When he passed away aged 80 in 1995, James MacCafferty bequeathed his beloved native city a cultural legacy honed over almost 70 years of his life in music.
Through all those decades, to those who competed or even attended Feis Doire Colmcille, the dapper, softly spoken man who seemed to be forever puffing on a pipe was an utterly familiar sight.
Born on the upper part of Francis Street in 1915, James and the MacCafferty would later settle a few doors down at No 25 – a house still synonmous with the family and the singing and piano lessons given to thousands of children and young adults over the years.
Years later when he came to Derry to take lead roles in the city's famed pantomimes at St Columb's Hall, the late Belfast comedian Frank Carson often jokingly referred to Francis Street as 'Frantic Street' because the home was a constant hive of activity.
Blessed with a natural musical talent, James'parents however Pat and Cis were also musicians and singers of note who were regularly in demand for both shows and concert parties that included performances with the city's renowned Operatic Society. Pat was a talented bass singer and his wife a contralto. The couple also happened to be neighbours of Mrs (Rose) Edward Henry O'Doherty, the founder of Derry Feis, and so began the MacCafferty family's ingrained association with the annual Easter week festival of music, singing and dance.
Founded in the fraught political climate surrounding partition, Derry Feis' primary remit was the revival and preservation of the Irish language, it's music, singing and dancing. Mrs O'Doherty and the first feis secretary determined that these objectives must go 'hand in hand.'
These traditions survive at the annual feis almost a century from its foundation and James' son Pat who remains a dedicated part of the annual institution said: “I suppose this was a transition of sorts from Mrs O'Doherty to my father, one that would end up spanning the entire 20th century. She started the feis in 1922 and died in 1969. My father had already inheirited a lot of that and it continued until the end of his life in 1995.
“He played and sang in the feis when he was a boy. I mean his grandfather was on the second committee – his mother sang at the first feis. He and his brother Don competed at the feis and he became an accompanist in 1946.
“My father was an accompanist. He was probably one of the best in the whole country. It was his forte. You rarely heard my father play on his own. He preferred to accompany people. And, he learned that skill very early on. I believe it was a gift from the man above – a gift that raised him above the normal musician.”
In fact for 50 of those years, James MacCafferty was the cultural institutions official accompanist.
Pat continued: “He was there every year playing for children and adults alike. He was part of Derry Feis and it was part of him and he transmitted his love for it to so many other people.
“As a family we had no option. Easter was about the feis and that was it. We didn't go away. We never asked to go away. You went to the feis and we all did our bit. My father was there day and daily. My father was there, day and daily. He got paid a pittance for playing at the feis, from nine in the morning until midnight. Who else would have done that?
“He also saw the value it gave our community. If yiu look at the amount of people who emerged from the feis, for example, Rosemary Brown (Dana), Patrick O'Hagan, Phil Coulter, Roma Downey, Nadine Coyle, Feargal Sharkey and so on..it's phenomenal. I'm not saying the feis made them what they became, but somewhere along the line, they may have thought 'this is the life for me'. But, it is where they began to learn their trade and it provided them with the confidence to get on the stage and perform.”
Don MacCafferty was born a year after his brother James in 1916 and also showed a great deal of musical talent. Neither of the boys received any formal training until they were around 10 years old, but the influence and encouragement of their parents had obviously served them perfectly well up until that point. James was sent to piano lessons while Don concentrated on the cello. James first learned under the tutelage of Maude Butler and was duly awarded his qualifications by the Trinity College of Music in London in 1929. He was just over 13-years-old.
It quickly became clear that the precocious talent required more advanced help and James was then taken under the wing of JT Frankland, the organist of St Columb's Cathedral, so that by the time he reached his mid-teens he was a very accomplished musician.
Any remaining doubts about his future career ended when at the age of 15 he was engaged in first professional performance as accompanist at a concert at Osnam Hall in Bridge Street and received five shillings. His single-mindedness to become a working musician is perhaps captured in the story of how when he was offered an interview for a position at the esteemed Derry furniture store Cavendish's, he asked his brother Don to go in his place. Having duly got the job, Don spent his entire working life at the Bishop Street store.
But, anyone who thought that opting for a life as a full-time musician was one that led to a life of riches and glamour wasn't familiar with what it actually entailed. Eager to secure regular work as a performer, around 1936, James MacCafferty heard that band leader Bobby Beattie was looking for a pianist for his outfit which were called The Orpheus. It began a process of nearly two decades of being involved with dance bands of one kind or another.
James himself once recalled: “When I started originally, the long dances lasted from nine at night until five in the morning. But, I remember playing in – of all places – the B Specials' hut out at Molenan. And, the dance started at eight. At twelve o'clock you came off for a cup of tea and a bag of buns. Now, if you were anyway lucky, you got a nice bag of buns. I remember that night I got poor ones. The last dance was called at ten to eight. We had played twelve hours, except for half-an-hour. Fifteen shillings. I remember coming into Derry and meeting the factory girls.”
Between 1948-1955 James the Carlton Swingtette, who along with his brother Don boasted amongst other fine musicians, the revered singer Mick McWilliams. Crowds flocked to The Palladium in Portrush to hear them, but when a vacancy came up at The Corinthian Ballroom in Derry, the band took up residence and the crowds followed them back from the north coast.
James said of his band's singer: “Then Mickey came along and everybody took a back seat. He was the Frank Sinatra of this part of the world. Mickey was a great singer.”
Typically though, James MacCafferty was hiding his own capabilities under a huge dollop of modesty. A story from one man, Willie Bradley, himself a musician about a visit to The Corinthian to see the Carlton Swingtette proved that.
“Standing at the edge of the stage you couldn't help notice certain things. I was used to seeing James at the piano, but going closer I discovered that while he was playing he was reading the football results in Ireland's Saturday night. I could say that band could play every number without looking at the sheet music.”
However, this was just a single facet of James MacCafferty's career. His talent found him majorly in demand and so he was often engaged in many different projects at the same time. But, one project would leave an idelible impact on Derry's cultural landscape and catapult a showcase of the city's talent across the Atlantic ocean.
In October 1955 American impressario Albert Morini sent James MacCafferty a letter inviting him to bring a children's choir to the USA. Mr Morini had contacted Dr Hans Waldemar Rosen, the Head of Music at RTE asking who would be best placed in Ireland to lead such an endeavour. Dr Rosen had been an adjudicator at Feis Doire Colmcille earlier that year and had marvelled at James' Nazareth House choir. As a result the Derry man was Rosen's automatic choice.
The Little Gaelic Singers were born. After discussions with the Nazareth sisters, the invitation to America was accepted and as intense rehearsals got underway, James augmented the choir with the nest of his pupils from his own MacCafferty School of Music which had also been founded in the 1950s. A varied concert programme was arranged that also included two of dancing teacher Brendan De Glin's champion boys and the final touch was the inclusion of Mick McWilliams baritone voice.
The tour took in the east coast and mid-western states of America and within two weeks of arriving in the U.S. The group featured on the nationwide Ed Sullivan show on the same bill as a then relatively unknown newcomer to the music industry called Elvis Presley. The platform could not have been bigger for the Derry group who sang 'The Dandling Song' and 'Endearing Young Charms' to rapturous applause as millions watched on on their TV's.
Next day, James MacCafferty signed a record deal with DECCA and they recorded two LP's – 'The Little Gaelic Singers of County Derry' and 'From Donegal to Galway with the Little Gaelic Singers'.
The tours of America continued until 1963 and included performances with stars such as Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.
Upon his arrival in Derry in 1962, a young priest, Fr Edward Daly was asked by the then Bishop, Dr Neil Farren to take over the management of the once resplendent St Columb's Hall that had fallen into a sorry state from when it thronged with pantomime's and concerts in the 1940s and 50s. Only a few rooms actually remained in use and it befell Fr Daly to attempt to revitalise the church owned property.
It was to James MacCafferty that the future Bishop went to seek advice on the best way forward. A series of Sunday night variety concerts was decided upon with James as musical director, accompanist and also providing the choral group. Frank Carson was employed as the resident comedian.
The choral group, The MacCafferty Singers became an integral part of the Sunday night line-up for the next seven years and whilst elsewhere those who had TV's tuned into Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Derry was turning out its own version at St Columb's Hall.
Pat MacCafferty said: “Bishop Daly was a genuis. He was willing to invest money to get money back. He was the man responsible for attracting such big names.”
In later years, these concerts evolved into highly successful pantomimes at St Columb's Hall that shifted to Creggan for a period of time when the Troubles made it nearly impossible to host them in the city centre. But, by the 1980s they returned to their home and were added to by performers such as the late Don O'Doherty and dancers from the Mary McLaughlin School of Dancing.
Pat MacCafferty said: “My father was a working musician. It was his bread and butter and the thing was that he didn't value money.
“My mother, God bless her, said to him time and time again, 'James, for God's sake take the fee', for the things he was involved in. The young boys used to come into singing classes in the house and the practice was that they sat their money for the lessons on the top of the piano. At the end of the lesson, he handed it back to them and told them to go and buy sweets.”
“The reality is when he passed away he left enough money to bury him. He was never motivated by money. He was a Derry man at heart and he loved Derry.”
James had once turned down the chance to become the full-time accompanist to Josef Locke when the vaunted tenor commanded huge audiences and similar size fees across the globe to stay at home.
Pat MacCafferty continued: “Sometimes I think people don't realise what he did for this town. He loved this place for what it was. Some might say he lacked ambition, but that has to be measured against happiness, peace of mind and enjoyment. He was not interested in the rat race.
“Music meant everything to him. He wasn't a musical snob. The only value he placed on music was that it was fine as long as it was good enough.”
CAPTION: James MacCafferty with his group 'The Ten Columbians' which he expanded from the 'James MacCafferty Quintette'.
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