘cabin’ in Laghey. This exile returns to Camden as the headline act at the festival of the same name, Return To Camden Town, at the London Irish Centre on October 25. It’s no quiet retirement for the respected and loved fiddler, who is in great demand, especially since being awarded the prestigious TG4 Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year in recognition of his profound contribution and influence on traditional music.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It’s still a bit unreal. I look at it on the shelf and say ‘is that really mine?’ I was kind of out of the scene and I’m not a working musician.” This month alone sees Meehan at the Glenties Fiddle Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí weekend, on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta and in Monaghan, Ennis and Cork ahead of his concert in Camden, where he will perform along with old pals Le Chéile.
Does he miss London? “Fifty years, sure it’s bred in your bones,” he says. “I’m looking forward to a pint and a curry. And I’d nearly play the whole of Lord Gordon’s reel afterwards!” It’s “all the lovely people” he recalls with most affection and old bandmates such as PJ Crotty and Bobby Casey. “They were great times. We were from all over Ireland and it worked great — flute players from Clare, accordion players from London. But I always kept my Donegal fiddle style,” he says.
Meehan also has a “special place on the shelf” for the younger second-generation London Irish musicians, many of whom he has inspired. Picture his childhood in a large musical family in Drimalost as one of pure immersion in local tradition, with few ‘foreign’ musical influences. “I was 12 before we got a radio,” he says. “I didn’t know anything, but by the time I was 10 I had about 50 tunes in my head. No-one had taught me — there was always fantastic local musicians and tea being made. I was just lucky.”
Musical influences were his father and local fiddle greats — Paddy McDyer, Peter Quinn, Christy Doherty, Charlie McCahill and Sligo flute player John Egan, who came to work on the railway in Donegal. “Everyone played very sweetly,” he says. “Quinn influenced me an awful lot. He had a beautiful touch. ‘Let the rolls and grace notes hang in the air,’ he said — they should be crisp and clean and there’s a certain amount of truth in that. Coleman had that uprolling bow, it sort of hangs in the air. It’s a great pity these guys weren’t recorded.”
But he has his own and his father’s memories of them and “that’s what makes me play”. Meehan remembers hearing John Egan interviewed on RTÉ’s Rolling Wave at the age of 85. “He particularly mentioned Paddy McDyer and I was so pleased,” he says. “Those men inspired my father. He always mentioned them and would say, ‘That was good but it wasn’t the way Paddy McDyer played it!’”
Not allowed to mess with his father’s fiddle, he got his opportunity one day aged 12, when, having cut his foot, he was left to mind the house while everyone was at Mass. “I looked up at the fiddle and started rasping at it. Mum came home early and must have told my father. Later that evening he said ‘Come on boy, I’ll show you a tune’ and he showed me a polka and I had it off straight away.”
There were evenings when his dad wouldn’t let him play. “You mustn’t get too carried away growing up,” he says. “It can take over and get on your brain too much. It would make you a bit mad and I was very highly-strung — dad had been through it too. We’re not born naturally musicians — music should be part of your life, it’s part of the human condition. Becoming a professional musician destroys a lot of lives.” He sadly recalls how McDyer, also a great carpenter, died aged just 56.
Meehan couldn’t sleep when he first retired. Too much freedom — “I did a lot of living in my 60s” — and too much fiddleplaying left him hyped up, unlike the London worker up at 6am for the daily grind. He’s cut down sugary foods and jokes that, while music and playing for other people is a great gift, you need to treat it with the disrespect it deserves.
His joyful humour masks a modest reverence for the fiddle. “You never stop learning about the fiddle — John Doherty told me that two years before he died,” he says. Learners are advised: “It’s only a piece of wood — don’t let it get the better of you!” As for fiddle style, is he Donegal or London? “I’m glad you asked that. When I used to come home, the Glencolumbcille guys said I had a London style, but I played with all the great West of Ireland players and I don’t go too much for sticking to one style, even bowing. The end product is what’s important. Get a nice, sweet tone and forget about the gymnastics.”
Meehan praises the younger generation who he says have come on really good. “Isn’t it great to have the music and they’ve really got a hold of it most of them. If you’re musically minded, you don’t tend to be thuggish.” It’s great that the tradition has such generous and spirited musicians as Meehan to inspire and encourage, just as he was inspired as a boy by the local heroes in Drimalost.
Danny Meehan performs at the Return To Camden Town festival on Friday, October 26 from 7.30pm at the London Irish Centre.