The late Tommy Peoples. Picture: Brian McDaid
Tommy Peoples was born in Letterkenny in 1948 and raised in the townland of Kinny Cally, St. Johnston. There was music on both his father Tom’s side as well as his mother, Mary Ellen Martin’s.
His paternal grandfather, Jamie, as well as his uncles and cousins were some of the most gifted fiddlers in his locality.
Tommy’s earliest childhood memory was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs in his home rocking and humming tunes he had absorbed amongst his family. This early musical intellect would grow to become one of the most profound minds in the history of traditional Irish music.
As a young teenager he would come to attend the Letterkenny Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann sessions in the Letterkenny Institute. Rather than play in the main room with the larger session he favoured playing in the backroom with the older musicians such as Frank Kelly, Jimmy Houston and Vincent Campbell in an effort to learn their repertoire and techniques. In his late teens he moved to Dublin for work and was soon making his mark with his already fully honed personal style of fiddle playing. One observer of similar age remembered his arrival in Dublin stating ‘we didn’t know what he was doing, because we never heard anything like it before. But we could hear he was Elvis, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles all rolled into one and we loved it from the first note’.
Tommy would eventually be recruited into such groups as the Green Linnet Céilí Band, 1691, The Kilfenora Céilí Band and the earth-shaking Bothy Band. He once said that his most enjoyable time playing on a stage was his time with The Kilfenora Céilí Band in that he could sit in the back out of the limelight and play music with his good friends and look out at happy couples and people of all age groups having simple, joyous fun dancing.
He married Maria Linnane and settled in County Clare raising a family. Tommy’s recording career had begun and would grow to be prolific even by modern standards. Increasingly those epic tunes which he had been quietly, and typically not publicly acknowledging as deriving from his pen, were finding their way into the national repertoire as precious melodic gems. As his solo career grew he was in constant demand for public performances. His reputation as an ethnic fiddler of astonishing ability was now globally recognised.
When the publishing house, Outline Press, produced its landmark 1991 limited edition work, The Violin Book, which definitively examined the violin family of instruments, the work illustrated the wonder of the instruments mainly through the greatest classical violinists such as Kreisler, Menuhin, Perlman etc. There were only two players of the instrument to be featured from outside the classical music masters. One of those was Tommy Peoples.
Tommy spent a brief period in Boston where he took America by storm and found solace in reaffirming old ties with near neighbour P.V. O’Donnell who had emigrated from Buncrana years before.
A desire to spend life at home saw his return to the family home Kinny Cally where he saw out the remainder of his life and eventually publishing his epic work Ó Am go hAm, a tome which included a collection of his compositions, folklore, history, personal experiences and reflections on the music.
He was the only double recipient of the TG4 Awards; the first for his Lifetime Achievement and the second as Composer of the Year.
Tommy was a quiet, humble and private person. He had a tremendous and inquisitive intellect. He was a voracious reader and a writer of extraordinary talent. He was passionate in his love for the Irish language. But it was his fiddle playing that marked him as an extraordinary genius. He will be dearly missed by his widow, Maria and his children grandchildren and great grandchild as well as his very dear companion, Julie Pechilis Costello. His tunes will echo in the playing of his gifted daughter Siobhán, nephew Séamus Gibson and relation through marriage, Thomas Strain.
Whenever Irish traditional music is played in the generations to come, the name and music of Tommy Peoples will hold a central and greatly revered place. Every generation of players produces its gifted, shining individuals. Some emerge as glistening stars of various shades. Very rarely there comes a dazzling, wondrous comet. That was Tommy Peoples, a player whose prodigious gift challenged us to comprehend its awesome beauty. The firmament of traditional music has darkened greatly with his passing. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a Anam uasal.