Lives Remembered

Henry McErlean: Hard-working farmer, talented musician and gentleman

Henry McErlean played the fiddle at fleadhs, sessions, céilís and concerts

A hard-working farmer and a talented musician, Henry McErlean was a true gentleman with a strong faith and gentle sense of humour.

He was born in 1928 in the parish of Greenlough, Co Derry and was brought up with a strong work ethic, helping out on the family farm with cattle, pigs, sheep and crops.

The family also had a horse and cart to transport both their turf and themselves.

His mother passed away at 41, leaving six children ranging in age from 16 to two, and as the second eldest, Henry did what he could to support the family.

At one point his father wanted to supply milk to the creamery, which would only be accepted if stored in a cool structure.

Henry tried his hand at building and soon discovered he had a natural talent. He would help in the construction and renovation of many houses and outbuildings throughout the area.

He attended Greenlough Primary School, where he walked barefoot in the summer.

During the winter the children brought in turf from home to heat the schoolhouse and the girls were allowed to stay close to the fire, while the boys were sent to run up and down the road for warmth.

Henry also recounted memories of ploughing the fields with his father as soldiers practised manoeuvres during World War II.

Once they even drove through their carefully ploughed field, much to his father's annoyance. Nevertheless they still allowed the tired troops, who often got only two hours sleep per day, to have a rest in front of their fire.

A year later the same battalion returned and only two had survived Dunkirk.

Henry continued to work hard - farming back then consisted of spade work, thatching and many more manual jobs.

One day while thatching, a local man Willy Scullion overheard Henry whistling and suggested he learn to play the fiddle.

The seed was planted and Henry rode his bike to Ballyscullion for weekly lessons with Paddy O'Kane.

Through his music he met and made many lifelong friends, some of whom paid a final and fitting musical tribute at his graveside.

In 1956 Henry met Mary Teresa Quigley at a dance in Lavey Hall.

They married two years later in Bellaghy and honeymooned in Dublin where their lodgings cost 50p per night and it was sixpence to climb Nelson's Pillar.

They moved to Rocktown with their first born, a daughter Breige, and went on to have six more girls and two sons.

The boys would help look after the farm and in later years his daughters helped look after him.

Indeed, he took great pride in telling people that he had “a daughter for every day of the week”.

In May 1990 Mary Teresa passed away at the age of 58. Henry missed her deeply and it is perhaps no coincidence that he was buried on the anniversary of her death.

He didn't play any music for a year after he lost her, but his dear friend Tommy Doherty visited one day and coaxed him into coming to a session.

Henry continued to play the fiddle at fleadhs, céilís and concerts.

In 1995 he became something of a celebrity after his cow had triplet calves.

Photographers came from far and wide, including one dressed in a suit who had to beat a hasty retreat through the manure when the mother cow felt he was getting too close.

He was also honoured in 2016 when he received an award for outstanding contribution to music at the Gig'n the Bann Festival at the Wild Duck, Portglenone.

Henry McErlean died aged 89 on May 20.

He will be remembered as a loving father by his children Breige, Martha, Kathleen, Anne, Geraldine, Cecilia, Henry, Paul and Una.

He is also survived by his sisters Molly and Martha, 26 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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