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

Music & Style

Jim Doherty's Music

  Naturally, a good deal of Jim’s repertoire and style would have been derived from his father, Neil and probably to some degree an inheritance from that of Robert Sproule and Matthew Buchanan. Some of the tunes such as The Woodpecker survived to the present day only through his playing. Others show a strong connection with the much older players of his wider area of north Donegal as captured in the 1904 collection Songs of Uladh by Padraig Mac Aodh O’Neill such as in Jim’s version of The Humours of Baile na Fead. As a fiddler raised very much in the Donegal tradition, his repertoire contains a good element of tunes derived from the strongly related Scottish tradition such as his highlands which originated as Scottish strathspeys. Not surprisingly his repertoire of highlands show many in common with other areas of Donegal, but again, subtle differences in the melodies reveal his local versions of the tunes. It is the same with Jim’s germans (or barndances) where there are also a number which have been known only from his playing. A number of tunes which most likely began life as the airs for songs have been transformed through the work of Donegal fiddlers to serve as dance tunes. Examples of these in Jim’s repertoire are The Peeler and the Goat/ An Gadhar Bhán and Finnegan’s Wake. Through his participation in sessions he also picked up other elements of his repertoire while tunes sourced from commercial recordings appear, such as Seán Ryan’s compositions The Dooney Rock jig and The Ballyoran Hornpipe, they are not abundant.

 Jim made a number of recordings in his later years. Some were done at home for his own pleasure, a few were recorded by Cairdeas na bhFidléirí during the annual Donegal Fiddlers’ Summer School in  Gleann Cholm Cille and others were made as part of an interview on his life and music by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh. These are the recordings which permit us to hear not only the rare tunes and versions of more familiar ones like Jim’s wonderful setting of Within a Mile of Dublin which tempts echoes of the great Tommie Potts, but also provides the experience of what a house dance fiddler would sound like. The titles of the tunes are those used himself. Where he did not have a name for the tune and there is a common title used by the fiddling community in Donegal, that title is used. Where Jim did not have a title and there is either none or a commonly used title in Donegal the tune is listed as a Gan Ainm (without title) as is the custom. Where titles appear in the Irish language and a spelling is somehow different from either modern Irish or current accepted spellings, these are listed in their original form. This is the case with both tune titles and personal names given by Padraig Mac Aodh O’Neill in Songs of Uladh.


Observations on Jim’s Playing Style

Naturally, house dance players were mainly required to play for dancers and not only a listening audience. As a result, with many house dance players of Jim’s generation and earlier, there was little use of melodic variation. Once he was satisfied he had the correct version of the melody, it was played repeatedly in that setting. This is confirmed by the fact that recordings, sometimes made years apart show virtual note for note playing.

A tempo and rhythm suitable for dancing was of the greatest importance in playing a tune. These recordings of Jim show that his idea of a melody was clear and that it was repeated throughout. It is interesting to note that recordings of the same tune made over long periods of time are played at very similar tempos.

Playing double stops on the accented notes is very rare in Jim’s music. Of the few examples of this in these recordings these fall on a fingered note and an adjacent open string and are convenient. Likewise, sustained double stopping, or ‘droning’ as well as playing a melody in different octaves or ‘reversing’ were absent in Jim’s playing though they were core elements of the fiddlers from other areas in County Donegal such as in the southwest of the county and the Croaghs.

The liberal use of ornamentation is a common feature of playing performance today. Jim’s playing made little use of ornamentation other than to influence the pulse of his music. While he could play rolls, he very rarely did and they are entirely absent in these tracks. Jim’s approach to crotchets which would otherwise invite the use of rolls was to simply play a crotchet, fill in the melodic sequence or alternatively play a triplet. Good examples of this approach can be seen in his playing of the two Seán Ryan compositions, Dooney Rock and The Ballyoran Hornpipe where in the former, he fills in crotchets with an appropriate sequence of notes while in the latter, rolls are substituted with triplets.

Jim used both types of grace notes or ‘cuts’. The first as seen before the third F# note in measure one of part two of German Gan Ainm track 5B separating two adjacent notes of the same pitch and accenting the second, or stressed note, of the two. The second type of cut is used to emphasise a stand-alone note falling on the beat as seen in the F# crotchet in the same. As noted above in the section on Transcriptions, this is written with two grace notes, the stressed note which is sounded for a fraction of a second followed by the upper ‘cutting’ or grace note with the main note then sounded. Jim’s use of cuts is not surprising as they are effective ornaments in establishing a pulse.

Jim uses three types of triplets. The first is a standard three note sequence of evenly timed notes which are written as a group of three notes with the number ‘3’ appearing above the group. These had a sound which reflects triplets employed in Scottish rhythms. Not surprisingly an example can be found in the last measure of the first part of Louden’s Bonnie Woods. Two other types of triplets played by Jim appear as a group of two semiquavers finished with a quaver. Jim plays these both with a slurred bow giving a legato sound, which is his preferred of the two, and secondly with detaché bowing giving a crisper sound. Traditional Irish musicians have a marked preference for these type triplets as opposed to the former. It is somewhat surprising to find Jim’s strong preference for slurred triplets of this nature as most Donegal fiddlers showed a preference for the detaché form. Jim’s choice may have been based on the need to provide a more flowing, and thus ‘danceable’, setting.

One of the standout tunes in Jim’s repertoire here is his playing of the reel, My Love is in America. It begs comparison with Tommie Potts’ hallmark version of the tune. Jim confirmed he had never heard a note of Tommie’s playing so Potts was clearly not his source for his version. It is often stated that ‘there are no crooked [tunes with otherwise additional measures or parts of measures] in Irish music’. This is not the case. Con Cassidy played Within a Mile of Dublin in a crooked setting. John Doherty played at least five tunes in crooked settings. Paddy Glackin’s version of one of the three jigs entitled Rí na bPíobairí as well as his version of Cherish the Ladies is crooked. Jim’s version of My Love is in America requires a change to 5/4 timing at measure four of the second part of the tune to accommodate an extra two quavers which introduce the subsequent measure. This, along with the key changes between the two contrasting parts of the tune, provides a stunning setting of an otherwise common reel.

Jim’s bowing for the most part is detaché with occasional slurred pairs contributing to the flow of the tune. Bowing marks indicate Jim’s general bowing. While they are indicative of his overall approach to bowing, each tune would have been seen him vary the use of the bow somewhat. His jig playing exhibits slurred bowing through groups of three quavers to break the detaché sound and a good example of this can be seen in his playing of Miss Casey. It is not surprising given the strong cross-fertilisation between traditional musicians in the northern counties of Ireland and Scotland that aspects of Scottish fiddle playing would be reflected in Jim’s music. Certain tunes with strong Scottish connections are delivered with what is known as the Scot’s Snap, a quintessential rhythmic device, should appear at times in his bowing. These occur mainly in his playing of highlands, strathspeys and germans.

This uncomplicated approach to playing may appear to produce a simplistic style of performance. What is marvellous about Jim Doherty’s music is the tunes are played in settings where the melodic line is truthful, devoid of unnecessary technical elements, a firm tempo and invested with an infectious rhythm learned in a social environment now effectively lost.


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