Trad/roots: Music helped Dàidbhidh Stiùbhard truly learn about where he's from

English, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Ulster Scots... look beneath the surface and there's much more common cultural ground than you'd think, as Tyrone singer Dàidbhidh Stiùbhard, the man behind the rich and uplifting album An Sionnach Dubh, has discovered

Singer Dàidbhidh Stiùbhard who is from Tullywiggan, just outside Cookstown
Robert McMillen

FOR many city dwellers, the idea of living in the countryside might not be all that attractive – where can you get a skinny latte in the sticks? – but for people brought up outside the cities and big towns, rural life has a kind of magic you can’t get anywhere else.

And so it was for Dàidbhidh Stiùbhard, a singer who has produced An Sionnach Dubh, already one of the albums of the year – and it’s still only January.

Dàibhidh is from Tullywiggan, just outside Cookstown and he says he loved growing up there.

“When I was really wee, there wasn’t really anybody about. It was just me and my siblings being able to go up into the field next door – it has since become the Mid-Ulster Sports Arena but when we were young it was idyllic.

“About five minutes down the road at the river, you can cross the bridge into Tullyhog and walk about there through the forest. I loved it,” he recalls.

The time spent making his own entertainment and reading folk tales and Irish legends also got Dàibhidh into traditional music, something that also helped him learn more deeply about where he was from.

However, he says himself that he wouldn’t be half the traditional singer he is today without the internet.

“The internet is a great tool for young singers because we can access archives that people would have had to have driven miles to view. You can come across a lot of cheesy stuff but eventually you get to the crux of it.” he says.

“I’d pick up a few songs at singing sessions but I’ve learnt the majority from online archives and old recordings and things like that. However, there isn’t a big archive of Tyrone songs out there unfortunately, so if I didn’t find something, I tried to write something myself to add to the tradition of Tyrone songs.”

And that is something Dàibhidh excels at. It’s almost impossible to tell which songs are traditional and which are newly composed. Does he find it easy writing songs?

“It depends,” he says. “If I found a tune that I really liked from a Scots Gaelic or from an Irish song, I’d want to learn that song but it’s maybe too complicated to me in that moment. So I’ll write words to that tune so that I can sing it."

Like for a lot of people, the songs led Dàibhidh to explore languages.

“I heard Scots Gaelic songs before I heard Irish songs,” he explains. “I felt at the time, growing up with a Church of Ireland background – and not that my parents were in any way part of this thinking – but the whole culture when I was growing up and going to a Protestant school was, Irish and Gaelic culture weren’t for me, this is a nationalist thing.

“But I also like English songs from here – and I thought that’s brilliant, people singing in their own accents, and then I moved on to singers from Scotland because they have a similar accent, and that fitted our tone.

"I can’t remember how I found them or which Gaelic songs I came across first but I started listening to those and eventually I got myself thinking, ‘if my ancestry comes through Scotland – and we are Stewarts, a Gaelic name’ – then my religion has nothing to do with my idea of culture.

"So I started thinking of Irish as my identity as well. Living in the north of Ireland – I started considering myself more and more Irish.

“People in the north are absolutely brilliantly situated for songs. Because of our accents, we can sing Gaelic songs as well as Irish songs. People in the Outer Hebrides and other islands would consider our culture to be exactly the same as theirs.

“Even if you go down an Ulster Scots route – the songs that I sing in English would be Ulster Scots because I sing in my accent and so many of the words that I use and the pronunciation would be Ulster Scots.

“Unionists who consider themselves Ulster Scots only, and nationalists Irish Gaelic only – they should cross the boundaries, they’re interchangeable."

That is the ethos that flows through An Sionnach Dubh (the Black Fox), an album that covers you in a blanket of sound, rich and deep and uplifting. It comes thanks to Dàibhidh’s collaboration with Odhran Mullan from Wildtune and any album with Mary Dillon on it is always worth listening to, with Mary adding vocals to the well-known Gaelic song, Oran Eile don Phrionsa.

“We wanted to put across my whole ethos of shared culture,” he explains. “I have songs in English, Irish and Gaelic on the album because that’s what I am made up of and what my repertoire is made up on. We just had a back and forth. There are some songs that are staples of mine, Stately Woods of Truagh, is a big one.

“John Adair is a staple song of mine and Odhran came to me with Úirchill a’ Chreagáin. I hadn’t thought of it before but Odhran was always making me think of songs I hadn’t considered before.

“We have some original songs too, like Kin of Cúchulainn, which has a PJ McDonald tune to it, Belfast Market and Vines on the Mountain.”

Every song on An Sionnach Dubh is a highlight but of the above I particularly liked Dàibhidh’s own composition, Belfast Market, and John Adair – no, not THAT Johnny Adair but the man responsible for the eviction of 224 tenants from their homes on his land at Glenveagh in Co Donegal – just to improve his view from the castle.

“The day we finished recordings John Adair we believe was the 250th anniversary since the day it actually happened. We didn’t realise that until Rita Gallagher posted about it on Facebook – it’s a song I got from her,” Dàibhid explains.

:: Dàibhidh Stiubhard is playing at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry on February 8 as part of the Imbolc festival in a gig that also features Téada and a hero of Dàibhidh’s, Seamus Begley. An Sionnach Dubh is available on iTunes,, etc.

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