Jimmy Houston (1920-1995)
Castlefin and Drumkeen
Compiled by Martin McGinley. Uploaded – 5.10.20
Jimmy Houston was born in February 1920 in the townland of Ballybogan, along the main road just outside Castlefin heading for Lifford. The building can still be seen on the left, just across the road from Ballylast national school.
His mother Mary née McKinney was from nearby Tullyard. As it turned out, Jimmy would also marry a Mary McKinney.
Jimmy’s father John was originally from Drumkeen. He could dance and sing.
Jimmy’s sister Peggy Nelis says: “I remember my father used to sing ‘The Black Velvet Band’. I never heard it afterwards until Johnny McEvoy had it out. My father was dead at that time, and every time my mother heard it on the radio she would start to cry.”
Peggy thinks her father might have worked in a scutch mill, part of the linen-making process, at the time the family lived in Ballybogan. He got a job in Derry not long after Jimmy was born, and the family moved to Rosemount on the city side.
Peggy says, “Jimmy was fond of music from the start. I think he started on the tin whistle at school and used to be playing it to them in the schoolyard.”
Another job move for John Houston saw the family heading back to the Castlefin area when Jimmy was around eleven. After a spell living near the village of Clady, they settled in the townland of Fearn, close to the border in the area between Castlefin and Castlederg.
Jimmy was the eldest of five. Tom and Mary (Devine) have passed away. His youngest sisters Peggy Nelis and Gracie McConnell still live in Castlefin. Peggy was born in late 1932 and was around 13 years younger than Jimmy. She recalls Jimmy being “mad about the fiddle”.
“I mind him coming in from his work and before my mother could get his dinner on the table he would have the fiddle down from the wall and playing it. Then he would head down to the room to play.”
Peggy says Jimmy got the interest in the fiddle from hearing neighbours who would be in visiting, singing and play
ing. Someone would have a fiddle and would give him a go at it.
In his book ‘Between the Jigs and the Reels’(1994), Caoimhín MacAoidh says local musicians the Molloy brothers were inspirational for Jimmy.
“Their music astounded him and he lobbied hard to learn the fiddle. Not having an instrument of his own, the Molloys were happy to lend him their instruments to get him started.”
Peggy recalls, “My parents then saved up and got him his first fiddle. Mind you there wasn’t much money about that time, but I heard my mother saying that they saved two shillings a week. My father went to Derry and got the fiddle for a pound.”
She adds that Jimmy went for a time for a weekly lesson to a fiddle, or perhaps violin, teacher in Spamount, near Castlederg.
MacAoidh reports that, as well as the Molloys, other players Jimmy remembered from his early days as a fiddler included John James McGlinchey and his son, who lived within a mile of his own home. Jimmy thought they were very good fiddlers. He also came into contact with well-known fiddlers Johnnie Crampsie (Strabane) and Tommy Keenan (Aghyaran).
Jimmy also met frequently with the Harpers, also from Castlefin – Stephen, Barney and Pat.
“Steven only ever got called ‘Steen’,” says Peggy. “He was a great fiddle player.”
MacAoidh notes, “Jimmy has great time for these fiddlers and singles Stephen out as being the most exceptionally talented player of his generation.”
Stephen Harper was the grandfather of Bríd Harper, Castlefin, one of the outstanding fiddlers in Irish traditional music at present.
As Peggy remembers it, there were plenty of opportunities for fiddling in the area at that time.
“Jimmy and Sammy Mulligan, who played the fiddle, were great pals
. They were about the same age. Willie Waugh played the mandolin. They were all neighbours. The three of them had a group and they used to play in the wee parochial halls and Orange halls.”
Peggy says it was all country [traditional] dancing that time.
“I remember Jimmy saying that it was great to play in Kilclean [Orange] Hall because you got good pay and your supper as well.”
She says Jimmy was also in demand to play at concerts, for dancing and dancing classes, and for the nights of weddings and other occasions. There were dancing classes locally on Friday night, and a concert often on a Sunday night followed by an hour’s dancing. There were also get-togethers in houses.
“We called them ‘rakers’, the neighbours that used to visit round the houses at night. There would be card-playing. There might be dancing. They used to tell yarns at Hallowe’en, ghost stories. Different things in different houses – in our house it was mainly music that was in it, of course not every night. There was no tv. I was 12 years-old before we got a wireless [around 1944].
“Everybody lived the same. We hadn’t much. As the saying goes, we didn’t always get what we wanted but we got what we needed.”
As well as the local music scene, there was also traditional music on the wireless, and 78 rpm records. Peggy remembers two traditional music programmes on Radio Éireann that wouldn’t be missed in their house – ‘Take The Floor’ with Din Joe [Denis Fitzgibbon], which started in 1953, and ‘Céilí House’, which also started in the 50s and is still going strong. In those early days before television the ‘Céilí House’ listenership was said to exceed one million.
78s of Irish traditional music, ballads and other forms of music became popular in Ireland through the 1930s and 1940s
Peggy says, “My father bought a gramophone player and used to buy 78s of Delia Murphy and people like that. But if Jimmy was buying a record it had to be Michael Coleman. A lot of people through the country that time had the gramophone. They all swopped the records with one another.”
RTÉ began regular television broadcasts with a countdown to the New Year on 31st December 1961.
Peggy says that eventually, the television programmes brought an end to the visiting around the houses.
“Television took all the friendship away,” she comments.
Peggy recalls relatives who were fiddlers – her mother’s uncles, James and Patrick Doherty. They were from that same border area outside Castlefin. They emigrated to the United States. A sister Sarah also went to the US but returned to the locality and married Felix McHugh.
“All I remember is that anytime they came home there were parties. I mind my grand-aunt Sarah playing the concertina and singing. I remember thinking of it as a ‘wee round thing’. The accordions were square. I was very young.”
Caoimhín MacAoidh says that Patrick Doherty was one of the noted players in the area. In the US he lived to see his 110th birthday.
Jimmy Houston married a woman from the Alt, Castlefin, Mary McKinney, when he was 27. He worked locally and also for a time in Scotland. The couple moved from Castlefin to Lettermore, Drumkeen, after he inherited the farm owned by his father’s family. Jimmy began working with Donegal County Council.
Jimmy and Mary had six children, the first three born before the move to Drumkeen – John, who died some years ago; Kathleen (Gallinagh), now living in Dublin, who learned the fiddle; Mary (Duffy), Donemana; Brid (Maguire), Ballybofey; Grace (Wilkie), Letterkenny; and Teresa (Barron). Teresa was her dad’s playing partner for many years on accordion, and now lives in Letterkenny.
Teresa says she was told that in his early days her father cycled everywhere with the fiddle.
She says that after her father started work, he decided to get himself a better fiddle. He gave his first fiddle to someone locally in Castlefin who was learning to play. It turned up many years later in the attic of the family of another fine Castlefin fiddler, Matt McGranaghan.
Teresa started learning piano accordion at the age of about ten. She remembers John Bonner, also from Drumkeen, starting banjo at around the same time. Jimmy would teach them both tunes.
“My father had a very big repertoire of tunes. He had that O’Neill’s book, the big yellow one [O’Neill’s Music of Ireland: Eighteen Hundred and Fifty Melodies], and he would be taking that down. He would teach us tunes like The Rakes of Mallow and The Humours of Glendart.”
She said Jimmy frequently picked up tunes from O’Neill’s.
“He loved difficult keys, Bb, F. He liked the key of A and even E. He was a rare musician. He would say, ‘We’ll try this tune in this key’, swopping the key. In sessions he would sometimes play a tune an octave above, or an octave below.
“He loved sound and dynamics. He liked to ‘rise’ the next tune and give a lift to the set.”
She said her father used to advise that after you learned a tune, you should “put your own twist on it”.
Teresa said she heard her father talk of the ‘Sligo Masters’ of the 78 era, Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran.
“His inspiration was Seán McGuire, number one. He also loved Andy McGann’s style of playing. I remember we went over to a session in Crossroads one time to see Andy McGann and my father was so excited. It was like meeting Elvis.”
She adds that he had a friend, Hughie Boyle, who would send him reel-to-reel tapes from the US, featuring the likes of Andy McGann.
Teresa says Jimmy was also very fond of Scottish music.
Teresa says that musicians regularly visited the house, including Tommy Peoples, George Peoples and a young Brian Conway on holiday from the US. Brian has family connections in Plumbridge, above Strabane. John Doherty visited on at least one occasion.
“I remember that one time Paddy Tunney, Mrs Tunney, dad and myself went up to Carrick to see John Doherty. It was the time he was staying in the pub [Doc’s]. When we got there, Johnny wouldn’t come out. My father said, ‘That’s Johnny’.”
Teresa said that when she was growing up, she and her father went out to sessions regularly. There were Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann sessions monthly in Crossroads, Killygordon; in Letterkenny; and in Glenfin. There was also the regular session in the Central Hotel in Raphoe.
“There was something so lovely about the Raphoe session. Everyone mucked in, and it was so relaxed. It wasn’t competitive at all.”
Teresa remembers excellent music at the Crossroads session in the 1970s.
“There were the five Harpers [including the fiddlers Bríd and Siobhán] and the three Kellys [Tommy on fiddle, Bernard accordion, and their father Frank, fiddle]. They were all fantastic musicians. Myself, my father and John Bonner would also be playing.”
Teresa adds that she and her father “played an awful lot of concerts”, often with John Bonner on banjo.
“I remember one concert in Gaoth Dobhair when Clannad were also playing and John Doherty was the star of the show.”
MacAoidh mentions that Jimmy met both John and Mickey Doherty on a routine basis, and was particularly fond of Mickey’s playing.
Teresa says, “My father always said that Mickey was the better fiddler.”
Mickey Doherty was long-time resident in Ballybofey with his family before his death in 1970. John Doherty stayed for a period in Stranorlar in the 1970s.
Teresa adds that her father was part of the Tirconnail Céilí Band that played in the All-Ireland. The band included Frank Kelly, John Bonner, Seán Lee, Patsy Wilson and Mary Smith (a fiddler from the west of Ireland living in Castlefin at the time).
Other musicians Jimmy had tunes with included John Bonner’s father Neilly (accordion), Drumkeen locals Norah Gallagher (fiddle) and her brother Andy (accordion), and ‘Tricky’ McGeehan (drums/percussion).
Teresa also mentions a fiddler from Drumkeen called Seán Bradley, who emigrated to Birmingham. Sean played in the Birmingham Céilí Band and also ran Comhaltas dance classes in the city.
Jimmy’s sister Peggy says that Jimmy also enjoyed socialising outside the music, though he wasn’t a drinking man. He would go for a few drinks to the local in Drumkeen, Rosie Bonner’s, at the weekend.
Teresa says she remembers her father playing often for dancing for well-known dance schools in Donegal and Derry. In later years she joined him and it was a great way for her to learn tunes and also to get a strong sense of the rhythm.
“My father had the greatest timing for Irish dancing, “ she says. “Playing at a féis could feel sometimes like a long, boring day, but the timing gave you the greatest insight into, say, the likes of the slip jig.”
She said the parents involved would sometimes try and blame the musicians for playing too fast or slow for their children dancing.
“My father would take that with a pinch of salt. He said if the dancers could dance, they’d ‘fall into’ the timing.”
Another friend of Jimmy’s was the singer Paddy Tunney.
“Paddy was a big man in our house,” says Teresa. “He would turn the chair round the other way and start singing – and could go on for a while. My father didn’t sing but he had great respect for Paddy. I remember the two of them went down to Drumshanbo one time to adjudicate. My father would have known a good player – he’d say ‘tuning, toning and timing’ were what he looked for.”
Teresa and her husband Noel, who live in Letterkenny, had three sons and three daughters. Two of the daughters learned to play – Niamh (“a good wee fiddler, maybe she’ll start up again”) and Fiona.
“Fiona played the flute and had the ‘bug’, she was a fabulous player,” says Teresa.
Sadly Fiona died on 29th January, 2012, when she was just 21.
Jimmy Houston retired from Donegal County Council at 65. His form of transport for much of his working life was a Honda 50 or similar. He never had a car.
Teresa said he didn’t enjoy good health in retirement.
His sister Peggy recalls that Jimmy and Mary came back to live in Castlefin a couple of years before he died.
“I suppose the family were all away and the wee house [in Castlefin village] was on the market. Mary couldn’t walk very well. It brought them back to their own country where they were reared.”
In his final years, Jimmy was still playing music, and still passing it on. Peggy says he would sometimes go to the sessions held regularly in the home of John and Shiela McElhinney, near Lifford. Peggy also remembers a young Matt McGranaghan coming to Jimmy’s house in Castlefin on a Saturday morning.
“If you put the fiddle case up on its end it was bigger than Matthew,” she says.
Teresa says that a ‘big’ tune Jimmy would have suggested to Matt at that time was the reel Lord Gordon’s.
The Houstons remained independent and were happy in their new home, Peggy says. Jimmy Houston died in March 1995 at the age of 75. His wife Mary died seven years later.
1 MacAoidh, 1994, p. 213
2 MacAoidh, 1994, p. 213
3 MacAoidh, 1994, p. 213
4 Figures quoted by RTÉ producer and piper Peter Browne in the 2004 All-Ireland Fleadh programme, https://comhaltas.ie/music/treoir/detail/ceili_house/ Accessed 8.9.2020
5 MacAoidh, C. (1994), p.212
6 MacAoidh, p.211
Jimmy Houston – reel