Jim Doherty (1939 – 2012)

“ The music around here went from generation to generation. I got it from my father and he got it from the likes of the old fiddlers before him.” – Jim Doherty

House Dances

House Dances and House Dance Music

“The terms house dance sand house dance music comes up regularly enough in discussions about the Irish music tradition of the past. Many feel familiar with the concept of what those social occasions were and the music that was played at them. However, since their onwards decline from the 1940s onwards in County Donegal traditional players have become increasingly disconnected from them. The vast majority of adult players of today have never personally experienced them in their natural social setting. The presumptions that we know about them is simply that, a presumption.

What complicates our appreciation of these once essential parts of rural social life is that the players, such as the late great Danny O’Donnell who often noted that “I cut my musical eye teeth as a young lad playing for house dances on Cruit Island”, have mainly passed on to their eternal reward. We have less and less opportunity to learn first-hand of the social settings, events and tunes which created this unique environment.

One such player who opened a direct window to the house dance tradition was the late fiddler Jim Doherty of the townland of Legnahoorey (Lag na hÚraí in the Irish language). Jim played for house dances in his youth and learned to play fiddle from his father, Neil, who spent a great deal of his youth playing at house dances in the area. Neil learned from two near neighbours, Robert Sproule and Matthew Buchanan who were older and again spent a considerable portion of their social lives playing for house dances. Through this lineage the experiences, stories and of great importance, the tunes and how to play them, passed on by Jim Doherty. Listening to Jim play his house dance repertoire opens a window allowing the sounds, tunes and their rhythms filter in to our lives. We can gain an excellent picture into this important element of the tradition and its transmission across generations from a wonderful player steeped in its magic.

Neil Doherty, Robert Sproule and Matthew Buchanan

– Neighbours, Farmers and Fiddlers

Jim’s father, Neil Doherty, was born at the family farm in the townland of Legnahoorey (Lag na hÚraí in the Irish language),  just southwest of the village Kilmacrennan (Cill Mhic Néanáin in the Irish language). The 1911 Census of Ireland records a twelve year old Neil Doherty living with his widowed aunt, Nancy Gallagher, a farmer in the nearby townland of Letterfad. Given that it was very commonplace for children of that age to be fostered out to live with elderly, widowed or infirmed relations it is very likely this is the same Neil Doherty of Legnahoorey and likely to have been born around 1899.

Neil Doherty was a small farmer of the family lands in Legnahoorey. He was a renowned ploughman, a craft which was important and those who showed aptitude in ploughing were held in high esteem in the rural community. He began to play the fiddle at an early age and made great progress. Neil was invited to play for house dances by neighbouring farmers Robert Sproule and Matthew Buchanan. Sproule and Buchanan were both bachelor farmers and were known to be more interested in playing fiddles than farming. They had built a firm reputation as the fiddlers of choice for house dances in the locality.

Only one Robert Sproule is recorded in Donegal the 1901 Census of Ireland. He is listed as being a bachelor farmer of forty five years of age on March 31stof that year indicating a year of birth around 1856. He was living with his two sisters in the townland of Dromore (which appears mis-spelt in the 1901 online records as Dromone). Robert reappears in the 1911 Census with the correct spelling of the townland and again living with his two sisters. The recording of ages in the various census of this period was regularly not accurate for a variety of reasons and in 1911 Robert was listed as being sixty eight years of age indicating a year of birth around 1843. The 1856 year of birth is the more likely of the two. Robert is identified as having given the jig (listed as a cotillion, often used in Irish in Donegal as coitileán, to describe a jig) The Humours of Baile na Fead to Proinseas Mac Suibhne, a noted north Donegal fiddler of the late 1800s, who served as Padraig Mac Aodh O’Neill’s source for his transcription of the tune in Songs of Uladh (1904). Mac Aodh O’Neill confirms Robert’s place of residence as in the townland of Druim-mór (Dromore), Cill Mac nEnain [sic.] (Kilmacrennan).

A near neighbour in the same townland of Dromore and only a very short distance from Neil Doherty’s cottage in Legnahoorey during the 1901 Census of Ireland was Matthew Buchanan who was listed as the thirty year old son of Alexander and Eliza Buchanan along with Matthew’s older brother, John and sister, Annie. This would indicate a year of birth for Matthew around 1871. He appears with all of the latter relations except his sister, Annie, in the 1911 Census of Ireland where he is recorded as being thirty five years of age thus indicating a year of birth of 1876.

  Through his association with Robert Sproule and Matthew Buchanan in playing for house dances Neil Doherty quickly absorbed the old repertoire required to play for the various types of couple dance tunes popular with dancers in the locality. An excellent example of one such rare tune which was passed on to his son, Jim, which Neil learned from Sproule and Buchanan, was double jig, The Woodpecker. Given his age and known association with Robert Sproule and Matthew Buchanan, it is likely that he personally knew or at least had heard of the fiddlers documented by Padraig Mac Aodh O’Neill in Songs of Uladh. These included Proinseas Mac Suibhne and his father Seaghan, from the townland of Na Fanaibh (Fawans), Cill Mhic nÉanáin, (Kilmacrennan), Domhnaill An Tailliura Mór Mac Lochlann from the townland of Droim Leargaigh, (Drumlurgagh), Cill Mhic nÉanáin, (Kilmacrennan), Seumas O Domhnaill of Cluain Cille (Clonkilly) Cill Mhic nÉanáin, (Kilmacrennan), Aodh Gordon of Céise Líonáin (Casheleenan) Cill Mhic nÉanáin, (Kilmacrennan), Antoine Mac Suibhne of Bearnas, (Barnes), Tearmann (Termon) and Uilliam Ua Curthrainn of Gleann tSuile (Glenswilly). Another fiddler possibly known to Neil was Nabla Ní hAnlúain, who was living in the workhouse at Dunfanaghy in the early 1900s as she had been evicted from the Olphert Estate. Nabla was born in 1832. She appears in the 1901 Census as Bella Hanlon, a border in the cottage of Ellen McCafferty of Ardaigh Beaga, Gort a’ Choirce (Gortahork). Given that the fiddler Pádraig Mac Suibhne, brother of the piper and fiddler Tarlach Mac Suibhne, An Píobaire Mór, had lived for a long time in the area and was not long dead he and his famous brother, Tarlach, may have also been known to Neil.

Neil’s son, John, learned the fiddle from his father and began playing duets for local house dances with Paddy Toner from nearby Glen. Paddy was a skilled fiddler and the duet continued in great demand until Paddy left for Cork to undertake work there. With his playing partner gone and John taking up bouts of seasonal employment in Scotland his interest in fiddling diminished.

Family and Farming

A lifelong love of fiddle playing emerged in one of Neil’s younger sons, Jim.  Jim Doherty was born at the family home in Legnahoorey on June 10th, 1939. Growing up on the farm he was well honed in the agricultural practices of farming a small Donegal holding. He married happily and reared a family. Always humble, he was a well-respected and admired by his friends and neighbours.


Cairdeas na bhFidléirí wishes to express our sincerest thanks to the Doherty family for its support for this project. We wish to acknowledge kind assistance of Jackie Small, Terry Moylan and Pete Clarke in assisting with the identification of the tune titles for a number of the less well-known tunes played by Jim. Likewise, we are grateful to Patrick McBride of Mulroy Bay Music for sharing a number of tracks of Jim Doherty’s playing with us.
This project has been funded and made possible through Cairdeas na bhFidléirí’s Annual Strategic Grant from the Arts Council.
Arts Council Traditional Arts Fund