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Comment - No 12

Philip Donnellan Obituary

In News No 11, Doc Rowe wrote - 'In case you haven't heard ... Phillip Donnellan died in Ireland last Tuesday (16th February) ... he had several strokes a few months ago and never really recovered ... '

Photo by Doc RoweI promised an obituary before too long, but no one came up with one - and now Doc has come up with several.

I don't believe Philip noticed the dust he raised behind him - just as be never knew what a terrifying driver he was.  And I don't believe his objective was to make television documentaries.  He wanted to use his privileged position to solve the problems he saw around him.  He wanted to hand over the means of self-expression to the mass of people who had no access to it.  His relationship with his subjects was passionate, discovered by his social conscience, fuelled by his humanity, disciplined by his integrity.

When Philip had made his film about the blind, he started and chaired the Shropshire Talking Newspaper for the Blind.  When he had broadcast Shoals of Herring, he screened it in village halls all over fishing communities, organising public discussions.  After making Where Do We Go From Here? about the travelling people, he co-founded and chaired the West Midland Gypsy Liaison Group, and fought the cause for the rest of his life.  Philip was energetic, stubborn, exciting - and exasperating - to work with.  He was a man of reckless courage.  He was also generous, sincere, modest and open.

As a theatre director I have been endlessly inspired by Philip Donnellan and his work.  And that inspiration lives on in his wonderful wife Jill, and their four exceptional children.

Peter Cheeseman - from The Guardian obituary, 1.3.99

When Philip Donnellan and Charles Parker came together as Radio Features producers, I was a recording engineer and worked with them both.  Charles' involvement with Ewan MacColl resulted in the production of the Radio Ballads and Philip was extremely interested in what these programmes revealed.  It was very exciting work and when Philip moved into TV, believing it to be the better medium for the furtherance of it, he tried his best to persuade Charles to do the same but Charles stayed with Radio.  They remained in close confidence, and after Charles had died, Philip spared no effort in his determination to make his colleague's work available to any and everyone.

After much hard work and much plotting and planning he Archive was installed at the Central Library under the trusteeship of a devoted group, repeatedly encouraged by Philip, when to maintain it seemed an almost hopeless undertaking.  He was always dauntless, patient, positive, full of energy and infectious enthusiasm.  His heart was in it.  And now he is gone.

Goodbye, Whirlwind.

Mary Baker - Trustee

I have known Philip since the early 1970s, when he and Jill lived in Bridgnorth, and Philip had some contact with us in the Community Arts project in Telford where l worked.  From the very first meeting I was struck by his extraordinary energy, dynamism, and interest in other people, which, as I grew to know him in the intervening years, I realised were qualities which characterised everything he did.

Philip and Pete Templeton (my husband) worked closely together in recent years as part of the Staffordshire and Shropshire Gypsy Liaison Group, and, due to our shared involvement in this and the Charles Parker Archive, we saw Philip often.  He got to know our children, and we were invited to some lovely family occasions of theirs before Philip and Jill moved to Eire.  The last time we saw him was a year ago, when he was on a whistle-stop Visit around England which thankfully included Shropshire.  He arrived early on a Saturday morning, caught up on news, spontaneously whisked Pete off to our new local travellers' site to see what it was like, talked to the children, had lunch and rushed to get a train to London.  As always, lie was bubbling with energy, ideas, interest, enthusiasm, action ...  All of us who knew Philip have been touched by those qualities, and we will miss him greatly.

Cathy Mackerras - Trustee

Philip Donnellan, who has died aged 75, was one of the greatest of all documentarists, and his relationship with the BBC over four decades is a paradigm of how a maverick conducts a love/hate relationship with an institution, the one entirely needing the other.

The BBC at least knew enough to recognise the quality of his work every time his contract came up for renewal.  He will not have been thanked for opposing many of their cherished schemes, but Donnellan's body of work remains as good as any film maker who ever made his career in British television.

W. Stephen Gilbert - from The Guardian obituary, 1. 3.99

Philip was a man ahead of his time or maybe of his time.  Anti-establishment, anti-officialdom, let the people speak.  He did so in documentaries you either loved or hated.  No room for presenter or narration.  Speech, picture and music were enough.  Zero tolerance for the technical limitation of the equipment, for those surely limited his storytelling.  But what a character!  A man of boundless energy and enthusiasm, you could not help but be swept up and involved in any situation Philip got you into, and there were many.

John Williams - Lighting Cameraman, from the Ariel obituary, 9.3.99

Serious television documentary film-making may be out of fashion in these days of fly-by-night flea bites but what goes round comes round.  One day films students will search the BBC archives for the work of Philip Donnellan to find out how to do the job properly.  Donnellan pioneered the use of the new medium of television to give a voice to ordinary people.

Although his manner and accent were those of the patrician establishment - an essential asset in the internal politics of the BBC's bureaucracy - his vision was radical and subversive of the corporation's top down value system.  He respected the subjects of his films.  He believed they had something to say that was worth hearing.  And he saw himself as a technical enabler, allowing them to say it.

The people he filmed demonstrated his determination to open the ether to voices that usually go unheard - seafarers and miners, Irish migrants and travelling people.  Asked once what had happened to the creativity of the working class, he replied: "It's in their speech".  Such an approach does not endear you to the mandarins; he was seen as a maverick throughout his working life.  But he survived the system for 36 years and managed to make nearly 100 films, most of which were broadcast; some won awards ...

Donnellan moved into television as a documentary producer in 1958, working exclusively on film and developing the contrapuntal use of sound and image, He was known as an extravagant producer using vast quantities of film stock when only a small amount was shown; he was a perfectionist.

Much of his television work paralleled what Parker was doing in radio - using the words and songs of ordinary working people, directly presented without the intervention of an intermediary commentator, to share their experiences and concerns.  It was typical of his openness and honesty that he would show the crew filming - in Brechtian style, he liked to expose the mat situation.........

In 1988 he wrote a book, We Were the BBC, which Jill describes as "a non-Asa Briggs history."  It awaits publication.  Most of his films are kept by the British Film Institute; those with an Irish theme (his family came from Galway) are in the National Film Archive in Dublin.

Robin Thornber - from The Independent obituary, 12.3.99

Bob Copper's 85th Birthday

at The Royal Oak, Lewes - 6th January 2000

A date for your diaries now, while you remember it!

The Second Gressenhall Folk Dance Festival

Saturday 24th July 1999

Dust off your clogs and come to Gressenhall in the heart of Norfolk for a celebration of folk dancing in East Anglia. The festival starts at 12.00 noon with a procession led by a Suffolk Punch horse and plough, echoing the history of the Ouse Washes Molly Dancers who are one of our dance groups. Morris, Molly, country dancing and Eastern European circle dancing will be represented with over 200 dancers and musicians on two stages, not forgetting a dulcimer recital and a performance of the Norfolk Step Dance. Things will be rounded off in the evening with a ceilidh down on the farm.

For further details contact: Frances Collinson on 01362 860563
or e-mail: frances.collinson.mus@norfolk.gov.uk

Clare Festival of Traditional Singing

Ennistymon, Co Clare, Ireland - June 4th to 6th, 1999


Peadar Ó Ceannabháin, Seán Corcoran, Jimmy Crowley, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Brian Ó Dhomhnaill, John Flanagan, Caitríona Ní Ghealbháin, John Kennedy, Áine Uí Laoithe, Séamus McFarland, John Moulden, Diarmaid Ó Muirithe.


Frances Madigan, Circular Road, Ennistymon.  Tel: (00353) (0)65 707 1051 - or -
Tom Munnelly, Miltown Malbay.  Tel: (00353) (0)65 708 4365.  E-mail: munnelly@tinet.ie

Bulgarian folk music specialist Tim Rice to speak:

Known for his book 'May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music' (Chicago UP, 1994), UCLA ethnomusicologist Tim Rice will be visiting Britain in July to provide a keynote address at 8 p.m. on the opening day of the 3rd triennial British Musicological Societies Conference (15-18 July 1999, University of Surrey, Guildford).

The topic of Rice's talk has not yet been announced (as of April 1999), but further details, draft programmes, booking forms etc., may be solicited nearer the time from Dr Christopher Mark, Department of Music, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 5XH.  Tel. 01483-259317.  E-mail: c.mark@surrey.ac.uk

More than one hundred music scholars of one kind or another will present papers during the conference as a whole, including some twenty or so in the broad area of musics outside the Western art tradition.  Beyond these, several further sessions may also interest MT regulars, such as:

Saturday 17 July 9.00-10.30 Transplanted Musics

Glasgow Salutes Fiddle Master

On Wednesday 20th of January, Glasgow - that hard city - showed its warmer side when the Irish community turned out in their thousands to show their appreciation of one of its finest adopted sons - Jimmy McHugh, fiddler, composer, father and Irishman.  The previous night his body had been carried into St Brigid's, Toryglen, church on the shoulders of his six sons.  The following morning the church was filled to overflowing - over 2,000 people were in attendence and the crowd could not be fit into the church - with the mass being relayed to the people outside.
The parish priest Rev Fr Rowan, said it was the largest funeral at the church since that of the last Cannon of the parish.

The mass started with musicians who travelled from Nenagh, Co Tipperary playing a selection of Jimmy's compositions.  During the mass selected favourite Hymns of Jimmy's were sung by Deirde Scanlon who traveled over from Drogheda.  During the offertory, fiddler Eileen O'Brien played a slow air she composed in honour of Jimmy.

The readings were read by John McGovern (Jimmy's wife, Ann's brother) and Kevin HcHugh junior (Jimmy's grandson).  The coffin was carried from the church by Jimmy's sons to the sounds of Jimmy's compositions played by the Nenagh musicians.

His funeral was afforded a police escort with policemen at every road junction to Springhill cemetery - it was just as well, as there were so many cars that the whole of Glasgow would have been brought to a standstill.  A touch which would have pleased Jimmy was to see the policemen who lined the way saluting as his coffin passed them by - nice one lads !!

Jimmy was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1930, but was reared in Glenfinn, Co Donegal by an Uncle and Aunt.  He attended Dooish school .  As a youngster he showed an interest in the fiddle and acquired one of the famous Doherty tin Fiddles.  In the later years he always regretted selling this when he was leaving to come to Glasgow.

Jimmy learnt his music from the old 78 rpm records of Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Kiloran and Paddy Sweeney.  He would also cycle many miles far into Donegal to hear Neillie Boyle, and the Dohertys were frequent visitors to his uncle's house on the Donegal / Tyrone border.  He spent many a night sitting outside the window of fiddler Paddy Barclay's house listening to the sessions and picking up tunes.  Jimmy had an exceptional ear for music and by the time a tune had been played a couple of times, he would have it in his mind.

Jimmy came to Glasgow in November 1946 and soon fitted into the Irish scene of ceilis and concerts.  He joined the Paisley Gaels football team and played for them in the goals.  In 1948 Jimmy started playing for dance classes of Peggy O'Neill.  This was where he first met his future wife Ann (McGovern) and although they didn't go out together till '53; they married at Easter '56.  In the '50s Jimmy would be glued to the old battery wireless listening to Radio Eireann's Ceolta Tire and Seamus Ennis's As I Roved Out, he would call out the notes to Ann and she would write them down.  This procedure would carry on until she taught him to read and write music.  Jimmy and Ann were both indebted to each other and via the dancing and the music got a great insight into the timings for solo and figure dancing, which subsequently made Jimmy the most sought after musician at Feasanna for more than 35 years.

Jimmy was a very retiring man who had more knowledge of Irish culture, music and song than most of the so-called authorities on the tradition.  Jimmy did not push himself forward and had no interest in power or position; only in his music.  Ann and Jimmy's house in Glasgow was, and still is, an open house to musicians and singers or anyone anxious to just talk about music.  He could tell you where tunes came from, who played them and the different versions and styles, this knowledge shone through in his many celebrated compositions which are becoming more and more commonly played throughout the Irish Scene.  Abook of Jimmy's compositions will be published later in the year.

In 1956 Whit Weekend Jimmy and Ann returned to Ennis for the Fleadh and were priviledged to meet Brian O'Donnell (R.I.P.) from Belfast, who introduced them to the emergent Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and persuaded them to put the wheels in motion for the forming the (arguably) first branch outside Ireland, which started in January 1957.  Jimmy won the All Ireland Fiddle Competition in '57 in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and from '56 to his passing he only missed three all Ireland Fleadhs.

Jimmy adored playing music and would unselfishly show anyone who showed an interest, and he loved teaching children.  People would call at the house at all hours of the day and night and he would always be on hand to teach a tune, talk music or play records and tapes.  Jimmy had one of the finest collections of 78rpm records and reel to reel tapes in existance.  In his early years in Glasgow he became very friendly with Bobby McLeod and Jimmy Shand.  On Saturday nights BBC radio show "Scottish Dance Music", the bands were restricted to Scottish tunes only, but Bobby fell so much in love with Jimmy's music that many the time he would include Irish tunes and give them Sottish sounding names for the broadcast.  Jimmy toured with Calum Kennedy, and the David Silver Band, played on numerous Scottist, Gaelic radio and TV programmes, and has been held in the highest esteem by the Gaelic Department, especially by one of its top men Kenny McQuarrie.

Jimmy joined the Four Provinces Ceili Band, where he formed life-long musical partnerships with Dinny O'Boyle and Danny Duffey and he later became band leader.  In 1956 they became the first ceili band from Scotland to broadcast on Radio Eireann.  The recording was done on October 23rd and was broadcast on New Years Night.

In their life together Jimmy and Ann had a great partnership, Jimmy with his music and Ann with her dancing.  This has been passed to the family where they are well known at fleadhs, sessions, and feisanna.  Together with the Four Provinces band and the Shamrock Dancers they became the main Irish section of the Glasgow International Folk Festival from its beginning in 1981.  The band and dancers have also travelled to festivals to represent Ireland in Verona, Turin, Mull, Orkney, Shetland and all over Ireland, Scotland and England.

The McHugh household can boast a great wealth of musicians calling to the house for a tune, including Joe and Anne Burke, Seamus Connelly, Paddy O'Brien, Sean Maguire, Danny O'Donnell, PJ Hernon, Eileen O'Brien, Nuala Hehir, Cathal McConnell, the entire Aughrim Slopes Ceili Band and many others too many to mention..  From Scottish Music there was also Bobby McLeod and his band, Angus Fitchet and his band, Calum Kennedy, Aly Bain, Willie Johnstone to name but a few.

As soon as music was permitted in pubs in Glasgow, Jimmy organised weekly sessions which have been running non-stop for over 30 years.  These sessions have now settled for the past 11 years in Sharkeys Bar, Old Rutherglen Rd, in the Gorbals which is now known worldwide as the home of Irish music in Glasgow.

The arrival at his final resting place at St Peter's, Dalbeth, where after a comittal servive and the Rosary his body was lowered in his grave by eight of his closest musical buddies, his son Brendan played an air on Jimmy's fiddle, which Jimmy had composed for his friend Liam McCabe who passed on some years previous - how he carried it off (fighting back the tears) was a miracle.

With the burial carried out we adjourned to Sharkeys bar in the Gorbals (where Jimmy played every Monday night for 20 years) where musicians who had travelled from all over Ireland and England joined the local musicians for a session which lasted all day from about 1pm until 12pm nonstop with the finest of music being played in both bars.  Jimmy's last recordings will be heard on a shortly to be released CD by his musical accompanist, " Mary Mullholland and friends".

Jimmy HcHugh is survived by his wife Ann who is a wonderful woman, world renowned as a Irish Dance teacher and adjudicator, whose attention to detail ensured that no item however small was overlooked and the funeral went off so well.  His six sons and two daughters and many grandchildren will ensure that the name McHugh will always be at the centre of Irish Cultural life in the great city of Glasgow.

Personally, I believe the personality and humanity was captured by one of his pupils 12 year old Carissa Bovill in her poem:

The Gentle Giant

So gifted wih a fiddle and bow
He taught me everything I know.
To hear him play was such a delight
And I felt so honoured each Thursday night.
"Play the music not from your brain,
The ear is what matters" he'd explain.
Then he'd watch me perform with those sparkling eyes
And his comments would always be generous and wise.
In the future, as I play with dedication,
Jimmy will forever be my inspiration.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal

Alan O'Leary - 25.3.99


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk    Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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