Pádraig Donlon entertains President Michael D. Higgins
It is no wonder that Padraig Donlon, one of our two Special Recognition Award 2018 recipients, grew up to be the gifted traditional musician he is together with being steeped in its culture. As a boy it was everywhere around him.
Padraig Donlon was the first of three children born to James and Veronica Donlon in the Townland of Aughaloughan, Rathcline parish, about four miles south of Lanesboro. His dad, now deceased, was a local man while his mum, Veronica Carley, came from the adjoining parish of Newtowncashel. Their source of livelihood was a small farm which had been passed from generation to generation. It was no surprise then that Padraig spent much of his early and teenage years helping out with the day to day work of farm life.
Living only a mile from Fermoyle NS, the then three teacher school was the obvious choice for primary education for Padraig and his two sisters Teresa and Nuala. Following those early years under the caring and watchful eye of Principal Seán Cahill and his small team Padraig then attended Lanesboro Vocational School where he completed the Group, Intermediate and Leaving Cert examinations. He then studied Civil Engineering at Athlone and Dundalk third level Regional Colleges.
His first employment was on construction projects in Dundalk and Dublin with Gilbert Ash Construction. This was followed by a two year period as a surveyor with Bord na Móna in the Kildare/Offaly area. In 1985 he joined the engineering staff of Louth County Council where he continues to work. In 1987 Padraig married Valerie Leech, a champion dancer from Dundalk. They have a family of four, two boys and two girls. Dundalk based Cillian works in Dublin. Iarla and Siobhán live in Budapest and Glasgow respectively while Fionnuala is a second year student in Maynooth University.
It would have been almost impossible for Padraig to grow up without developing an interest in Traditional Irish music. His dad played the fiddle while his mum had a great interest in set dancing. At the age of eight or so he started learning the whistle with help and guidance of his dad. Shortly after that Fr John Quinn came to Lanesboro as CC. He had a great interest in Irish music and Céilí Bands in particular and it wasn’t long before Padraig, Teresa and Nuala were attending weekly band practices under the watchful eye of Fr Quinn.
While Padraig’s dad was known for his fiddle playing, he also had a great love for the uilleann pipes and when Padraig was twelve his dad had a practice set made for him. There wasn’t a pipes teacher available so Padraig spent much of his teenage years teaching himself the pipes. Padraig considers himself very lucky to have lived very close to musicians like Pat Shea, Paddy Kearney, Dan Kelly, James Hanley, Jimmy Fallon, Michael Flynn and Peter Carberry. Many of them were neighbours and Padraig shared many a lively tune with them over the years. It was while playing with Fr Quinn’s junior bands at Fleadhanna all over the country that he was bitten by the Fleadh bug.
He won the All-Ireland Senior whistle competition at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 1985 and the Senior Uilleann Pipes title at the 1989 Fleadh. In 1990 he joined forces with Peig McGrath and Lorraine McMahon to win the All-Ireland Senior Trio title. Padraig was a member of the renowned Siamsa Céilí Band from Dundalk when they won back to back All-Ireland Céilí titles in 1989 and 1990. Some years later he was involved in setting up the Táin Céilí Band and was their leader when they won the coveted Senior Band title three years in succession from 1998 - 2000. They played to their biggest live audience on a December night in 2000 when they entertained President Bill Clinton and an audience of over sixty thousand in Dundalk town centre. Padraig has performed on numerous television and radio programmes and recently featured on one of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017 television programmes.
Music has been Padraig’s passport to the world. He has been a member of the Comhaltas Tour of North America on three occasions and Britain on two occasions. He regularly performs with the Cashel-based group Brú Boru and, apart from performances in most European countries, they have also performed in China, Japan, South Korea, Africa and the US.
Since the late eighties Padraig has devoted much of his time to the work of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann as an administrator, a teacher and an adjudicator. He now dedicates more time to organising and adjudicating at Fleadhanna Cheoil than he does playing at them. Last year he was very much involved in the running of the very successful Leinster Fleadh in Ballymahon and he is currently a member of the Fleadh executive committee planning for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2018 in Drogheda. It was in recognition of his life long contribution to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and traditional music that Padraig was presented with the prestigous award of Árd Ollamh during Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017 in Ennis.
Recognising that the gift he received from his father Padraig ensured that all Padraig’s family had the opportunity to learn and play music. Cillian (Concertina), Iarla and Siobhán (Fiddle) and Fionnuala (Harp) all learned and played with the Dundalk branch of Comhaltas. Siobhán performed with the Cross Border Orchestra for several years while Fionnuala an All-Ireland champion harpist currently performs with the National Folk Orchestra.
While living and working in Dublin in the early 1980s Padraig was introduced to the Longford Association by his cousin Tim Donlon, a Longford man living in Dublin for many years, and is now one of its Life Presidents. He was drafted into their talented group which went on to win a couple of inter-county talent competitions - then organised by the Laois association - with Padraig’s talent helping the Longford Association’s team comfortably over the line.
“Even though my time in the capital was short, I remember a few good nights with the Longford gang in the Millmount House in Drumcondra,” he concludes.