Past Pupils and Success

Poem written by Niamh MacCafferty about her grandfather
Poem written by Sarah Lynch (former pupil)
Tribute from former pupil

Phil Coulter

In a city with a proud history of music I can honestly think of no one who had a bigger influence over generations of aspiring singers and musicians than James MacCafferty. Although I seem to be one of the few who was never actually taught by James he was a towering presence as I was growing up and inevitably our paths crossed often as my own career developed. As a young pianist I was enthralled by his seemingly effortless accompaniments to an endless stream of entries onstage in the Guildhall in the Tenor Solo in ‘the Feis’. His calming influence was one thing. His sight reading skills were world class.

Every family in Derry knew somebody, adult or child, who sang in one of James’ choirs . Back in the day we all shared in the excitement and the glamour of The Little Gaelic Singers touring the United States, amongst whom was a young Angela Cassidy, who would later become Mrs Phil Coulter. It was a measure of his versatility that he could easily swap that role for the even more demanding one of Musical Director to the legendary series of Sunday night concerts in St Columbs Hall, featuring a whole range of visiting acts, starring Frank Carson, hosted by Don O’Doherty and produced by a young Fr Edward Daly. Glory days indeed.

One of my fondest memories was of a BBC James MacCafferty Tribute filmed in the Guildhall. At one stage proceedings had to stop for some technical hitch and to keep the audience amused James and I played an impromptu four handed version of Chopsticks! He was universally respected by musicians and much loved by the people of Derry. What a legacy.


Dana Rosemary Scallon

 I was six years old when I first met James MacCafferty.  I was the last to sing in a talent competition in St Columb's Hall and Mr MacCafferty, as I always called him, was the excellent accompanist. I won the competition and it became  the first of many times he would accompany me through the years, as I grew up in Derry. 
As a professional singer I've worked with hundreds, if not thousands of fine pianists throughout the world, but James MacCafferty was in a class of his own, not just as a musician, but also because of his empathy with the singer. His fingers would glide over the piano keys, but his focus was entirely on the performer; ebbing and flowing with you throughout the piece, encouraging, but never overpowering. A  masterclass in elegant and effortless musicianship.
He also had a keen eye for talent which he nurtured and showcased. Whether it was leading the way into America  with The Little Gaelic Singers, or providing a platform for first rate soloists in concert venues throughout Ireland,  Britain and further afield. The school of music he founded helped to build a community of highly respected singers and musicians. Thankfully, that musical legacy of excellent teaching, encouragement and development of talent, is carried on by Una and supported by his whole family. Little did I know, as a nervous six year old on the stage of St Columb's Hall, that I would come to know and love the MacCafferty family and form lifelong friendships with them. I feel honoured to be able to share my thoughts and give my thanks to one of Derry's finest sons. Thank you James MacCafferty.

Maragret Keys

I started singing lessons at the Mc Cafferty School of Music at the tender age of 4 years old. The lovely gentleman that was Mr James Mc Cafferty first opened his door to me at Francis Street, Derry, with a wide smile, a pipe in his hand and a talent that he was willing to share. He introduced me to singing and performing and I have never looked back. He created a friendly and fun atmosphere in his lessons which gave me the confidence I needed to carry from my singing lesson on to the stage as a performer."

"As part of the Mc Cafferty School of Music, I competed successfully in Feiseanna and won several bursaries and awards. I also achieved my singing grades with distinctions from the Trinity College of Music, London, and was awarded the Trinity College of Music Medal for the highest mark in graded examinations. All of these opportunities given to me at the Mc Cafferty School of music at such a young age has enabled me to have a full time career as a professional classical singer, performer and recording artist. "

Frank Gallagher

James MacCafferty was one of the biggest influences on my life in music. I first met him when, aged 9, I attended his singing classes with Austin O'Donnell, and Paul Murphy amongst others.

We were 'Master Gallagher', 'Master Murphy' etc, but he was always 'James', and he did his best to shepherd us through various feiseanna and pantomime choruses.

He was one of my first musical heroes, and I would often sit until the late hours of Feis Doire Colmcille simply to hear him accompany the singing competitions in his inimitable style. He was a master accompanist, putting all competitors, from the nervous under 9s in the boys solo,  to the seasoned veterans, completely at ease with his sympathetic stylings.

Later on, as I ventured off to study music and begin my first professional endeavours, James became a wonderfully insightful and supportive friend, and I would often visit with him to soak up as much as I could from his experience and knowledge. Many of the anecdotes and advice he shared with me stay with me to this day.

It was my privilege and an honour to have had James in my life, from boy to man, and I cherish all the memories. 

Wendy Ferguson

At the age of eight I made my first journey to The MacCafferty School of Music.  We gathered round the piano and listened quietly as James MacCafferty gently enthused us all with his love of music.  How fortunate I was to have as my teacher a man so musical, full of knowledge, encouraging and enthusiastic that each and everyone of us loved our classes and wanted to learn.  These classes taught me not only the music I was to learn for an up coming feis, but also to respect my fellow classmates and to strive to do my best at all times.

It was never important to Mr MacCafferty who won a competition, we all got a well done pat on our heads and moved onto our next challenge.  There was never a sense that any one child was better than another.  Music was the language that brought us all together and through sharing our love for singing we made great friends. The cultural divide, which was so prevalent in Derry in my youth, was bridged by music.

Had I not gone to the MacCafferty School of Music I would never have found my passion for music nor found my voice.  I have James to thank for encouraging me on my career path and instilling a love for music and storytelling that drives me to continue to perform. 


Paul Murphy

James MacCafferty was an inspiration to me as a boy and a young adult and is still, to this day, the sort of musician I most admire. He was firstly, a fine pianist with a particular skill for accompaniment and improvisation. In addition, he was a superb singing teacher for both children and adults and an excellent chorus master; in short, the perfect all – round musician.

James clearly loved music, performing, teaching and his family. He made time for people and was a brilliant communicator. These unselfish and human qualities are rare amongst artists of this calibre.

James instilled the love of music in me as a young man through his inspiring playing and his encouragement. He once said to me that if he had to live his life over again he “would do exactly the same thing” – clearly the words of a man who loved his life.

His legacy speaks for itself and there are hundreds of fortunate people over the years that have been influenced by his extraordinary gifts. I consider myself blessed to have been one of them.

Fergal Murray

With his inimitable style and lush musicality James was the consummate piano accompanist. He was my earliest memory of watching someone play without the aid of sheet music (cheatsheets as they are known nowadays in the business!). I used to marvel at his improvising skills and how he would constantly tailor his accompaniment to suit the singer at hand. He always played with a smile on his face and a lightness of touch which seemed to give off some kind of magic to those around him. He inspired countless Derry children to believe in their abilities and to enjoy music for music’s sake. His legacy was the immense musical generosity he gave to the people of Derry. A man of few words, he let his piano playing do the talking.

My sister Berna went to James for the Feiseanna and for Babes in the Wood at St Columbs Hall. She remembers his beautiful accompaniments, and how he used to relaxe between songs with the pipe. She said he was a gentle soul who never raised his voice. He didn’t care too much for money when it came to payment time, and instead would often say ”go off and buy some sweets with it”! My other sister Marie got her first gold medals at the Feis with James, when she was 7 yrs old (around 1971). She said he inspired the whole class, and made them all feel equally special. She remembers a constant flow of laughter, conversation and music in his house. He instilled a great love of music in her and a confidence in her singing abilities. He used to transport her with his accompaniments and to this day she never forgets how he accompanied Austin O”Donnell at the Feis playing “ The Star of the County Down” – and how she wanted to dance to it’s rhythm. She often says he was the best accompanist she ever had.  He was a very comfy, generous soul who smiled a lot and made people laugh around him. He would encourage the children at the Feis to go out and show the stuffy, visiting adjudicators what the talented Derry singers were made of! One of Marie’s gold medals with him was for “Evening Song”. Here's “Tom’s Song” which brought her some success on radio and tv a while back also...

Doreen Curran

James had a unique musical talent. I don't think that I've encountered anyone quite like him in my musical career to date. He had a gift not just for the music on the page but with people. He encouraged, supported and nurtured with a ready and easy smile...his pipe was also never too far away!

James ability at the piano was truly something, he could read any score that was put in front of him (and transpose into any imaginable key) while offering a unique insight into the heart and soul of the music. Working with James was always a pleasure, he had a casual warmth and openess that put everyone in his company at ease.

After James heard me sing as Cantor at St. Eugene's Cathedral he suggested that I enter the Carndonagh Feis as a singer. He gave me some great songs to work on, hello young lovers and voi che sapete. I'm so grateful to him, perhaps he knew back then that Cherubino would become one of my most performed and loved roles.

As for the Feis in Carndonagh I think it might have been fate because the lady adjudicating was later to become my singing teacher and close friend. It's funny, I don't think that either of us could have known that my future was being mapped out as he handed me the music that day in Francis Street!

James was an absolute gentleman a real one of a kind and it was a genuine privilege to have known and worked with him.

John Deery

To the world he was James MacCafferty, pianist extraordinaire, international choir master and devoted music teacher who taught generations of Derry people to sing, but to us he was just our Papa, kind, warm and loving grandfather. Growing up, Papa was a real inspiration to us, and I always admired how somebody with the international career and reputation that he had could remain so humble and down to earth.

Being surrounded by music and hearing stories of taking The Little Gaelic Singers to America to star alongside Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show were truly inspirational and helped to plant a seed early on about the possibility of a career in music for me. I remember singing beside the piano as a little boy in Francis Street and getting a gentle reminder by way of a rolled-up newspaper to the back of the head if I wasn’t singing the song right; this is one of my favourite memories of Papa and has probably made me a better singer as an result.

When we formed John Deery and The Heads in 2010, I started wearing a trilby hat similar to the one James always wore, as a little nod to the role he had played in inspiring me to pursue a career in music and have been wearing hats on stage ever since. James was a true inspiration to generations of Derry musicians and singers and we were lucky enough to call him our Papa.

John Deery


Trevor Burnside

My earliest memories of Mr MacCafferty are of James playing for the singers at the Feis in the late 50’s. His ability to accompany performers is legendary with or without music. His ability to “make it up” as he went along in any style and any key was amazing. As a young pianist I was in awe of his art.

As the years went by, he treated me as a friend and musician on the same level as himself. I was very happy to stand and “chat” to him at the usual spot in the corridor outside the main hall in the Guildhall for many years.

In the 90’s I played on shows alongside the maestro. The last show was at Rossapena Hotel. He had to play a keyboard I was using as there was no piano available, (he hated electronic keyboards). It was the last time I heard him sing at the end of his performance, he sang “The Parting Glass”.

The MacCafferty Family say that when I play, I sound like their father, what a compliment!