Honouring Sligo Fiddler Sheila O Dowd

Honouring Sligo Fiddler Sheila O Dowd

On Sunday Augst 4th, 2019, the symposium at Riverstown’s 27th James Morrison Traditional Music Festival honoured the life and times of Sligo Fddler Sheila O Dowd. A packed gathering at the, now newly extended, Morrison Teach Ceoil listened with admiration, shared stories and accecdodes and expressed heartfelt congratulations for a much admired ‘keeper of the flame’ of Sligo fiddling, Sheila O Dowd.

Sheila was born and reared in the townland of Ballyfahy, Bunnanaddan, Co. Sligo. Ballyfahy and its neigbouring townlands of Killavill and Everlaun are central to the heartland of Coleman Country. Sheila, the only daughter of Frank Regan and Anne Boland, was a childhood friend of Fred Finn (Killavil)and Martin Wynne (Everlaun). Sheila had five brothers, Frank, John, Mick, Vincent and Séamus. Shiela’s grandfather hailed from Co Cork, her father played fiddle and her family home was a rambling house. Her mother Anne always extended a céad míle fáilte to the numerous friends ,musicians,singers and dancers.

Having attended Secondary School in Swinford,Co.Mayo, Sheila, like many of her classmates, emigrated in 1953 to England. Sheila trained in Mental Heath but while in the UK worked for some years with The British Air Ministry in Gloucestershire. After c. two years she returned to resume her nursing career at St Columba’s Hospital in Sligo. Like many another young person Sheila’s interests were in following the football teams and attending the local dance halls. One very important occasion was the official opening in 1955 of Sligo’s Markievicz Park. This marked a turning point in Sheila’s life as it was on that day that Sheila met and befriended a near neighbour, the fiddler Joe O Dowd.

Joe was born and reared,midway between Ballyfahy and Gorteen, in the townland of Knocknaskeagh. Sheila & Joe got married on Sept 2nd1958. They were blessed with seven children, Mary, Tom,Tony, Joe,Seamus, Irene, and Sandra.

Family members and old friends gathered from far and near for the symposium. Rick Epping, originally from California, spoke of the kindness and friendship extended to him by the O Dowd family from the moment himself and the late Thom Moore arrived in Sligo back in July 16th 1969, the night of the Moon landing. Rick was not alone in his praise of Sheila’s welcoming personality. Sheila also displayed that sense of patience with several pupils as she taught the fiddle either at home or at Tubbercurry’s South Sligo Summer School.

Interlaced with the memories from family and friends we listened to a vintage selection of old recordings. The selection,mainly from the archives, was kindly arranged by accordion player, Daithí Gormley. Tracks included Sheila herself playing a reel version of ‘The Geese in the Bog’ as played by Lad O Beirne, Martin Wynne playing his Reel No1; Johnny ‘Watt’ Henry playing his own composition,the jig, ‘Henry’s No 1’; a 1950’s recording of Joe O Dowd playing the reels ‘The Humours of Lissadell & The Queen of May’; ‘The Queen of May’ from Peter Horan & Fred Finn, regarded by many as one of the finest duets of all time; a reel solo from Seamie O Dowd; a song, ‘The Maid over the Mountain’ from Joe’s late lamented nephew Tom Gibney; the jigs ‘The Girls of Bambridge & The Old Apples in Winter’ from Joe, Seamie & Sheila and finally Sheila herself playing ‘The Tarbolton Reel’.
Following a presentation by Riverstown CCE Chairperson, Padraig Kerins, up to twenty five of Sheila’s musical friends and colleagues played a rousing session of tunes from the vast store of Sligo’s traditional music. A Shíle, go maire tú an céad.

Máirtín Enright.