This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2006/2007 issue

My friend and bandmate Mary McLaughlin recently returned from visiting family in her native Northern Ireland, hitting the ground with tunes in her head and a handbag stuffed with CDs.  The tunes and the CDs were from Donegal, that north-westernmost Irish county that too many American traditional music fans miss when visiting Dublin and Clare, searching for the cool sessions.  The CD that Mary gave me provided an immediate and wonderful reminder of how rare and fiercely idiosynchratic the Donegal tradition is.

James Byrne of Glencolmcille in the Donegal Gaeltacht (or Irish-speaking district) is one heck of a fiddler, as a generation of Altan fans already know if they bothered to read the tiny credit lines on their Altan CDs.  Though not in the band, Byrne is credited as a tune source on five of Altan’s eight albums—nice global cultural intrusion for a quiet guy who rarely travels far from his remote village.  His only solo recording, 1990’s “The Road to Glenlough”, showcases a little more of his value to the larger Celtic world.  These days, regional Celtic styles are swiftly morphing into one another or disappearing entirely.  But James Byrne is Donegal through and through, a lifetime spent in one spot, music passed from father to son (and from local masters like the legendary Johnny Doherty), and weird and wonderful tunes and dances preserved that have faded from memory even in neighboring Irish counties.

There’s no shortage of reels and jigs (single, double, and slip) in our American pub sessions today.  Hornpipes and waltzes remain popular, as do occasional slow airs and regional oddities like Kerry slides.  But when was the last time you sat in an Irish session and heard someone pull out a highland, mazurka or quadrille; a cotillion, barndance or German schottishe?  All of these dances, some popular for over a century, are still played up there in Donegal.  They’re even writing new ones.  It seems a shame for the rest of us to ignore them.

The tunes I found most immediately interesting on James Byrne’s CD were the highlands.  It’s no surprise that Donegal and western Scotland share considerable cultural and musical history.  But these 4/4 dances seem perfectly balanced between the broader brushstrokes of Irish and Scottish traditions.  Some Donegal fiddlers use the terms “schottische” and “fling” interchangeably with “highland”, but the way Byrne plays them, they don’t seem quite as “flingy” as the way Scots Highland players play flings, yet they retain a subtle snap, or echo of a strathspey, preventing them from ever being mistaken for either Irish reels or hornpipes.

One of the highlands sets Byrne recorded he titles simply “Mick Carr’s”.  These are tunes he literally picked up in his own parlor.  But you’ve got to hear Byrne tell it in his own voice.  In 1995, fiddler-writer Michael Robinson visited with him and asked: “Did you just visit people and play tunes?  Was there playing for dances in those days, or anything like that?  Going to the pub?”  To which Byrne replied:

“Oh, there was no such thing as going to a pub to play at all in them days. No, that was long after that when the pub scene started. You went to people’s houses.  Somebody might come visiting, you know, and one thing or another.  There was another man called Mick Carr, who lived across the hill in Mín an Aoiridh, and he used to come to our house a lot.  Himself and John McGinley and my father and Paddy Hiúdaí, they would get together.  They were playing tunes, you know, you would never have heard them in them days.  Some of them you wouldn’t have heard them now, even.  So there was lots of that sort of thing.”

Ah, those were the days.  So even though we can’t make it to Donegal this week, let’s learn one of the highlands James Byrne learned from old Mick Carr in his parlor.  It’s the first of a pair that I’ll simply call “Mick Carr’s #1”.

There’s no technical trick to playing this tune, though the synchopation is very important to catch just right, if we’re to capture Byrne’s nuances.  The whole tune is played with a touch of swing, which is easy to establish in the A part.  Then the B part delivers up a couple of Scots inverted sixteenth-dotted-eighth pairs to start bars 1 and 3, momentarily dispensing with the swing.  And here’s where it gets subtle.

I’ve notated the tune with dotted-eighth-sixteenth rhythm throughout the A part and in the second half of the B part, even though I don’t want you to play it quite that synchopated… just swung sweetly.  Where it gets subtle is in the first half of the B part, with one note pair played with the inverted sixteenth-dotted-eighth followed by three pairs with neither the inversion nor the swing.  Yep, that’s right: play them straight.  Then phrase bars 3 and 4 the same way, before returning to the swing. 

Another oddity about this tune arrangement is Byrne’s fondness for the low double-stop in the A part.  I tangled my fingers a bit perfecting this unorthodox fingering on my octave mandolin, but it’s worth the effort.  It makes an unusual tune that much more unusual: unexpected right from the start.

If you’re interested in learning more highlands (and perhaps a barndance or two), James Byrne’s “The Road to Glenlough” is still readily available through Claddagh Records.  Even Byrne’s takes on familiar tunes like “Devil’s Dream” and “The Heather Breeze” will likely be settings unlike any you’ve ever heard.  It’s a lovely visit to a time and place where the oral tradition still thrives, and that’s rare enough these days.

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