Serving his Apprenticeship

The Cathedral Choir with James & Don
Wee Willie
Concert Group at Castlederg 1946. Included are James, Leo O'Donnell, Jack Collins, Eugene O'Donnell, Wee Willie & Nellie McGee

In 1932 James and Don were still members of the Boy Scouts’ movement and attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in June with the Derry troop. The highlight of a memorable event was hearing John Mc Cormack sing “Panis Angelicus.” They both had the greatest regard for his musicianship, and James treasured his autograph. At home they often listened to Mc Cormack, Caruso, Gigli and Dame Nellie Melba on the family Edison Bell player.

Meanwhile, the brothers continued with their studies on piano and cello and competed at the feis. As their voices settled, they joined their father, Pat, in the bass line of various local choirs, including St. Eugene’s under Clemens Haan. A little while later they would all sing with John Mc Cabe’s St. Patrick’s choir.

Until the mid - thirties James worked regularly with Wee Willie’s concert parties. In a Radio Foyle interview he talked about the beginning of his career. “When I started first it would be quite usual to be doing four or five concerts a week. Of course the money for those concerts wouldn’t be big. If you were getting a ten shilling note or a pound, you were a millionaire. Wee Willie was the draw then. If his name was on the bill in the nine counties he would jam the place. But the style changed a lot. I could show you old programmes. We did concerts in St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny and the first half would have been miscellaneous, and that would be big songs like “The Trumpeter” and “Break of Day,” and the second half would be operatic and light operatic. You wouldn’t get away with that now. At that time Letterkenny, Ballybofey and Donegal Town were the Meccas of music.”

Journeys to these venues could be a gruelling business and passengers equipped themselves with rugs and hot drinks. Of course it wasn’t only the lack of heating that beset travellers. The roads were bad and the cars were unreliable with poor headlights and chancy brakes. James had many close calls. One car he was travelling in almost crashed over the corkscrew at Doochary. On another occasion they stopped just short of going over a cliff in the fog, and there were many times when they had to stuff  tyres with grass or whatever they could get their hands on to get home. It was quite common if he was going any distance for his mother to ask if he would be staying over. Concert parties were accustomed to arriving home in the wee small hours cold, hungry and exhausted. It is little wonder that James became a nervous passenger and soon developed a duodenal ulcer which was to plague him for so much of his life. 

While his career was to have many facets, concert work was to remain at the centre of his musical life for more than sixty years.