Faeries and music: top Irish fiddler sheds light on both at Ireland Writing Retreat

He has accomplished so much, in so many walks of life, and to top it all off he’s a wizard on the fiddle.

Irish music is firmly lodged in the family genes of maestro Martin McGinley.

And now, he and his partner, Violet, and fellow musician, Noel Lenaghan, flute-player, mandolin player and singer, have kindly agreed to open this year’s edition of the week-long international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat.’

With his mother, Kathleen, a well-known fiddle and melodeon player, as teacher and muse, there was no escaping Martin’s fate. As he played classical violin growing up since the age of eight, as well as banjo and mandolin, the only question was: what instrument and what genre of music would be adopt?

That question was answered in his late teens and his musical mastery of his chosen instrument can be enjoyed in his recently-released fiddle solo CD entitled ‘Full Circle.’

Produced in collaboration with Cairdeas na bhFidléirí (Association Of Fiddle Players) in the ‘Traditional Fiddle Music from Donegal’ series, the CD contains a whopping 30 tracks, 79 minutes of pure music to be exact, with a rich repertoire from many sources, including his own mother.

Tunes include esoteric titles such as Kiss the Maid Behind the Byre, Drowsy Maggie, The Old Man Rocking the Cradle, The Irish Washerwoman, My Love Is In America, Toss The Feathers, Down the Broom and The Pinch of Snuff. A booklet accompanying the CD is filled with comprehensive background information.

“I owe a great debt to my mother and her constant encouragement,” he said. “She was cracked on Irish music and would gather all the local fiddlers to a hotel for regular seisuns in my hometown of Raphoe. There I’d find myself among the most talented of musicians. When jazz became the big craze many years ago after American military personnel came to Derry, she became interested in that too.”

Martin’s background in music is impressive.

He played mandolin in a group called Ferdia and was founding member of Dervish, a band once described by the BBC as “an icon of Irish music.” He also presented the national television series ‘The Pure Drop,’ featuring solo instrumentalists and small groups, as well as various radio programmes focusing on the development of traditional Irish music. So talented is Martin, he has composed between 70 and 80 tunes (he said he stopped counting a long time ago) including jigs, reels, highlands and waltzes. He even attempted to transform ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by rock group, Queen, into a reel and a classical composition by Johann Sebastian Bach into an Irish jig.

“Music has always been there for me, it seems I’ve never not being playing the fiddle – at work, in my spare time,” he said. “While I have other hobbies, playing music is central to my life.”

One interesting theme Martin will discuss with retreat participants in September is the link between music and the spoken and written word. Another even more intriguing and unlikely of themes is that of faeries. “It’s said some fiddlers are visited by faeries who help them become brilliant musicians,” he said. “John Doherty, of one of Donegal’s most famous fiddlers, always wanted to be accompanied home after a late-night seisun, just in case the little folk were around.” As for meetings with faeries Martin may have encountered along the road of life, that question will be addressed at our special retreat evening.

Not only is Martin one of the leading fiddle players in Ireland, he is also deeply involved in education and training. With a Masters degree in music from Open University, he has been manager of Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) for the last six years.

Part of the Donegal Education and Training Board, Martin spearheads a project that promotes the teaching of music across Donegal and helps hundreds of young people receive one-on-one tuition and the chance to perform in concerts, workshops, music weekends and masterclasses. The ten groups involved in DMEP include Donegal Youth Orchestra, Mind Your Quavers, a ‘return-to-music’ initiative, Donegal Chamber Orchestra, the Errigal Singers and Donegal Youth Choir.

The gregarious bearded musician from Raphoe in east Donegal is also board member of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras and is involved in the annual Django Sur Lennon gypsy jazz festival in Donegal. Martin has also adjudicated fiddle and banjo competitions at a national and regional level, including the famous Fleadh Cheoil, an Irish music festival run by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

Martin has led a colourful life, having once been co-owner and bartender at the Sail Inn, a famed traditional music pub in the Donegal fishing port of Killybegs; reporter for Radio Foyle in Derry; correspondent for the BBC in Belfast; an actor; and editor of several prominent newspapers in northwestern Ireland including the Derry Journal, the Donegal Democrat and the Donegal People’s Press. He also ran his own public relations company and now writes a popular weekly current affairs column for the ‘Donegal News.’

Curious to hear Martin live in an intimate setting while telling his favorite faery stories? There are a couple of places still available on our September retreat. Treat yourself.

And don’t forget to enter our ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.’ Deadline: Midnight Irish time, Thursday, September 30.

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