Handed Down Special on the late Mikey Duggan


“Saturday, January 24th promises to be a very special night when we welcome Matt Cranitch to Handed Down No 5.

Matt’s talk will cover his memories of his good friend, the late Mikey Duggan of Scartaglin.  The topics of the night will include: Trips to Scartaglin Féile Cheoil since the early 1970s and to meet Mikey Duggan – a pupil of Patrick O’Keeffe’s .  Matt’s guest will be Niamh McSweeney –  is a grand daughter of Mikey Duggan’s and a recent All-Ireland Concertina champion.”

That’s how PJ Teahan is introducing the New Year’s resumption of the Scartaglin Heritage based event which saw the first four monthly installments run from September and on into winter.

“Life has changed a lot since my young days, but as mentioned previously, it gives me great pleasure to see so many of our young people playing Irish music and dancing sets.

Long may it continue and with God’s holy help, I will do my part for our great tradition, while I’m able.” – Mikey Duggan writing in 1983.

The following is a piece I did in The Kerryman on the passing of Mikey Duggan in 2012. In its course I used a piece which Mikey had written for the annual Sliabh Luachra Journal in 1983. It provides a fascinating insight into life as it was lived in the days he so beautifully describes.

The Late Mikey Duggan (1921-2012)

It wasn’t today or yesterday that the late Mikey Duggan was first heard playing music on the radio.

RTÉ presenter / producer, Peter Browne reckons that he was ‘collected’ by Seamus Ennis in his day. Later on Ciaran Mac Mathuna and, in his turn, Peter Browne himself experienced the warm hearted generosity of the big, Scartaglin man just gone to his eternal reward.

It was in late October 2006 that Browne ‘dug into’ the RTE Radio 1 archives to pay tribute to Mikey Duggan. At that time he was about to be honoured by the Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival. This annual award goes to people who have made an outstanding contribution to the music of Sliabh Luachra.

When it came to Mikey Duggan’s turn the choice was warmly welcomed by all who knew him.

Peter Browne didn’t have too deep to dig as he spent a lot of time with Mikey Duggan at his home in Knockrour and the recordings he made on those trips are precious to him. He often recalls – always with a smile – Mikey’s way with words – a way that belonged to a generation now almost all gone.

But for the generosity of Mikey and his equals, Browne would not have been able to turn out the iconic radio documentaries he did on the likes of: Patrick O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford and Johnny O’Leary and one on Willie O’Connell and Jerh Collins.

It was also in October of 2006 that Donal Hickey brought a copy of the Sliabh Luachra Journal to my attention.

In issue No 2 from 1983, Mikey Duggan remembered his days on the road with his late friends, Denis Murphy and Johnny O’Leary. Reading his story you can see what Peter Browne means by ‘his way with words’ as it transfers well from the spoken to the written word.

In honouring Mikey Duggan in 2006, it would be nice to think that the mother who saved the two pounds to allow him buy his first fiddle back in the early 1940s would, by association, share in that honour. It is yet another story of the appreciation for music and culture which existed in the general Sliabh Luachra area through even the hardest of times.

The following is an extract from the journal article in Mr. Duggan’s own words:

My Life and Music By: Mikey Duggan

Even though my mother and father played the concertina I hadn’t any great interest in it. As a garsoon, I spent a lot of time in Eileen Spillane’s house. She was my next-door neighbour and, as far as I am concerned, she was the best concertina player in the whole country. She was also a great woman to play the fiddle and, for some reason or other, I was far more interested in it than the concertina. Maybe ‘twas because my mother and father played the concertina and you know the old saying: ‘Too much of anything…’

Eileen, RIP, showed me how to play some tunes and I wasn’t bad at picking them up. She advised me if I could get a few bob together I should buy a fiddle. When I was finished at school at 14 and a half (I went to school first in Knockeenahone and I spent the last year and a half in Gneeveguilla), I got two pounds from my mother to buy my first fiddle in Paddy Nolan’s (now Tom Fleming’s) of Scart.

That was a lot of money that time. I suppose the poor old woman was saving it for a long time. As I headed for my home in Knockrour that evening I wouldn’t call the queen my aunt.

I now had my fiddle and my next job was to contact the master himself, Padraig O’Keeffe, for some lessons. My first lesson was on a Small Christmas evening, and he would call then on a regular basis once a week or at least once a fortnight.

‘Twas very easy to pay the poor man — usually a half-a-crown or I should say 12 and a half new pence for the younger people who never heard of a half a crown.

Padraig was one of the very few men in the area able to write music and I’ll never forget that first Small Christmas evening he came. He asked my mother for a piece of paper. He drew five lines on the paper and wrote the numbers between the lines. I thought the lines, instead of the spaces, stood for the strings in the fiddle and I asked Padraig: “Where did you get the fifth string?”

He knew my mistake and he said: “How many ditches would it take to make four roads?”, I said: “Four.” “You’re wrong” he said. “It takes five,” and it was then I caught on.

Another time he gave me half a tune to learn for the next lesson. It took me three weeks to learn it. Padraig got cross to me and said: “I heard you were a great scholar going to school, but you’re the most stupid young fellow I ever met.” His anger didn’t last long and I’m glad to say I picked up the second half quicker than the first. What I learned from Padraig I practised with Eileen Spillane. Every time I met him, right up to until he died, I learned something new from Padraig.

At that time, Spillane’s was a great roving house and, on certain occasions, a night’s storytelling would end with a half set. Eileen and myself would supply the music. I suppose the first people to dance to my music were: Donal Riordan, Paddy Spillane, Jack Mahoney, Jack Connell, the Spillane girls and my own four sisters. I can tell you that times were much different then. We would be at home for 10.30 or 11pm. Nowadays they don’t start going out until that time. I don’t know what is the world coming to!

I played in public the first time around 1945 for a feis which was held in Donal Kearney’s field in Scart. Charlie Moriarty, who organised the feis, came to my house and asked me to play for the step dancers to following Sunday. There is no need to say I was fairly nervous heading for Scart with my fiddle. I wouldn’t have gone on the stage at all but for Padraig O’Keeffe putting me at my ease. As well as that, he covered up for the mistakes I made.

After that, I was asked to play for stations and house weddings. For the most part, I would be playing on my own as most of the other musicians live fairly far away from me and the only means of transport was the bike. Such house dances often went on to the late hours of the morning — until the half tierce was gone. Of course, these were special occasions.

In the early 1950s, I teamed up with Johnny Leary and Denis Murphy playing for their step dancers at fleadhanna and feiseanna. Later, the three of us and Jimmy Doyle joined Michael O’Callaghan and we formed the Desmond Dance Band. We spent 11 years together playing all over Kerry and parts of Cork and Limerick We rarely missed a Sunday night and we played on many Friday nights also.

When Denis Murphy went to America the ‘Desmond’ as it was, broke up. Johnny and myself played together on occasions. When Denis returned from America, the three of us joined up again and played together every Friday and Sunday nights at Dan O’Connell’s in Knocknagree. Even though I never took a drink, I think there is a great atmosphere in the pub — that is of course, if people don’t overdo it with the drink. It is the nearest of all to the house dance.

In my early days, I took part in competitions and was the first to win the Padraig O’Keeffe perpetual trophy at Scart Fleadh Cheoil.

This side of the country must be the richest of all, having so many fine musicians and each is better that the next. There are so many I could never mention them all. I mention Johnny and Denis very often because it was with those two men I played most of my music. We all missed Denis a lot when he died. He was always so jolly and was a great man to tell a story

I really enjoy playing with Johnny Leary. Not taking from any of the others, I think he is the nearest to Padraig O’Keeffe’s style. As well as being a master musician, he is a powerful man to tell a yarn. Like the music, he has a distinct style of telling them and I wouldn’t dare even attempt to repeat one of them here, as no one can tell them like himself.

Before I ever played in a hall, I travelled to lots of them. Thady Willie’s in Gneeveguilla, Vaughan’s in Williamstown and one in Barraduff, not to mention Denny Mahoney’s of Knockeenahone and the halls in Scart.

Life has changed a lot since my young days, but as mentioned previously, it gives me great pleasure to see so many of our young people playing Irish music and dancing sets.

Long may it continue and with God’s holy help, I will do my part for our great tradition, while I’m able.”

P.S. The tradition goes on: Mikey Duggan’s grand-daughter, Niamh McSweeney teamed up with Dean Griffin and Steven O’Leary to win the All-Ireland Trio Championship in the 12 to 15 years category at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan in August 2011.

John Reidy – The Kerryman July 25-2012