John Douglas (1957-)

Compiled by Martin McGinley. Uploaded 7.10.20

The fiddling in the Douglas family was handed on to John. Born in 1957, John grew up in Legnathraw, St Johnston, with his brothers Eunan, Eddie and Patrick, and his sister Vera, who was fond of singing.

John’s journey on the fiddle started when he was seven or eight with his father Paddy. Then he and another boy from close by, John McGill, went to Tommy Peoples’s house every week for a while.

“Tommy was teaching us by the music and he was a good teacher, but we were at that age when we were probably play-acting. Tommy was good fun himself. I remember us coming down the brae at Kinnycally one time with Tommy on his bicycle, with John on the seat and me on the handlebars.

“The last time I visited Tommy, not long before he died, I remember thinking that the house was very much as I remember. I used to enjoy crack with his mother Mary Ellen. His father was Tam. They used to be sitting beside the fire. That was the room that Tommy was in.

“My memory was getting the tea. Mary Ellen couldn’t give you enough, she would kill you with kindness.”

John also remembers a press upstairs in the house which was filled with fiddles, probably belonging to Tommy’s uncle Mattha, also a fiddler. 

Tommy Peoples left for Dublin in the mid-‘60s. After that John and his father Paddy would go to John McGill’s house for a tune. John McGill would visit their house. The two Johns would also go occasionally to the home of Joe Cassidy, Tommy Peoples’s cousin, who taught Tommy the fiddle. They would play for Joe. John thought Joe was a good fiddler. He thinks Joe might have played the mandolin as well.

At one point John was also going for mandolin lessons to Eddie Gibson in Castletown. Eddie, the husband of Tommy Peoples’ sister Monica, died some years ago. 

At the age of 16 or 17, John started going to Raphoe for fiddle lessons with Mick McElkenny, who was sergeant in the town. 

“He worked with me on the music notation and used to write me out tunes,” says John. 

Mick was also a regular at the Central Hotel sessions. He’s well-known for being a garda bodyguard for President John F. Kennedy during his visit to Ireland in 1963. He’s now in his late 80s and living in the Glenshane Pass area of County Derry.

When John Douglas was 15 he started playing with his brother-in-law, singer and guitarist James McColgan, in a group called ‘White Lightning’. They played the lounges around Donegal and also through the North; two or three nights in winter, at times every night in summer. They played Irish songs and country songs, with the occasional tune. 

John was with the group for 18 years, and then went on to do other band work. He didn’t play many Irish traditional sessions until he started going to Sligo several years ago.

“We went down just to stay but then I heard the music and I got hooked on it,” he says. Before the Covid lockdown John and his wife Lorna were going down to Sligo regularly. He would sometimes sit in on the Thursday night trad session in ‘Shoot the Crows’, a well-known music pub in the centre of Sligo.

Lorna was originally McLaughlin from Ballaghderg, Letterkenny. The family moved there from Manorcunningham when she was young. Her late father Tommy played the bass drum in the pipe band in Manor.

There are three adult children in the next generation of the Douglas connection, Mandy, Vanessa and Sean. John says he taught Sean a few tunes when he was younger but he didn’t continue with it. However there’s a bit of interest in music in the next generation – a grandchild Patrick has started playing guitar. 

It’s about twenty years since John decided to have a go at making fiddles.

“Dermot Toland [guitarist living in Gortahork] gave me a book on it and I read it front to back and then bought it myself. I’ve made a few fiddles over the years.”

John’s house in the Glencar area of Letterkenny is a showcase of instruments he’s made himself, including violins, a viola, dobros and guitars. 

He has another violin on the way at the moment. He’s also making a CD for the family as a keepsake. It’s mainly of traditional tunes, backed by piano player Sean Kerrigan. It includes some of his own compositions, including a catchy Bb hornpipe called ‘The Magpie’s Waistcoat’ and the tuneful ‘Lorna’s Waltz’ for his wife.

Because John has scarcely played on the ‘trad’ scene locally in the decades since the Raphoe session, he’s one of Donegal fiddling’s best-kept secret.

1 Interview with Caoimhin MacAoidh, 24.9.20


John Douglas 1 Reel With James McColgan, recorded Central Hotel, Raphoe, in late 1970s

John Douglas The Magpie’s Waistcoat hornpipe (CD) Recorded September 2020’. Piano – Seán Kerrigan