Eugene O'Donnell

James MacCafferty and Eugene O'Donnell

“Eugene O’Donnell. He’s the greatest slow air player that ever lived, in my opinion.”  James MacCafferty

James had known Eugene since he was a young man when he had won five all - Ireland dancing championships. Those days in the late forties were times of great excitement at the Derry Feis when Eugene and Ted Kavanagh went head-to-head in the dancing competitions. James and Tony Black were the official accompanists for the dancing then and they played for him regularly. Such was Eugene’s proficiency that he was described as having “the best feet since Brian Boru” by one very enthusiastic adjudicator. James reckoned that Eugene’s sense of rhythm was so perfect that you could have gone out for half an hour and he would have been dancing at exactly the same tempo on your return.

As Eugene grew up he retained his interest in Irish dancing and went on to adjudicate at Feiseanna and festivals. He also developed his technique as a traditional violinist and he played in various ceili bands before he emigrated to the states in the mid-fifties. They met up again on James’s visits to the U.S.A. It was on one occasion in 1958 with the Little Gaelic Singers that he and Neil Carlin were invited to Tommy Guy’s apartment in New York for a musical soiree. In attendance were  a few Derry expatriates who performed their party pieces. Neil made a recording of the evening and the two men can still be heard combining to play some Irish airs.

In 1984 Eugene invited James to come to the States to record some music with him. James had composed a few airs, one of which was to commemorate his brother, Don, who had died the previous May. He took these with him to America and sketched out an arrangement for each of them, but in every other way the recording which they made was entirely spontaneous and unrehearsed. Eugene had hired the studio for two days but, as James observed, they  had the job completed much more quickly than that.  “In four hours we laid down about twelve tracks. I don’t know if we could do it again. I didn’t know what he was going to play and he didn’t know what I was going to play.”

The resulting recording reveals an uncanny musical understanding between the two men. Many of the airs are transformed by the sheer musicality of the playing. The listener cannot fail to be impressed by the beauty of the collaboration.  Eugene suggested calling the record “The Derry Pair” but it was eventually released several years later under the title “The Foggy Dew” and went on to win awards and   much popular acclaim. As a result of this success James and Eugene were invited to play numerous venues including Philadelphia State Fair.

When some years later Eugene returned to Derry to live, they did quite a bit of concert and cabaret work together, including a television recording of their rendition of Danny Boy which receives regular hits on YouTube.