The world of Irish music and dance is mourning the passing of the supremely gifted fiddler Eugene O’Donnell. News of his death came Friday, June 28, from his longtime musical partner, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist Mick Moloney.
In the Philadelphia area, he is best known for that partnership. He was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Ceili Group.
As a fiddler, he was renowned for his mastery of slow airs—although he certainly had a broad repertoire—but for many in this region, he was also known as one of the greatest step dancers ever to have taken to the floor.
According to Compass Records, for which he recorded, O’Donnell “began Irish dancing at the age of three and was the first Irish dancer ever to dance on television in London at the age of 12, all the while playing and perfecting Derry-style Irish fiddling. As a teen, O’Donnell won an unprecedented five consecutive All-Ireland dancing championships.”
O’Donnell arrived in Philadelphia from Derry in 1957. From there, it didn’t take long for him to begin sharing his many gifts.
Many recall him for his superb musical skills, but they also remember him as one of the finest, most inventive, and occasionally the most exacting of dance instructors.
We’ve put together some remembrances from those who knew him in the years before he returned to his native Derry.
We’ll start with Mick Moloney:
His son Shane gave me the sad news early today Friday July 28, 2019. My old musical colleague and friend Eugene O’Donnell passed away early this morning in his beloved Derry City.
We were beyond friends—more like blood brothers, joined at the hip for over 26 years. Despite Eugene holding a full time job as a draughtsman near the great city of Philadelphia we made many LPs and CDs and played locally and all over the USA for decades at a time when it was not very fashionable to sing or play Irish traditional songs or music.
The colorful story of our rambles would fill a good-sized book and in time it will. He was the best of company, the mightiest of musicians and the mightiest of men. He was a champion step dancer in his youth, the finest Irish dancer in the world at that time.
He was a great and indeed legendary fiddler who specialized in the passionate performance of the ancient slow airs of Ireland and the majestically beautiful set dances composed by the masters in centuries long gone. He was a great composer himself and accompanied songs like none of his generation. Above all he was loyal to the very core of his being—the sort of man who would swing for a friend. All who knew him will be heartbroken at his loss.
Jim McGill, longtime member of the Philadelphia Ceili Group:
You knew it was going to be an interesting evening if he was there. He was so talented, in everything he turned to. He liked to recite poetry. I felt he never expressed it to his full extent.
1974 was the first time he and Mick played together. Mick had come over in 1973. They had played in sessions together. When you get two such talented people together, it was a joy to listen to, as it was for Mick to have someone of his caliber to interact with.
He was very talented. He had lots of different ideas. He tried to start a choral group at the Irish Center, too.
When I was chairman (of the Irish Center board), I brought Philadelphia Ceili Group back to the Irish center in 1973. That was the seed for the annual festivals, and for Mick and Eugene being the anchors for the festivals for so many years. It was all built around them—Eugene first at that time, because we didn’t know Mick’s capability. Eugene was just such a big part of the Ceili Group.
Traditional Music Columnist
Not sure the year, but I am reasonably certain that the first place I would have seen Eugene O’Donnell perform with Mick Moloney would have been at the Annual Philadelphia Ceili Group festivals in Fishers Pool in Lansdale in the 1970s and later at some concerts elsewhere. He was always a class act and his music was soulful and precise.
Hollis Payer, fiddler:
I played with Eugene and Mick at Pastorius Park, when I was a young “up and comer.” He (Eugene) asked me if I played any set dances and I said yes, I play “Jockey to the Fair.” But I didn’t realize I played a different version than his. We were into the tune, in front of a large audience, when I realized the discrepancy, and Eugene just found a way to weave around what I was playing.
It was thrilling and terrifying, I guess all the same chemicals.
I later heard Eugene referred to by (fiddler) Liz Carroll as a tightrope artist and when I look back at that moment, and other moments watching him perform, I can see that.
Mary Lou Schnell McGurk, president of the Philadelphia Ceili Group:
I knew Eugene a long time. I was a step dancer with McDade. He was friendly with Maureen McDade. They had started doing dance choreography. That kind of thing was just becoming popular. He came by and choreographed a dance for us called “Flight of the Earls.” That was very interesting.
He was quite the task master. He was there to dance, and that was that. He wanted the guys to pretend they had swords. The girls had to be afraid of the swords. We were 14-year-olds, so we were all laughing. He had no patience with that, and he would just step away. It was an experience.
I joined the Ceili Group when I was 18. He was always very good and very pleasant. He just got so into the music he was playing. He was so on his toes or on the edge of his seat that you thought he was going to fall off, he was so into the music.
We decided to get a group together to dance in a competition. I was teaching ceili dance for the Ceili Group at the time, 1980 to 1981, but I was also teaching at McDade. We were learning a routine, “The Gates of Derry.” He came right over because he was from Derry. He changed the way we did the dance and made it more beautiful. We did take first place at the feis (dance competition). The dancers were good, but because he was coaching us, we were much better.
He was a performer at our first festival and so many festivals after that. He was always there and always good, but just very serious.
He retired quite a while ago, as soon as he felt he couldn’t play to the level he wanted to. He set a high bar for himself and for everybody else.
I thought he would live forever, but it just took us by surprise.
The passing of an age … So many dear memories … His fiery, relentlessly committed heart shone boldly out through everything he did, his fiercely loving gaze, the rakish set of his chin, the lift of his heels as he leaned into a slow air, the decisive clap of his shoe on the dance floor, the incisive buttered flow of his bow on the fiddle strings, the grip of the bow hair as he pulled all four strings along with all eyes, ears and hearts into the climax of a tune, the inescapable embrace of his encouragement … Thanks for showing us how it’s done, Eugene! You are with us always … O Donnell Abu!
I met up with him when I was pretty young, around 10, a McDade dancer in Upper Darby. More than music, we knew him as a dancer. Maureen McDade used to have him come and give us workshops.
I call him the Irish dance world’s George Balanchine. He was a task master, but it was all in good fun. He really wanted to bring out the best in us, and he did. We all tried to rise to the occasion.
One time, we all performed at the Union League, and afterward we went to a tavern for a bite, and Eugene was telling all these ancient stories. It was mesmerizing stuff. When you were with him you loved the music and the stories, even when he was being really strict. We really, really enjoyed him.
He was an incredible dancer. He might not do an entire dance, but he flew. He was very athletic in that regard. He was a skinny guy. He was a good jumper. He was pretty amazing.
Although we knew him better as a dancer, we often heard him perform at Irish events as a fiddler.
Everyone remembers him for the slow airs, but he was also known for dance music. Eugene was known for these set dance tunes and they’re on many of his albums.
There were times early on when Mick Moloney came to this country, and when they started performing together, I would step in and do a couple of dances with them. It was organized—but just not as rigidly formal as it is today.
I had a lot of fun years with him. I was very delighted that he ended up recording so much. We have an opportunity to hear him again and again.
Through his performing with Mick he was encouraged to record, and that was terrific. We can continue to learn from it. He certainly made his mark on all of us.
We’ll close with a few lines from a poem, “A Salute to Eugene O’Donnell,” by Monsignor Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Parish in Camden:
… Life took wing in the sadness there
When O’Donnell rose with a daring bow.
To play the notes that the thrush had heard
And the songs that the people know.
He stood where bardic feet have stood
And soared his tunes where angels hear
He saved the whispers of the wind
And the kiss of light upon the tears.
He carved his fiddle from bits of time
And stretched his sinews into strings
He built his bow from human ties
His pain and joy made it sing.