George Peoples (1908-1988)
Compiled by Martin McGinley.
Martin McGinley hears about the life and times of the fiddle and singer George Peoples.
St Johnston, lunchtime, Tuesday 24.2.15
I’m past the turn-off for Ard Baithin in St Johnston, on my way from Derry to the Twin Towns to try and find out about family members of the great travelling fiddler Mickey Doherty. Then I think of George Peoples and decide to go back.
A few minutes later I’m sitting in front of a fine fire and chatting to George’s daughter Susan, her husband John and their son George, a man in his forties, named of course after his grandfather.
We are around the corner from 207 Árd Baithin, where George and his wife Kathleen (nee Devenny) brought up their family of seven after moving in from what Kathleen called the ‘wee tun’, the townland of Kinny Cally (see earlier comments), in the heart of fiddle country a mile or two from the village.
The move was around 1951, and Árd Baithin had just been built.
George Peoples was born in the townland of Rockfield outside St Johnston on the 22nd June, 1908. He died a couple of months after his eightieth birthday, on 16th June, 1988. He was the son of a local ‘scutcher’, John, and Ellen, who was from Argery, Ballindrait, a few miles away.
He began his working life in the Glentown slate quarry near where he was brought up. Later he worked in a flax mill locally.
Susan’s not sure how he picked up the fiddle.
“I remember we were at the shopping centre in Letterkenny and a woman said, ‘You’re George Peoples’. She asked him how long he’d been playing the fiddle. He said, ‘I started when I was six and I’m 79 and I’m still learning.’”
George also played flute with the Kinny Cally Flute Band, and could take a tune out of the mouth organ. He was highly-regarded as a singer.
Susan remembers hearing her father singing and playing regularly in the house, and people visiting for sessions.
“He used to go upstairs and sit on the bed and play there.”
Favourite tunes she remembers include, the Boys of Bluehill hornpipe and the reel The Mason’s Apron. She didn’t hear him play many slow airs, it was always the dance tunes.
She says he went off once to play on Radio Éireann in Athlone and was accompanied by a Seán Hughes from Galway on the guitar.
“It was in the paper, my sister kept the clipping. We heard it on the radio.”
Grandson George says BBC Northern Ireland television also recorded George playing in the local ‘Hole in the Wall’ pub, although the family never saw the programme being broadcast.
Musician friends locally included Bob Patterson, an accordion player and shoemaker from Main Street, and the fiddler Bob Peoples.
Susan says, “He talked a lot about Bob [Peoples], he got some of those old Scotch tunes from him.” Joe Cassidy was another well-known local fiddler – “Joe taught a lot of people round here”.
Tommy Peoples’ father Tam also played the fiddle.
“Tam used to beat time with his foot and my father would say, Tam, you’ll be dead ten years before that foot stops tapping.”
She adds, “John Bovaird was a great friend of his and lived next door but one. He knew a lot of Scotch stuff on the accordion and my father got tunes from him.”
Those who came for sessions when Susan was young included the Kincaids and the Ponsonbys, who were from Letterkenny. Some of the sessions went on through the night.
“They’d be playing when we went to bed and they’d still be there in the morning.”
Susan says some well-known musicians stayed at 207 Ard Baithin, particularly in the years after the children had left home. The well-known singer and musician from Strabane, Paul Brady, was one visitor. The renowned fiddler Jim McKillop used to stay from time to time. Other regular visitors included the gifted young fiddler Jimmy McBride from Greysteel, an All-Ireland senior fiddle winner in 1983. He died in a road crash outside Raphoe the following year at just 22. Buncrana fiddler Dinny McLaughlin also used to call in.
“I remember one day somebody came in and said, there’s a man at the door. My father said, tell them to go away. But when he went to the door, I heard him saying, ‘I haven’t seen you for ages’, and he came in and said, ‘Children run out and play because we have music to talk about here.’ I think it was Mickey Doherty or one of the Dohertys.”
Susan doesn’t think her father read or wrote music, but says he was very quick to pick up tunes and songs.
“I remember him saying about [the song] ‘The Queen of the Sion Mills’ that he only heard it the once and he could sing it.”
She says George had songs he didn’t like, including ‘The Homes of Donegal’, written by local schoolmaster Seán McBride, originally from Cruit Island, whose house was a stone’s throw from Árd Baithin.
“Then there was ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘The Old Bog Road’, he’d have been out through the window if somebody started them.”
George and Kathleen had seven children. Five are now dead , and at relatively young ages – Johnny (died at 42), Ned (58), Bridget (57), Mary (48) and Ellen (41). James is now in St Joseph’s Home in Stranorlar, and that’s where Susan was headed after our chat.
Susan says her mother paid in to Walton’s in Dublin for an accordion for Ned.
“He was powerful. He learned it himself and played it for years.”
George’s wife Kathleen died on 13th February 1965 at the age of 54. George now had sole responsibility for the seven children.
George rarely left Donegal, although he did attend the Lammas Fair in Ballycastle on at least a couple of occasions. Susan says she went with him on the bus one year and he was immediately inveigled into the pub to play tunes. That evening she could hardly get him released to go for the bus.
“I said, ‘Never again’.”
Susan’s husband John says he went to the Fair with George the following year and they missed the bus and had to get a taxi home from Ballycastle.
After playing a session or two in the famed Glen Bar in Glen, near Carrigart, George struck up a friendship with the owners, Jimmy and Mary McLaughlin.
“He said, ‘For the first time in 70 years I’m going on holiday’, and he headed off to the Glen Bar for about three weeks.”
George Peoples – Boys of Ballisodare (reel)
George Peoples Swallow’s Tail (reel set)