John Doherty 1900 – 1980

John Doherty

John Doherty was born into a very musical travelling family in February 1900 in the Ardara area of Co Donegal.

John’s parents were Mickey Mór Doherty (Mór being an Irish word meaning big ) and Mary McConnell. Mickey Mór Doherty had a musical inheritance of a couple of generations of both Doherty and Sweeney musicians on his father’s side. Also, Mary McConnell was a sister of Alec and Mickey McConnell who were very well known travelling tinsmiths and fiddle players in their day. They travelled widely around the south west of Donegal where their tinsmith and fiddle playing skills were very highly respected. A great many of the tin fiddles in the area were made by the McConnells and the Dohertys.

John was the youngest of 9 children. The Dohertys’ lifestyle was that of a travelling family moving from place to place doing tinsmiths work, playing music and camping or accepting local hospitality wherever they could, then moving on. When the children were young the family would travel as a group with a donkey and cart to carry their needs with them.

When John got older he travelled on his own carrying his belongings and his tinsmith tools with him. As seems unusual to us nowadays, this great fiddle player’s belongings did not include a fiddle as almost every house in these parts had one.

Thankfully there are quite a few recordings of John’s music, stories and songs as well since many music and folklore collectors sought him out. There have also been a number of commercial releases of John Doherty’s music, some of which are still available on CD.

Apart from the huge repertoire of tunes that John got from his own family, he was very interested in the music of James Scott Skinner, the great Scots virtuoso fiddle player and composer. Skinner’s as well as a lot of other Scottish fiddlers music has been and is very popular in Donegal. The introduction of the gramophone and 78 records brought a lot of music from outside the existing local repertoire into Donegal. Indeed, due to the influence of the gramophone, John’s repertoire also included some classical pieces by Fritz Kriesler.

John didn’t read music and did not have a collection of recorded music that he could draw on like modern musicians. However he was blessed with and developed an incredible memory for tunes and a fantastic ability to learn tunes by ear.

John travelled a bit to other parts of Ireland to attend Fleadhs and to Dublin where he competed in and won the Oireachtas fiddle competition. In summary, the adjudicators compared his tone to that of Fritz Kriesler. Mostly though, he travelled in Donegal, walking the roads of his regular beat. John maintained this travelling lifestyle until age demanded that he give it up. Many people loved to be able to offer John the hospitality of their homes throughout his life.

John Doherty died at the Rock Home in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal in early 1980.

John Doherty developed a highly personal style of playing, which although very much Donegal in essence was also his. John’s brother Mickey was said to have a style of playing which was much more like that of their father’s. Thankfully there is also a fair amount of Mickey’s music and lore recorded. There are a couple of duets recorded of John playing duets with his brother Simon as well.