Lives Remembered

Gerry O'Neill: Fiddler played with 'feelings in his heart and magic in his fingers'

Gerry O'Neill was a talented musician who entertained audiences with "feelings in his heart and magic in his fingers".

The Derry man, who made Canada his home, was a master fiddler who toured widely on both sides of the Atlantic in a life dedicated to music.

His biggest gig was perhaps performing as part of the opening ceremony of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.

His final farewell this week was to the strains of The Parting Glass back in Derry as family and friends gathered in the "town he loved so well".

James 'Gerry' O’Neill was born in 1938 and grew up in Ivy Terrace in Derry city, one of 14 children to Mary and Samuel, who owned a bookmaker's shop.

The family spent time Co Donegal during the Second World War but on returning he attended St Columb's College.

Gerry and his brother Hugh ('Whitey') both learned the violin and were winners of the Gregorian Cup at the Derry Feis. It would be the start of a lifetime delighting audiences at home and abroad.

Gerry accompanied the Little Gaelic Singers, a choir performing with dancers and violin players, on their many world tours.

He played with the acclaimed Four Provinces Ceili Band and made numerous appearances on TV shows in England and Ireland.

He also toured the east coast of America with the Associated Irish Artists cabaret show This is Ireland.

A skilled fiddle player, Gerry could also turn his hand to the banjo, piano, mandolin and bass guitar.

He toured the length and breadth of Ireland with the Westerners and Kingston All Stars showbands and went on to form and manage The Flingels.

He was also behind a successful 5-piece group, The Saoirse Folk of Derry, which produced several albums.

Gerry married Susan and had four children, Desi, Paula, Gerry and Ciaran, and in 1974 the family left the Troubles behind to live in Canada.

Teaming up with fellow Derry man Richard Duffy, he toured North America as Sons of Erin and eventually settled in Montreal, where fans would queue outside the Cock and Bull pub to hear them play.

With another Derry native, Roy Arbuckle, he formed Fiddler’s Elbow, building a large fanbase in America and Ireland and returning home for television appearances.

Having separated from Susan, he later met Linda and settled in Glengarry County, near Montreal in Ontario

The Glengarry Celtic Music Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2018, said his "finesse and ability on the fiddle drew the attention of many and soon garnered many requests for appearances throughout Quebec, the Maritimes, and Ontario".

Diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2015, he lost the gift of playing but not his passion for music, continuing to teach and encourage others.

At his funeral in St Columba's Church, Long Tower on Thursday, Fr Paddy Baker said he was the greatest of entertainers who "loved the stage and the gift of music that God had given him".

"He used it to fill so many with joy and happiness.

"In one of Gerry's final conversations with his son he said he felt so blessed to have had such a wonderful life, filled with family and music and so many good friends to have shared it along the way.

"He would love that we are all here to bid him farewell. Gerry has come back to the town he loved so well, to the town that we all love so well. May his soul find happiness and peace with God in heaven."

Gerry O'Neill died aged 83 on January 8. He is survived by his wife Linda, children Desi, Paula, Gerry and Ciaran and siblings Eileen, Mary, Alice, Olivia, Philomena, Marie, Frankie, Delia and Gretta.

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