History of the Donegal Fiddle
History Of Fiddles In Donegal
To many people Donegal and fiddles are synonymous, though we don’t know exactly when fiddles first came to Donegal. Even the terms concerning fiddles are confusing. What we refer to as fiddles today are violins. The violin came into being in Italy in the first half of the 1500’s. In general terms, we refer to people who play classical music on the violin as “violinists”and those who play folk/traditional music on the violin as “fiddlers. However things are not quite as simple as that. There are historical references to fiddlers going back a thousand years, so there have been fiddlers and therefore fiddles (of various types) for much longer than there have been violins.
In Donegal there would have been fiddlers playing on violins since at least the mid- 1700’s. By 1750 there were several violin makers in Dublin, though this was far from Donegal. Also it is accepted that violins were introduced into Scotland by about 1670 . At whatever date violins came to Donegal there would surely have been fiddling on some sort of fiddles before this.
As in many other folk traditions, the passion and will to play music was very strong in Donegal and people would get the best instrument that they could. If musicians could get professionally/commercially made instruments they would. However in Donegal, money was generally scarce and many people would not have been able to buy a fiddle. The only option may have been to make one.
As in many other places, box fiddles were made and played in Donegal and the photograph taken in Mountcharles around 1900 of Myles Tinney shows such a fiddle and his home made bow. Some people made their own violin style fiddles, with different degrees of success. The materials, tools and knowledge available to them were often very basic.
Another interesting answer to this supply/affordability problem in Donegal was the making of tin fiddles. There are tin fiddles in other places as well as Donegal but they are generally tin box type fiddles. In Donegal the travelling/musical families such as the Dohertys and the McConnells were excellent tinsmiths and excellent fiddlers who knew their instruments very well in terms of shape and function. They produced tin fiddles which were violin shaped and well made. These fiddles were cheap and easy to get, as they could literally be made at your door. They also sounded a lot better than you might imagine if you have never heard one. Many fiddlers started off playing on tin fiddles. Con Cassidy, Eddie Keeney and Tony O’ Donnell began playing on tin fiddles as young boys. Some other people outside of these families and the tinsmith tradition also made them. Mickey (the miner) Byrne made one in the Glencolmcille area. It is shown on the cover of The Fiddle Music of Donegal Vol 3 CD and it is used on two tracks of the album. More information on the maker and the instrument appear in the sleevenotes. Unfortunately most of these instruments did not last very long as they were made from tin plate and they rusted vigorously when the tin coating was broken through. A brass fiddle was also made locally in Teelin and is pictured on the cover of “The Brass Fiddle” CD. More information about it appears in the sleeve notes.
Research is ongoing into tin fiddles and it is hoped that they may be produced in Donegal again in the future.