Hall of Fame - Derek Bell

One of Belfast's most gifted musicians

In some ways, the late Derek Bell bridged the gap between classical and traditional music, just as Sean Ó Riada, the founding father of The Chieftains, had – an area also explored by others such as Belfast composers Shaun Davey and Neil Martin.

Indeed, Bell’s earliest introduction to music came because his parents feared he would go blind – which would have brought him into another select group, the blind harpers of old. He was surrounded by musical toys and developed an early interest which helped produce a child prodigy, composing his first piano concerto when he was just twelve.

He went to the Royal College of Music in London and studied under many of the world’s leading teachers, becoming proficient on a wide range of instruments including oboe, horn, cor anglais, hammered dulcimer and various keyboard instruments. His varied talents were soon appreciated in the classical world and he played all these instruments at various times with many of the world’s best-known orchestras.

He was almost thirty before he took up the harp, the instrument that was to change his life. In 1965 he joined the BBC’s Northern Ireland Orchestra, playing both harp and oboe. Alan Tongue, who was in charge of the orchestra, introduced him to The Chieftains and he played on their fourth album, released in 1973. Without ever being asked to become a member of the band, he just found himself being asked to play at all their concerts and eventually became a full-time member.

Derek had an impish sense of humour. When he was in the BBC, he took great delight during breaks in running up the stairs to the canteen, pressing all the lift buttons on the way to make sure he got there first. On stage, he formed a virtual double act with Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney, who always referred to him as ‘Ding Dong’ Bell. He also displayed both his sense of humour and his musical versatility on a multi-instrumental album, Derek Bell Plays With Himself.

He also struck up a close friendship with Van Morrison after the collaboration between the singer and the band on Irish Heartbeat. The pair would often go drinking together and Derek accompanied Morrison on piano during several intimate performances, notably at a literature festival in Londonderry and at a couple of unique ‘question and answer’ sessions in Coleraine.

Despite a rigorous touring schedule with The Chieftains, Derek Bell continued to work on occasion with the Northern Ireland Orchestra, to record a succession of solo albums (in various styles) and to compose classical music. Among other things he wrote two symphonies and three piano sonatas. His Three Images of Ireland in Druid Times, written for harp, strings and timpani, was premiered in 1992 with the Boston College Chamber Orchestra.

He was awarded the MBE in 2000 but just two years later, on October 17, 2002, he unexpectedly died in Phoenix, Arizona.

Paddy Moloney is determined that his legacy will live on through younger musicians. 'Derek often mentioned to me about starting something like this,' said Paddy. 'He got various scholarships himself when he was starting up. So I approached Micheal O Súilleabháin about the idea of a Chieftains/Derek Bell scholarship for young musicians and now we are putting it into the Limerick University.' One way or another, one of Belfast’s most gifted musicians will not be forgotten. 

Geoff Harden