In search of... the music of Donegal

If you want to hear some authentic Irish music you won't do better than in this county.
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The Independent Travel

"Where are ye from?" asked Leo, nodding in the direction of our table. "The States", "Germany", "Spain" replied my companions, the perky student, the intense fan of Irish ballads and the fit young cyclist who'd pedalled all the way from Belfast. Leo waited for my response. "Hungary," I was tempted to reply, thinking, "Now that'll test his repertoire", but instead I plumped for "England", knowing full well what to expect.

We were in Leo's bar in Meenaleck, Co Donegal, and I was itching to pop across the road to Tessie's, just to see if any musicians had arrived. But there was still plenty of time for that as Leo's fingers began to trace a journey around the accordion's keyboard, effortlessly picking out the melody to Y Viva España.

I never fail to be amazed by the musical diversity here. Kincasslagh, a few miles to the west, is the home of Daniel O'Donnell, renderer of a cardigan-clad blend of gospel songs and Country and Irish (an idiosyncratic version of Country and Western). Here we were in Leo's Tavern, a shrine to Leo and Baba's children, three of whom had joined forces with their young uncles to form Clannad, dispensers of "Celtic hush" music for the past 30 years, while a fourth, Enya, is surfing the tide of success that followed her "Orinoco Flow". Golden discs and other memorabilia occupied every available inch of the bar's walls.

Leo's is in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) and rich in the sean-nós tradition, a centuries-old form of unaccompanied singing, literally translated as "old style", both sonorous in melody and passionate in word. But Donegal also has a heritage of traditional instrumental music, influenced by the region's connections with Scotland. So, while reels and jigs dominate the rest of the country's repertoire, here the tunes would be interspersed with highlands (flings) and Germans (barn dances). The fiddle holds sway in Donegal.

For those who have never encountered the term, a session is an informal gathering of musicians, usually in a pub, though nowadays at least one of the session's members will have been paid to turn. The others will come just to play and hone their techniques, learn new tunes and generally enjoy the crack.

My week had begun on Friday with a quiet session in Johnny Joe's bar in Kilcar, on the Glencolmcille peninsula, but I'd moved Further north to the Screag an Iolair ("eagle's nest") hostel on the side of Cnoc na Farragh mountain. Established in the days when itinerant labourers journeyed over the mountains to Letterkenny, it's set in semi-wild gardens with dazzling views as far as Arranmore island. The sunsets here are stunning and matched by the equally warm welcome provided by Eamonn and Mireille. Stone floors, roaring fires, cosy rooms and a constant supply of tea and hot soup make this a special place and an ideal headquarters for a musical journey, especially if I could persuade Eamonn to produce his concertina.

Monday was to be the high spot and, as usual, a minibus was hired to take us down to Húdaí Beag's bar in Bunbeg in the Gweedore district (beag means "little" in Irish and Húdaí is Anglicised as Hughie). The session is in the bar's lounge, roomy enough to accommodate the dozen or so musicians who appear. They often include one of Ireland's best-known fiddlers, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, who plays and sings with the band Altan and was raised nearby. Húdaí will often sit in, if the bar's not too busy, playing fiddle with the most soulful facial expression I've seen.

We were spoilt that evening, for a host of musicians had turned up, including a rare uillean piper. There's still some dispute regarding this Irish form of bagpipes. Uilleann means "elbows" and refers to the way in which the seated piper squeezes the bellows beneath the arm. The pipes also have a chanter (on which the melody is fingered), drones and regulators (which can be used to produce harmonies), so some say their true name should be the "union" pipes, expressing the relationship between chanter and regulators. No matter, for the piper was warming up, perhaps heir to the throne of Tarlach Mac Suibhne, the fabled Píobaire Mór (literally, "big piper"), who lived in nearby Lunnagh and, according to Donegal folklore, won the World Piping Competition in Chicago in 1893.

The piper finished his solo and we were swept away by a barrage of sound, featuring half a dozen fiddlers in unison, all driven by Gerry's experienced guitar. I recognised the tune as the "King George IV" highland. I lapped on my pint, musing on implausible connections between Brighton's Royal Pavilion and Bunbeg, but gave up in the face of the invigorating swirls of music all around me. And there were still the sessions at Billie's and Ruari's to come!

Geoff Wallis is co-author of the Rough Guides to Irish music, Dublin and Ireland. Aer Arann (00 353 75 48284) flies daily from Dublin to Donegal airport at Carrickfinn, about 12 miles from Bunbeg, from £43 return.