Last year we had an 80th birthday celebration in Castlewellan for the fiddler James (Gus) McElroy. There were traditional musicians from all over the county, and a large crowd of guests from other parts of Ireland, England and USA. It was obvious that this man and his family were held in high regard..but then the musical McElroys of Drumnaquoile are indeed a legend in these parts.
I first came to know the McElroys as musicians who played for the dancing competitions at Feis an Dúin which is held annually in Newcastle. As a teenager starting into traditional music, I used to hang around the bandstand as they played for the Feis Céilí. What struck me then was the friendly, unassuming attitude of the McElroy brothers, who had time to chat with a young novice musician. They later welcomed me into their home at Drumnaquoile in the hills above Castlewellan, for many glorious evenings of music and craic in the company of their fiddler daddy, old James. This man had two daughters and four sons who all inherited his gift for music, but particularly three of the boys Dan and Tony, accordions and James junior the fiddle.
Old James McElroy learned the fiddle from his uncle Frank of Legannany, and he in turn taught many young fiddlers around Co. Down, most notably John Savage and Eddie Dornan (the younger-fiddle Eddie). Gus says "He could put in triplets with the fingers that others couldn't do with the bow.they came from all over Ireland to hear him, because he was on the radio". He indeed became quite famous in his lifetime as the foremost traditional fiddler in Co. Down and folk came from far and wide to hear his unique rhythmic style. With the rise of broadcasting, he was in demand both North and South of the border, and one afternoon he had to rush from the BBC studios in Belfast to catch a train for Dublin in order to broadcast the same evening on Radio Éireann. As a young man he used to walk many miles with his friend Danny McEvoy to the dances at Finnis, near Dromara. One summer's evening they stopped about a mile from the hall, marvelling that they could hear the music so far away.outstanding fiddling by man called Ward, from Dromore, no microphones or anything. As a regular patron of these dances, the young James was eventually asked to play a tune himself ..on hearing him Ward said to Danny McEvoy "You see this young McElroy, he's going to be all our daddies." "Really?" said Danny, "He's going with a sister of mine." And he married her too.
Their son James acquired the nickname 'Gus' at an early age because he used to imitate the local stage comedian Gus McCormick - he was so good at it the name stuck. He was good also at mimicking animal sounds. Once he used this trick to make two dogs fight each other, and then he had the job of trying to separate them before the smaller one got mauled. He could call cows in from the fields by mimicking a calf. Another time he was visiting a neighbour, Mrs Hanna who had a goat, and he started making goat noises as he walked up the road. Mrs Hanna came running out calling the goat: "Kitty, Kitty!...Oh Gus !" she says, "Help me quick, Kitty's in the corn.". "No she's not," says Gus, and he makes the goat sound again. "I know who the goat is !" snapped Mrs Hanna and stomped crossly inside.
Learning fiddle from his father was not a pleasant experience for Gus...starting at 8 or 9 years old, he had difficulty reaching for 'the half note' and his father used to grasp his finger and shout "There it is, there it is!" After some sessions like this, Gus quit the lessons. But after a while he started secretly playing again when his dad was not about, and himself and a local farm labourer, Gerry Lenaghan, would play a few tunes in the house together. One night when Gus was 12, the father walked in upon the two secret fiddlers while they were rattling out a few good reels. He put his hand on Gus's shoulder. "Hold on there a minute. Where did you get those tunes? That's powerful," and he ran to get his own fiddle and joined them. Gus had been having a go at "the book" (O'Neill's 1001 Tunes) behind his father's back. Old James immediately announced that Gus was to join the family band and play at a céilí in Saul, near Downpatrick, the following Sunday. Gus protested that he didn't know all the tunes, but his father reassured him: "You know a lot of them, I want you to come and play along with us." And so Gus joined McElroy's Céilí Band, and he's been playing in it ever since.
At that time, the band also included accordionists Eddie Dornan Snr (box Eddie)and Bill Flaherty, Francie McConville on drums, Johnny McKay and the two McElroys on fiddles and Anna McGrath of Newcastle on piano. Flaherty was notable for also playing, with the band, on a set of jampots filled with various amounts of water. The young McElroy boys had to carry him the water before the dance started while he meticulously tuned his 'instrument' ! Other fiddlers who played with the band occasionally were 'Chit' Rice and John Burns on fiddles.all these from around their local area. Later the other McElroy boys, Dan and Tony joined the band on accordions, John took on the drums and one of their sisters, Philomena or Eilis would play the piano, so that eventually it became a complete family band, playing all over Co. Down. John subsequently left the band to concentrate on football, becoming a much-respected county player before emigrating to Chicago, where he still lives.
Gus says that the dances they did then as well as the usual ceili dances were the Lancers and the sets (but not the same sets as are popular now) the Polka Mazurka, what we now call 'Shoe the Donkey' and the Highland Fling. His dad used to dance Maggie Pickens as a solo dance. In the house they used to do the 'Jackie Tar' which was danced to the 'Fermoy Lasses'. The McElroys were always 'wild for dancing'. They all learned Irish dancing from the renowned dancing master Séamus 'Duckie' Mallon who travelled out from Belfast to teach pupils all over Co. Down. When not playing music themselves, the McElroys would travel all over for a dance or a céilí. They also ran dances in their own barn to help raise money to build the local chapel. Many of the 'dances' they played for in the old days were a mixture of céilí, old-time and 'modern' dancing, for while being essentially traditional musicians who particularly loved Irish music, the McElroys had a broad repertoire and could play for any kind of dancing.
In the 1950's Gus also played ocasionally with the "Pride of the North" céilí band led by accordionist Michael Morgan of Castlewellan. During the 1960's both Dan & Gus joined up with some Newcastle musicians to form the Blackthorn Céilí Band which travelled far and wide and broadcast on RTÉ's Céilí House. After that the brothers spent a while with Jim McKendry's prize-winning Árd Rí Céilí Band of Belfast, before re-forming their own band which remains active today.
Tony McElroy started on the fiddle when he was seven, but his father played the fiddle so much in the house that Tony got weary of it and at 14 he moved on to the 2-row button accordion. Their house was visited regularly by the fine button-accordionist Eddie Dornan and Tony might well have pursued the button box. Dan also started on the button accordion, but his father bought him a Frontalini piano-accordion and sent him for lessons to Billy Brown in Belfast. Tony tried the piano box and liked it so much he went to Belfast himself, bought a brand new Scandalli. He played piano-box in the band for some years before he moved to London. He left the accordion behind in Drumnaquoile, and gave up the music for a while. Years later, Gus also moved to London to join Tony and they started a band there. Tony sent home for the Scandalli, which was now in poor shape, got it retuned and they started playing again. Now Gus is back in Drumnaquoile and Tony has retired to Bromley, Kent, where he still plays regularly and teaches accordion.
Dan McElroy 'adopted' Tony's accordion for a number of years, and he led the McElroy band through the latter years of the 20th Century, still playing for céilí, old-time and other dancing. Dan is also a noted exponent of the 'bones'. He and Gus played for the Co. Down feis step-dancing competitions for many years and more recently their band has been providing music for sets céilís throughout counties Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Antrim. They have released two CDs of music for the sets, with caller Joe Farrell, and they continue to please dancers over a wide area. Dan still farms the original McElroy holding at Drumnaquoile, now completely livestock-based, but all the McElroys have memories of an agricultural lifestyle that has since disappeared: growing barley, potatoes, flax; harvesting flax and putting it in water holes (flax dams) to rot; cows calving and calves dying; their mother made butter at home and travelled on the bus to Newcastle to sell it around the doors. They were all born in the same tiny bedroom 'beyond the low room'.
Even at 80 years of age, Gus McElroy continues to be a popular figure on the bandstand and he and Dan are always greeted warmly by the dancers wherever they play. When not out playing they still love a Sunday night's dancing themselves at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle. This is a remarkable family..to their many friends they are indeed traditional music's 'Stars of the County Down'.
About the author: Seán Quinn lived at Railway Cottages in Newcastle from 1942 until 1968 and became a well-known local musician, folk singer and leader of the Blackthorn Céilí Band, which included the McElroy brothers. He played piano-accordion during the summer on the former Bandstand on the Promenade with the old "Pierrot Show" and also performed in the 60s and 70s as resident musician at the "Hootenanny" folk nights in the Harbour Bar when it was owned by the Morgan family. Moving to Belfast when he graduated from Queen's University and qualified as a teacher, he taught for some years at La Salle Secondary School, before moving to become Director of the Learning Resources Centre at St. Mary's College of Education, a post he held until his retirement in 2000. He now runs a small recording business "Glens Music" producing CDs of traditional music, and still plays frequently at local venues like Kilcoo, Hilltown and Castlewellan, and further afield, with the McElroys' CéilíBand.