TradConnect Interview - Dónal McCague on his TG4 Gradam Young Musician Award

When you are sitting at home on a dreary January afternoon with a cold eastern front outside freezing every creative spark from your fingers, excitement may seem like a thousand miles away.  The first couple of weeks are over in the day job teaching primary school children.  The old saying that January is a very long month seems very true.

A phone call from TG4 is probably the last thing on your mind, but none the less it is a welcome distraction on an otherwise uneventful day. For Dónal McCague such a phone call brought news that made the cold eastern front a minor irritation.  When you have played music with a passion all your life and it has consumed both body and soul the news that you have been picked as TG4 Gradam Young Traditional Musician of the Year still comes as a major surprise.  It literally leaves you floundering as you try to comprehend both the honour and the challenges of the month ahead.

“It was a great honour to get the call,” he explains. “I was just sitting at home when I got the call from one of the organisers in TG4 telling me that I had been chosen.  It was a bit of a shock as it came out of nowhere.  I found out in mid-January and the nominations were not announced until February 12th.”

"I was just sitting at home when I got the call from one of the organisers in TG4"

Carrying this information around in your head and not being able to reveal it to anyone other than your closest family was as big a challenge as the event itself, Dónal reveals. The next challenge was choosing what to play on the night of the awards. Dónal followed a recent trend by picking some well-known old traditional tunes that had a simple but inherent beauty to them. He describes himself as an old style traditional musician at heart anyway, so this was no surprise. The tunes he chose to play were The Monaghan Jig and Kitty Lie Over.

“The Monaghan Jig is a great jig” he explains.  “There are a couple of nice parts in it and it gives you a chance to get into playing it. It allows you to get into a bit of a rhythm and you can get relaxed into the set. I just wanted to play that one because I am from Monaghan and I also like the tune.  The rhythm is in the tune without you having to put it into it yourself. Then I was listening to a recording of Noel Hill and he was playing Kitty Lie Over and I thought that might be a nice one to play. He was playing it on an E flat concertina. I tried to put the tunes together but it wasn’t working going from the Em into the D. I was trying to do Kitty Lie Over first and then go into the Em jig and it wasn’t really working either so I thought I’d try Kitty Lie Over in E Major. That gave it a nice lift from minor to major”.

Picking such traditional tunes would seem to indicate a certain compliance with an unspoken code regarding the type of music that the producers were looking for but Dónal explained that this was not the case “No they don’t tell you what music you should play. Because they have picked you on the style of music that you are known for, or the way that you play, they don’t turn around and say you should be playing a certain style or for that matter a certain tune. The way I played at the concert is my natural style anyway.”

So did the pressure of the event get to him or was it smooth sailing?. “It was just really good crack and I got to meet lots of great musicians. I had never met Sharon Shannon in my life before and it was almost as if we had known each other for 20 years.  It’s great to meet some of these people and feel right at home in their company. I met Liam O’ Flynn and others for the first time as well. Great names that you have always heard about and you have never seen in person before. You can chat away to them as if you have known them for a while.  I went back to the Castletroy Hotel afterwards and had a couple of tunes with Tim Edey, Sharon Shannon, Dermot Byrne and Derek Hickey. There were three or four others that joined in as well.”

"It’s great to meet some of these people and feel right at home in their company."

Our discussion turned to other matters, not least the release of his much acclaimed album Bits "N" Pieces just over a year ago. We asked if album sales were as critical to musicians these days.  “It depends if you are doing it for the sole purpose of a professional career or not. Some musicians like myself still have a day job. I’m teaching in a primary school so I kind of have something else going on. People that are at the music full time would I assume need to make a bit of money from it and at least break even. For me it was just a thing of putting together an album of tunes. It showed where you were at with your music at a particular stage in time.

On marketing and sales Dónal feels that downloads from iTunes may be more popular than they used to be.  “People might want to select a certain track they want to buy. Also if you download a whole album it’s nearly half the price that you can buy it for in the shop. Downloads are a lot more popular as people can stick it straight onto their iPods.  They can pick and choose what they want to put onto their devices.”

On making another album Dónal has thought about a couple of different combinations but hasn’t  really gotten around to thinking too much about it. “I probably will record something in the next year or so. I have recorded some tracks for an album that will be out in the next 6 or 7 months. It’s an album of compositions that my brother has put together and various musicians will play on it."

We ask if his inspiration comes from some of the greats or if he is influenced by more modern musicians. He explains that he “wouldn’t have listened to a lot of Coleman and Killoran until recent years. The recordings that I would have had were early De Dannan recordings and early recordings of Frankie Gavin on fiddle and flute. I would have had the album that Dezie Donnelly and Michael McGoldrick brought out called Champions of the North. I remember eating that stuff when I was about 8 or 9.  I listened a good bit to Jesse Smith as well. I wouldn’t have listened to Tommy Peoples till I was about 14 or 15. But from then on I really got into him. I was at a few master classes he did and he gave us a couple of tunes. He also did a concert that I recorded and I had a lot of raw stuff rather than official albums of him playing so I suppose it was accessible for me to sit down and listen to them”.

So what inspires Dónal? How does he get into the music, to express himself and the tunes that he plays? “Every musician is their own worst critic” he says. “The mood you are in at the time dictates a lot. If you feel like attacking it you may play hard or if you are relaxed you could be sitting back playing it nice and handy. You could have a certain fiddle player in your head that you heard playing the tune before and it may influence the way you are playing it at a certain time. It could be something you figured out yourself that you like playing as part of the tune or a common variation that you play that you might put into three or four different tunes as well. I think it’s a lot to do with the mind set you are in at a particular time when you are playing. How relaxed you are or if you are really dying to go for it”.

Whatever his next move is, one thing that can’t be taken from him is Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2013.  He stood on the same stage with some of the biggest names in traditional music and that night will live long in the memory.  For now it’s back to school, to his other adoring young fan’s where hopefully some of the fiddle magic will rub off and inspire the next generation.

You can read our review of Dónal’s debut album Bits “N” Pieces here and can visit his website at

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Comment by Baxter Labatos on April 29, 2013 at 19:13

Fascinating interview with an amazing musician!

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