The quiet man of Irish folk music. Click Play Audio to listen to 'The Homes of Donegal'
Seán Donnelly will be appearing at the Belfast Book Festival alongside Gerry Anderson in a reading and music session at the Linen Hall Library on February 27. The following article (which has been edited) is published with the kind permission of Scottish magazine, The Living Tradition, and written by John O'Regan.
Seán Donnelly's voice echoes the locality of his native Tyrone. Without wishing to resort to cliché, his is the real folk voice of Northern Ireland. When Andy Irvine referred to him as the 'real thing' he was not joking.
I first heard Donnelly on RTE Radio 1 in 1987. The first thing that hit me was that his voice had a lived-in quality that summoned up an image of an elderly man, someone like older source singers such as Geordie Hanna and Paddy Tunney. You can imagine my surprise when Austin Durack (of Radio Clare FM) showed me the cover of Donnelly's On Breezes Fresh and Fair album. I saw Bobby Hanvey's sleeve photos of a middle 40s man with a red jumper clutching his Lowden guitar, caught in action at Newry Arts Center.
On my first visit [to Northern Ireland] in 1991, I missed hearing Donnelly perform at the Belfast Folk Festival, but I knew I had to meet this man sometime. One year later in September 1992, I met Donnelly in Belfast and spent time with him and his wife Elizabeth in Newcastle. This meeting increased my realization that here was one of the real unsung talents of Irish music.
Donnelly was born in a village called Killyclogher near Omagh. Growing up in a musical family, where the weekly rambling house session was a regular feature of family and social life, Donnelly was surrounded by music and songs. His father Michael was a singer from whom he absorbed many traditional songs.
Donnelly's day job took him to Belfast in the late 60s, working in Eastwood's Shoe Store in North Street. By day, he would manage the store. Night-time found him in folk clubs including one club situated above Bryson's House, run by Robin Morton and frequented by Cathal McConnell and Tommy Gunn. He also visited the Sunflower Folk Club run by Geoff Harden, first as a floor singer and later as featured guest.
In 1973, Donnelly got married to Elizabeth, an artist from Kilkeel, County Down and soon the family moved from Belfast to Newcastle. He had by now achieved a considerable local following and made lasting impressions in the folk club and festival worlds. His recording career was initiated by the death of his father Michael in 1986.
'My mother was on her own at home and although she never sang herself, said to me one day, ‘I miss the singing and the music’,' Donnelly recalls. 'So I thought, as a Christmas present to her, I would make a tape of a couple of songs that she could play at home. That was how I first met Colum and Tommy Sands.'
While recording some songs at Spring Studios in Rostrevor, Colm noticed something in Donnelly's voice and asked his brother to come in and listen. Impressed, they later said that they would like him to record a full album. Thus, Donnelly's first album, One Day We Saw the Sun emerged in 1987 on cassette through Spring Records.
The album was sold locally and unfortunately is now out of print. It created a sufficiently good impression to appeal to radio and press journalists including Neil Johnston in the Belfast Telegraph, who raved about this new discovery from west Tyrone.
Sets at the Belfast Folk Festival and Ballyshannon Folk Festival followed and soon Donnelly was in Spring Studios recording his second album, On Breezes Fresh and Fair. He carved a niche in Scotland and in the English south counties folk clubs, made countless radio broadcasts and appeared on TV folk music programmes in Ireland, Scotland and the UK.
While Donnelly's repertoire includes Irish traditional songs, especially those with which he grew up, and contemporary material, he has become synonymous in the north of Ireland for 'The Homes of Donegal'. 'The old song had been around for years,' he explains. 'However, people were saying that it seemed as if they had heard it for the first time.'
When Donnelly re-recorded it much later on another album, Like a Morning Star Fading, Eamon Friel and Gerry Anderson (both on Radio Ulster) picked it up. Anderson used the song on his playlist so frequently that recording giant EMI included it on their Rare Oul Times compilation album that reached the Irish charts in 1999. This was an achievement for an independent artist from the north of Ireland who was largely unknown down south at the time.
Donnelly continued to play major folk festivals including Belfast, Rostrevor and Ballyshannon at home and toured in England, Scotland the USA and Germany. Two more albums followed, Live at the Fiddlers Green International Festival and the gorgeous Erin's Lovely Home. Then tragedy struck with the death of his eldest son Michael in 1998.
Michael's death sent Donnelly's world into a spin and began a prolonged period of grief. The release of Like A Morning Star Fading helped lift the veil, but Donnelly gradually withdrew from music and performing. Eventually he succumbed to private despair and depression and had to seek professional counseling.
Once more 'The Homes of Donegal' rescued him. Gerry Anderson continued playing it on BBC Radio Ulster, Fr Brian D'arcy visited him and challenged Donnelly to start performing again, and gradually the musical rehabilitation of Seán Donnelly began.
Salvation came through the family ranks again - his son, Sean Óg, a joiner, prompted Donnelly to help him turn a back shed into a new gallery/studio for Elizabeth's artwork and Seán threw himself into the rebuilding process. When completed they found the building's acoustics fitted musical gatherings and Donnelly devised the idea of occasional drop in sessions along the lines of the old Rambling House.
Recently Donnelly stepped back into the concert arena, appearing at the Craic Theatre in Coalisland and An Creagain Centre. The fallow period now over, he has the hunger back to tour again and is anxious to regain lost ground on the Scottish and English folk circuits. 'I hope people might still remember me when I send out the begging letters to see if they'd be interested in having me sing at their clubs!' he jokes.
In the words of Tommy Sands: 'There is a gentleness in the man's voice and a kindness in the guitar that un-wrinkles the mind and body and you are glad you came along.' Donnelly is back on stage performing in front of captive audiences. Ireland's quiet man has returned.
For more information, or to order Donnelly's albums, log on to www.seandonnellyfolkmusic.com.