A lover of old ways and rare songs

 

Paddy Tunney: Paddy Tunney, who has died aged 81, was one of Ireland's foremost traditional singers. He was also a champion lilter, an entertaining raconteur, and a talented writer.

He drew from an enormous store of songs. Benedict Kiely recounted listening to him, "sing the night through in a house in Clontarf, all the night through on cups of tea, singing from the heart and never once repeating himself". Ewan McColl described him as "the greatest lyrical folk-singer in the English language". To Paul Brady he was "a giant".

He grew up in a "rambling house" frequented by traditional musicians, dancers and storytellers. He began singing, on his grandfather's knee, at the age of four. His mother, herself a renowned source singer, then took him in hand and taught him to lilt and sing. "She never gave me a song until she considered I was able to sing it properly."

He can be heard at his best on two albums, recorded when he was in his prime, The Man of Song (1962) and A Wild Bee's Nest (1965). His renditions of Moorloch Mary, Mountain Streams Where the Moorcock Crows and Highland Mary are regarded as the definitive versions. His singing had clear links with the instrumental tradition, incorporating runs, stops and grace notes, much like pipe and fiddle music. He was an unapologetic purist. "A dedicated hater of pop and cant and shamrockery," he was a lover of "old ways and rare songs and raving poetry".

Paddy Tunney was born on January 28th, 1921, in Glasgow, one of the eight children of Patrick Tunney and his wife, Brigid (née Gallagher). He grew up in Mulleek (Mew-lick), near Beleek, Co. Fermanagh.

He attended Derryhallow Public Elementary School. During a visit by a school inspector, Mr Doak, the teachers were taken aback when a "song of the people" was requested. The young Paddy Tunney stepped forward and sang "Boolavogue" with all the fire and feeling that he could muster. The teachers were petrified. When he had finished singing the inspector thanked him and gave him half-a-crown. "Tis a pity," Mr Doak remarked dryly to the teachers, "a great pity. You know we should be teaching history in the schools."

When the Irish Press started publication, it included a weekly feature for children by Roddy the Rover. Prizes were offered for poems, rhymes and pieces of local history. Paddy Tunney was one of the first prizewinners. By the time he had progressed to Ballyshanny Technical School, he was a local correspondent for the Donegal Democrat. At Ballyshanny he found "new heights of learning to be scaled". He was enthralled with Tolstoy's Resurrection, loaned to him by his English teacher, although he was uncomfortable about encountering strumpets in a classic work of literature. "The word prostitute was almost as detestable as that of Protestant in those enlightened days." Family circumstances forced him to cut short his formal education and at 14 he took a job as a tea-boy with the forestry workers in Castlecaldwell demesne. On his promotion to lumberjack, he felled trees, which were then cut and prepared for use as pit props in British coalmines. He later found better-paid employment as a road-roller flagman with Fermanagh County Council.

He joined the IRA in his late teens. In 1943 he was arrested in Enniskillen and sentenced to seven years penal servitude for the possession of explosives.

He resumed his education in Crumlin Road prison, studying Irish history and language. He became so engrossed in reading War and Peace that he continued to read after lights out, availing of the sliver of light through the peephole.

Fearing for his eyesight, the prison governor granted him an extra hour's light on condition that he discontinue the practice.

Following his release from prison, after serving four-and-a-half years of his sentence, he moved to Dublin where he qualified from UCD as a public health inspector.

In 1955 his work took him to Letterkenny where he and his wife, a public health nurse, joined forces to counter the conditions that assisted the spread of TB. The disease claimed more lives in Donegal than the Famine, and Paddy and Síle Tunney played a major role in bringing it under control.

He transferred to Galway for seven years before returning to Letterkenny in 1982.

He began broadcasting, first on Raidió Éireann and later on the BBC, working closely with Seán Mac Réamoinn and Seán O Boyle. Programmes like Nine Counties of Ulster and Music On The Hearth introduced the old songs to a new audience.

He continued to broadcast, collaborating with Ciarán MacMathúna on Ulster Folk for Raidió Éireann in the 1980s, and was recently the subject of a programme in the TG4 series, Sé Mo Laoch. He also featured in an award-winning BBC documentary.

He made a total of eight solo albums and can be heard on Where the Linnets Sing, with his mother, sons and daughter.

In 1967 he accepted a long-standing invitation from Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger to make the first of many British tours. He was a special guest of McColl's in a benefit concert for the miners during the epic strike of 1984-5. He toured the United States as part of the bicentenary celebrations in 1976, touring again in 1981. He regularly performed at the Tradition Club in Dublin.

Ever eager to expand his repertoire, he learned songs from Geordie Hanna, Len Graham, Gerry Hicks, Liam Anderson and Frank Harte. Singers were often reluctant to give the source of a song. Paddy Tunney remembered one who, under pressure, eventually blurted out, "I was courtin' a girl and I stole it out of her pocket". Among the singers influenced by Paddy Tunney were Dolores Keane, John Faulkner, Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine and Geordie McIntyre. He was always ready to encourage emerging talent and conducted master classes for young singers.

He counted Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy among his friends and wrote a song in memory of Ennis following the piper's death.

He was a staunch supporter of the GAA and a mainstay of Feis Thír Chonaill. He enjoyed fishing, not for therapy but to put fish - particularly trout - on the table. Late in life he mastered the computer.

His publications include the autobiographical The Stone Fiddle: My Way to Traditional Song, a selection of songs and stories, Where Songs Do Thunder, Ulster Folk Tales for Children and two volumes of poetry. He also wrote plays for radio and translated the poems of the Spanish mystic, St John of The Cross, into Irish.

He is survived by his wife, Síle; sons, Paddy, Cathal, Michael and John; and daughters, Brigid and Maura.

Paddy Tunney: born, January 28th, 1921; died December 7th, 2002.