A series by Eugene Dunphy

I’ve just called in to see you all, I’ll
only stay a while.
I want to see how you’re getting on,
I want to see you smile;
I’m happy to be back again, and I
greet you big and small,
For there’s no place else on earth
just like the homes of Donegal.

Every time I hear it, I’m transported back to that roaring turf fire in my aunt’s thatched cottage, in the townland of Pullyernan, just outside Castlederg, on the Donegal/Tyrone border. This was where relations and neighbours shared stories and recited verse to the rhythm of the wall-clock pendulum, where we feasted on freshly baked bread and boiled duck eggs, all washed down with mugs of strong tay.

My uncle, God be good to him, wore his cap at a jaunty angle, and kept a secret potion in a corked bottle on the high shelf behind the door, well out of harm’s way. That dark coloured elixir, I heard it say, was often availed of by neighbours who wanted ‘a cure for the janndees’ (jaundice).

Only recently did I discover that the lyrics of ‘The Homes of Donegal’ were written by Seán Mac Giolla Bhríde (Sean MacBride), a native of Cruit Island in West Donegal.

Seán worked for many years as a schoolteacher at St. Baithin’s school in Carrigans/St. Johnston, in the eastern part of his home county. He is known to have written four plays, and contributed a number of poems and short stories to the Derry Journal and Ireland’s Own.

In the early 1950s, he composed words to fit a well-known traditional air which had graced the lyric of an old Derry ballad, The Faughan Side. Soon, Seán presented The Homes of Donegal to his brother-in-law Charles Magee (stage name Charlie McGee), the singer and guitarist from Derry City; Charlie would later record the song for a Dublin-based recording company.

Apart from being something of a pioneer in the field of music, Charlie McGee was a keen sportsman. He was a professional goalkeeper in the 1930s, playing for Coleraine United, Sligo Rovers and Limerick United.
After hanging up his soccer boots, he ran the Richmond Bar, the family pub in Derry, and when ‘the Yanks’ were stationed in Derry in the 1940s, he bought his first guitar from an American GI. He soon became a virtuoso of the instrument, his performance style similar to that of jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt.

Charlie also wrote a few ballads of his own, and was a dab hand at the harmonica, long before Bob Dylan sang songs to guitar and harmonica accompaniment. One of his pals was fellow Derry man Danny Gallagher, father of rock guitarist, Rory Gallagher.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own