County Down's Dancing Days

A new book by musician and amateur historian Nigel Boullier documents the county's little-known musical heritage

During daylight hours, Bangor man Nigel Boullier focuses his mind on the puzzles and problems that go hand in hand with a busy career as a civil engineer. In the evenings those hands are engaged in stresses and strains of a different kind – playing traditional fiddle music.

In the four decades since first taking up the banjo and playing regularly at sessions in Balloo and Comber, Boullier has learnt to make and play his own fiddle under the watchful eye and ear of his mentor, the late Jackie Donnan from Shrigley.

And, for almost 30 years, he has been collecting the stories of the musicians, the music and the dances of County Down. The results of all that effort are to be found in his newly published book, Handed Down: Country Fiddling and Dancing in East and Central Down.

'It started purely by chance back in 1976 when a number of fiddlers from east Down, where I was learning my music, went to a fiddle seminar in Newry,' explains Boullier. 'In the discussions about Northern fiddle styles, County Down wasn’t mentioned at all.

'It was as if there wasn’t any tradition here. But, having known quite a few fiddlers who would have been a generation older than me, it was quite obvious that there was a tradition. So I began writing down interesting yarns and tunes.'

Initially Boullier gathered stories and songs for his own benefit. However, it gradually became a much more important task. 'In 1993, after years of playing the banjo, I took up the fiddle,' Boullier comments.

'The older musicians I was with began to share their tunes, stories and photographs with me. I realized the importance of this resource, and that if I didn’t gather it, it would be lost.'

According to Boullier, styles of fiddle playing can be likened to regional accents. So what makes Down distinctive? 'In County Down fiddle playing, there would tend to be more use of the bow, less ornamentation and rolls,' Boullier explains. 'Broadly speaking the music has a steadier pace along with a phrasing that fits in with the local style of dancing.'

Sifting through Boullier’s book, there is a wealth of evidence to illustrate the importance of dance in the lives of the people. As far back as 1767, classes were being advertised in the Belfast Newsletter. Dancing masters such as John Lawler, John Dumont, Thomas William Betterton and Thomas Moorehead were tutoring the fashionable dances of the time.

In March 1796, one newspaper listing from Moorehead states that he 'Respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentlemen of Lisburn and its Vicinity' of his availability to teach a 'Variety of SCOTCH, IRISH, and FRENCH DANCES, MINUETS &c'.

In the 1830s country dances, reels and quadrilles were reported as being as popular as cock fighting and card playing in counties Down and Antrim. People would gather at crossroads, houses and halls to entertain themselves. For part-time musicians who came from a variety of occupations, playing at such gatherings helped augment their income. One survey of fiddlers born prior to 1930 showed that most were farmers or farm labourers.

'I would still go to the occasional house dance in Down,' says Boullier. 'The emphasis is more on the dancing than the music. There would be two or three of us jammed in the corner playing for the dancers.'

In Handed Down, Boullier points out that the music and dance of the county is drawn from both the unionist and nationalist communities. The formation of the Irish language organization Conradh na Gaelige (the Gaelic League) in 1890 and the establishment of the Irish Fee State in 1922 began a perceptible shift in the shared cultural tradition.

House dance


'Certain dance forms went out of vogue because in the view of the Gaelic League they were deemed to be foreign,' Boullier points out. 'Mazurkas were dropped, while jigs that had a long history in Ireland were favorably regarded.'

The Free State’s 1935 Public Dance Hall Act – described as a collusion between the clergy, police and judiciary but which had no jurisdiction over Northern Ireland – gave police the power to break up house dances in an effort to encourage people to attend formally organized dances instead.

'As dances moved from house dances to larger halls, together with the growing culture of ceili bands, one or two fiddlers became replaced by several musicians playing a variety of instruments,' Boullier adds. 'However, in more remote areas of rural Ireland and Ulster, people continued doing what they had always done. The dance forms of the 1850s remained in the culture. Unionist halls just kept going while parochial halls went in a slightly different direction with more ceili bands coming in.'

In Handed Down you can gauge the popularity of music and dance from the Orange Halls in parishes such as Taughblane, Ballyvicknakelly to Mrs Denvir’s Temperance Hotel, Downpatrick, Ballela Parochial Hall and hundreds of homes throughout the county where music, dance and hospitality were present in equal measure.

While the mutual admiration and respect of musicians towards one another remains, Boullier does not witness much of a common thread between the traditions now. 'I’ve been scooting about both since I was a teenager and I’m not aware of anyone else doing that. The culture in the Orange Halls has never been ring fenced and defined in the way that Irish traditional music is, where people have a fair idea of what constitutes its components.

'In the culture in the Orange Halls, there were no rules. You ended up with a melting pot, diluted massively by popular culture coming from the outside. People did what they wanted to do. If someone came down with a dance they have seen in Belfast or on holiday, they’d give it a go. You’d go in and after some sequence dancing, a 200-year-old square dance would be called. It’s a complete mixture.'

Boullier’s book lists out more than 300 fiddlers, many of whom come from dynasties of renowned musicians. Among them you learn about the Flavelles of the Spa, the McElroys of Legananny and Drumnaquoile, and the Savages of Derryboye.

Each rich story is surpassed by yet another. Willie ‘the nail’ Wallace (pictured below) died tragically when he fell off his bicycle at the top of Artana Hill, Waringsford on his way home to his second wife Sarah Jane, nicknamed ‘the hisser’.

The William Savage Memorial Flute Band from Killyleagh is named after ‘Toye’ Willie Savage, who passed away aged 75 in 1956. Toye William was one of the most accomplished dance music fiddlers to ever come out of east Down.

'There were that many Savages in the area. They had to have nicknames to tell them apart. ‘Toye William’ lived around the corner from Toye Orange Hall. His cousin Jimmy was known as Postman Johnnie’s James because his father had been a postman,' laughs Boullier.

'Another Jimmy Savage played in the Craigarusky String Band formed by Jimmy McCleary in the 1920s. McCleary had been gored by a bull and had lost his right arm, so he played the box upside down with the instrument strapped to the stump.' And the stories go on. Thankfully, Nigel Boullier has collected each for posterity.

Handed Down: Country Fiddling and Dancing in East and Central Down is out now, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation.