Donal McCague: This Fiddle’s On Fire! (Interview)

Donal McCague is the best kept secret of traditional Irish music. His playing is explosive and yet he never looses that cool , collected pose. It’s a quiet storm -or something like that to see him perform live. I think this is attributed to years of training and influences going back to the ‘old school’ type of fiddling,with names like Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison.

Donal is always eager to share what he knows and is also excited to hear what other musicians say. This is clear in the tweets we shared as he said ” I may also be inspired by others you interview as well!” This humility and openness earned him supporters in the traditional scene from fellow musicians.

From Co. Monaghan, Donal already displayed the potential at an early age. No wonder he is going national and Internationally as the trad scene is attracting young audiences worldwide. It is a very competitive scene where precision, phrasing and style are given importance. But one has to follow the beat of his own drum and thus persistence will earn one a place among the stars. It is beautiful to see this talent unfold and this unique performer go places. Donal is one artist who will set ears on fire for years to come. CMF is lucky to have him as guest and I hope his story will not only inspire readers but also fellow musicians whom I am sure are eager to know what’s the craic!

Many fiddle players influenced my style of fiddle playing. You can go back to the 1920’s when we had the likes of Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison. These three men were the start of the fiddling tradition and many players from today’s generation try to replicate their styles.



Why the album title Bits N’ Pieces?

I decided upon the name “Bits ‘N’ Pieces” back in early June 2011 while attending a friends wedding. There were a few reasons for it.
Firstly, I felt that it was an appropriate name for the album as I have learned music here and there from many musicians down through the years by listening to recordings. Therefore I probably have taken bits and pieces of other fiddle players touches and moulded them together to come up with my own personal style of fiddle-playing.

Another reason for the title “Bits ‘N’ Pieces” would generate from being a County Monaghan native. Bits n Pieces is a commonly used phrase when people are in conversation with each other around here and it always seems to be said. So, I decided to use the phrase as I think it is catchy and people might remember the title of it.

You have a Zen way of playing the fiddle yet the music is explosive. Is this the new trend?

Yes explosive could be a way of putting it. A lot of the tracks on the album are more upbeat and with there being such great accompanying artists who inspire you and give you ideas playing along with me, it’s hard not to feel energised and relaxed. This would contribute to the music coming across as lively. Is this the new trend? Well, who knows?! I just want to get out there, play the music that satisfies me most and hope that the listeners enjoy what I do. Many musicians play good, up-tempo music. If I have set a new trend, I would take that as a bonus. Enjoying the music is the main thing.

You are TradConnect’s artist of the month! How does it feel?

I am very honoured to be TradConnect’s artist of the month. Only recently at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann did I actually come face to face with the website’s administrator, Tony Lawless. I came in contact with Tony back in June on Twitter where we discussed his website and I mentioned that I had an album coming out in the near future. In turn, Tony advised that I send him a copy of the album when it came out and if it merited album of the month, Tony said he would do that for me. Luckily enough for me, he must have enjoyed it immensely. It is another bit of publicity for me starting out in my musical career and every little helps.

What’s the ideal practice routine for you? How many hours a day should a musician practice?

I feel that getting the practice in when you are very young gives you the best possible chance to succeed in your chosen field, be it in music, sport or your what ever you do. I started playing Traditional Irish Music at the age of 3 on the Tin Whistle and swiftly moved to the Fiddle aged 4. From the age of 4-13/14, I probably would have put in an hour’s practice everyday, 7 days a week. I was also getting weekly lessons until the age of 10. After that, I was self-taught. I listened to a lot of CD’s and various instruments. I have three brothers, all older, who had been playing music in my ears since I was born so it was natural for me to learn by ear. After listening to a tune once or twice I would have had it off by heart. The amount of time spent practicing depends on the musician, the type of music they play and how big a stage they want to reach in their careers in my opinion. It’s up to the individual to decide how much they want to practice. They can then choose whether or not they still want to play music and if they do want to play after testing the water for a while, they will definitely enjoy the experience.

I never had a specific routine for practicing but there was always things I did the same all the time. I would set an aim for the next half an hour. e.g. I want to be able to do a roll on the G note. After that, I would do some simple stretches on the wrist etc to loosen up. Practicing finger positions and scales is advisable also before commencing to the learning of a tune. So by setting small, simple targets each day, you eventually come round to being able to do a lot of things in a relatively short space of time.

Who do do you think became a big musical influence for you?

Many fiddle players influenced my style of fiddle playing. You can go back to the 1920’s when we had the likes of Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison. These three men were the start of the fiddling tradition and many players from today’s generation try to replicate their styles. But as I said before, I like to take a small bit from everyone’s playing and merge them. In the more recent past I would look at the great Seán Maguire as on of my influences. Maguire was the king of Irish Fiddle playing until his death around 6 years. That man could do anything on the fiddle. His classical training meant that he could skip around the finger board in his sleep practically. Then we have the likes of Tommy Peoples, Frankie Gavin. Cathal Hayden, John Carty, Brian Rooney (The Godfather as he is also known), Jesse Smith, the great Seán Keane and last but not least, Father Séamus Quinn from Fermanagh. All of the fore mentioned players have left their scars on my playing. I was fortunate enough to play with Frankie Gavin himself in the National Concert Hall, Dublin when I was just 15 so that made a big impression on me. It’s things like that which inspire you as a young musician looking to prosper. I have also attended masterclasses by the legendary Tommy Peoples from the Bothy Band at which he taught me the tune “Julia Devine’s” which features on Track 4 of the album.

 Tell us about the brand of fiddle that you play and maybe a little bit of the tips for caring for your instrument.

Unfortunately I don’t actually know the maker of the fiddle I am currently playing but if I knew, I would buy another one of them now! My father bought it for my older brother Michael who plays guitar on my album around 17 years ago for around 600 Irish pounds. It was a lot of money at the time but it could not have went to a better idea in my opinion!

To keep the fiddle in proper order you should change your strings about 4-5 times a year. Obviously that depends on the amount of time you spent playing it. The more you play, the more wear and tear there will be. It is important to keep putting rosin on your bow as if you don’t, the bow will slip from the strings and it can often lead to some notes not being played even though the bow is playing on the string. A general cleaning of the fiddle itself can do no harm once in a while to keep it looking the part. I would also advise using a cloth to clean the strings after you play as this prevents a clog up of sweat and dirt on your string which will lead to you needing to buy strings more regularly that you should have to.

What are the big no nos for musicians before performing and also afterwards? (Things you need to avoid).

With being an Irish musician and taking the Irish culture into consideration, It is important at all costs to keep your alcohol consumption down to the bare minimum before playing on stage. This will show a good level of your professionalism. Another thing you should avoid is going on the stage cold. You should have played some tunes on your instrument for 10-15 minutes at the very least before going on stage meaning that from the first set you play, you will be up to scratch and playing the best music possible to you at that very moment. In my opinion you should always have a set list made up before going on stage. That’s a fairly big no no as you have no structure to your gig and the crowd will recognise that fact. If the crowd see that you are organised and you know what is happening next, they will do their best for you. A big no no after a gig for me would be having a very late night. Sleep is as important as anything. You have more energy and produce better, more consistent performances on stage.

 How do you conquer stage fright?

One thing I always try to do is to pretend I am playing music in my own living room. That way it means that you are comfortable in your surroundings and may help you perform better. When speaking on stage it is a good idea to pick a spot on the back wall of the venue and concentrate on what you say. Speaking well is half the battle in a concert. The music generally will look after itself if you are on form on the night.

Your brother plays with you and I have seen videos of you and Michael doing music together. Is he in the album? What’s the most memorable part in recording Bit n’ Pieces?

Yes my brother Michael McCague plays along with me on the guitar, bouzouki and tenor guitar. He also accompanies me on piano and bass on track 15. He is also part of John Carty’s At the Racket, The Bothy Band Tribute and John McSherry’s At First Light Band. The most memorable part would probably be the craic that myself, Dave Sheridan and Michael had in the recording studio. We used to have a good laugh trying to work things out and when we tried new things it made us laugh. I also remember recording the slow air well; I recorded it once, Dave said “good enough, let’s move on to the next track” and the next time I listened to it was when myself and Paul Gurney were mixing the album. It sounded new to me!

 What’s your idea of a perfect gig?

A perfect gig would be a full house with the crowd hopping mad, a good flow to the music and meeting fellow musicians after the gig for a few tunes and a pint. If that happened once in ten gigs, it would be great.

 Your message to the world?

You only live once. Go for it and drive the music out!

Please visit his website to buy your copy of the album :


4 Replies to “Donal McCague: This Fiddle’s On Fire! (Interview)”

  1. I wish we all had heard his idea for how to live as children! We’d certainly all be musicians, that’s for sure. I love his playing and it is definitely different and his own in every way, and the family connection and that they had had fun playing together is such a gift, to them and to us. Good interview!


  2. What a great and thorough interview. He has accomplished a lot and yet he is still so young. I find so much maturity in his comments. It was really very enriching to read. Donal’s music it worth following and I’m sure it will stand out among the best 🙂


  3. Always nice to hear some tight Irish tunes, The interview was friendly, I felt like I was in the living room having a chat, Donal is a talented young man and enjoyed his respect given to the fiddlers who came before him and influenced him, Great piece.


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