Danny Meehan

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Fiddler Danny Meehan was born in 1940 and grew up in Drimalost, in the Blue Stack Mountains of south Donegal, in a family and local area with a rich musical heritage. At age sixteen he migrated first to Selby in Yorkshire. He worked in many places across Britain, finally settling in London in 1963 where he established a career as a self-employed stonemason. He also met and played with many great musicians in pubs, folk clubs, and concert halls in London. He appears on the album Paddy in the Smoke, with the group Le Chéile, and has two solo albums. He returned to live in Donegal in 2007. In 2012 TG4 honored him with the Gradam Saoil (Lifetime Achievement Award).

However, that biography doesn’t do him justice. He is a larger than life character – humorous, generous, self-effacing, and, as he says himself, still a bit wild. Those traits come through in his music as well – his clever variations on traditional tunes, his unwillingness to put his own name to original compositions, and, having lived through what he calls a “dark age” for music, an appreciation for the young musicians of today. His is a music shaped by his roots in Donegal, his 50 years in England, and the many musicians he heard and played with along the way.

Out of curiosity, during the interview I asked Danny about his grandparents, because I’d read that his grandfather migrated to Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century and returned to marry and settle down in Donegal. Danny’s response became the focus of an article, “‘Most Good Stories Are True, You Know’: History, Tradition, and Identity in a Family Story” in The Irish Review (vol. 53, 2016). In conjunction with that article, I have put my full oral history interview with Danny Meehan and recordings of his music on my PhD project website, Voices of Irish Music & Migration. The specific audio clips referenced in the article are also available from The Irish Review‘s website.

Huge thanks, of course, to Danny for sharing his stories and music. Thanks to Aidan O’Donnell for initially helping me get in touch with him. Danny’s nephew John Daly kindly provided additional information on the Meehan family history and the family photographs. Thanks to Clare O’Halloran and The Irish Review for supporting the publication.

As American As Pumpkin Pie: Thanksgiving in Cork

ThanksgivingIf the current academic job market gets the better of me, I might just become a baker. Well, maybe not, but I do enjoy baking and there’s no better time to use it to procrastinate than Thanksgiving. Having lived in Cork for several years now, it’s become a tradition for a few American friends to get together for a potluck-style Thanksgiving dinner. We’ve adapted the standard practices somewhat: we hold it on a weekend, so that we have time off for cooking and recovery; some ‘traditional’ foods are left off the menu due to lack of ingredients; we don’t watch football; and we’re a group of friends, rather than family. But we always manage to have a good time and eat too much!

Despite the changes, I think the holiday has a particular resonance for those of us living abroad. I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy Thanksgiving more living in Ireland than I did before, at least partly because like music – the subject of my research – the smells and tastes of familiar foods have a ‘visceral power’ to conjure up memories and ties to home and family.[1] Discussions with other Americans living in Ireland invariably turn to foods we miss – especially those we grew up with that can’t be made from scratch, or at least not easily. Historian Hasia Diner writes, ‘talking about food is a way of talking about family, childhood, community. Remembering foods open the floodgates of the past, as friends and acquaintances describe who they are, where they came from, and the textures and tastes of the time gone by.’[2] While she makes this statement in relation to ethnic food cultures in America, it applies to anyone living outside their native place or far from their family.

Pumpkin piesFor dinner parties I generally opt to contribute dessert. On previous Thanksgivings I’ve made apple pie, but this year I was lucky enough to have possession of a prized food item: a rare, 29-ounce, imported-via-suitcase can of pumpkin, enough to make not one but two pies. (Yes, I could cook an actual pumpkin and have done that in the past, but in the midst of a PhD I don’t have that much time to procrastinate). The ‘authenticity’ of pumpkin pie is debatable. Though pies were a common feature of early English cooking and pumpkins a staple of the early American diet, colonists at the first Thanksgiving(s) would not have had the flour or butter necessary for pastry. However, by the time President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863 pumpkin pies were well established in American cuisine. James Beard’s American Cookery, my favorite source for pie and cake recipes, has this to say about ‘pumpkin or squash pie’: ‘In the eighteenth century this, like all one-crust pies, was called a pudding. Yankees preferred the recipe made with pumpkin, while Southerners preferred sweet potatoes. Spices were not included until clipper ships made them a more common commodity, and molasses or sorghum was used [for] sweetening.’ The recipe as we know it today uses sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, evaporated milk or cream, and eggs combined with canned or freshly prepared pumpkin and baked in a pie crust. It doesn’t get more American – or more delicious – than that. Happy Thanksgiving!

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[1] Mark Slobin, ‘Music in Diaspora: The View from Euro-America’, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol.3, no.3 (Winter 1994), p.244.

[2] Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA & London, 2001), p.xv.