Vincent Campbell was born in the townland of tSeanga Mheáin in the Croaghs area of An Ghaeltach Lár on August 22nd, 1938. He grew up as a native speaker of Irish in a small farmhouse where his neighbours were the possessors of some of the most important aspects of Western European oral folklore, history and music.
As a young child, in an era without television, internet and the emerging wonder of radio, the only technological device which might produce music was the mechanical gramophone. In this atmosphere Vincent began learning music as had been done for millennia, beside an open fire listening to masters who played well-crafted tunes handed down over the generations.
Vincent was incredibly lucky in that circumstance as he had no shortage of skilled teachers. These included his father, Peter, and his near neighbours who were gifted traditional fiddlers. The visitors to his home numbered amongst the greatest fiddlers ever to emerge in Ireland. Vincent also had the advantage of being an excellent pupil of these masters.
House dances were common around the Croaghs and Vincent quickly learned the tunes required for to raise the spirts of a household or hall full of dancers. As he became more adept at playing he was able to directly avail of the repertoire and techniques of the likes of the Doherty brothers, John and Mickey who excelled in fiddle playing gaining worldwide recognition for their masterful playing. While Dohertys regularly visited Vincent’s home he not only absorbed their tunes but also their complicated bowing and fingering skills. Vincent meticulously absorbed the history and folklore of the music and the musicians in the Donegal tradition. When he emerged as an adult, he had become a consummate player and had the additional gift of authoritative storytelling and presenting history and folklore in an entirely natural sense with total fidelity to the generations which preceded him.
Vincent left the Croaghs to seek employment in Scotland in 1956 where he was based originally in Cowcaddens and later moved to the massive hydro-electric projects in the Highlands. He relocated to London in 1958 before returning to Ireland. He settled for a while to farm in Baile Ghib, County Meath and met and married his wife Peggy Gantly on January 19th, 1965. Vincent circulated in the Dublin music scene at that time and often performed in duet with banjoist Barney McKenna. When the renowned band The Dubliners was being formed Vincent was asked to become a member but declined in order to maintain more secure work. In 1978 Vincent and Peggy came back to Glenties settling in Min a’ Chealla where he worked in construction and on his farm holding.
Vincent was known throughout the world for his command of the Irish language, which he at one time had Breandan Behan as a student, his store of folklore and history. It was as a fiddle player, however, where he made a massive mark in the sphere of traditional culture. His fiddle playing was Donegal music to the core. It was powerful and full of passion. His bowing had the staccato attack of the Dohertys, yet the awesome dynamism of his playing was entirely his own. When Seán Ó Riada produced his recordings “Our Musical Heritage” from his ground breaking radio series, he allowed only a limited number of examples from each area with a recognised regional style. In presenting the Donegal fiddle style Ó Riada allowed three examples, namely John Doherty, John The Tae Gallagher and Vincent Campbell.
Vincent was tremendously generous with his music. While he did play regularly at concerts throughout Ireland and Britain, he best loved playing for listeners around Glenties. He routinely gave both masterclasses as well as workshops for emerging fiddlers and on each occasion took great care to pass on all the subtleties of delivering a tune and the required techniques. Many are blessed to be part of a cultural tradition. Vincent Campbell was, and his legacy remains, a pillar of granite in the Irish music tradition. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a Anam Uasal.
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