Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh [also spelled McDonnagh], De Danann, Arcady
A true innovator among bodhránai, Johnny invented several groundbreaking techniques that actually extended the musical vocabulary of the instrument, such as the backslide and playing on the rim. McDonagh can also lay claim to being the first to play a bodhrán with a brush, as well as originating the idea for a tunable bodhrán. He also has left a valuable legacy in the annals of recorded Irish music, playing with De Danann and Arcady, and backing up premier solo Irish music acts from Eileen Ivers to Mary Bergin.
McDonagh's “it fell from the sky” discovery of the bodhrán makes an exceptional yarn. In 1969, he went to a free street festival of folk music; ducking into a bar, he watched Paddy Carty and Tom McHaile playing their hearts out on the flute and whistle. The bad news was that Carty and McHaile were accompanied by/hindered by an annoyingly monotonous bodhran player, who kept playing the same riffs over and over again. Johnny just knew he could do better than that, and he was to get his chance very shortly. Within hours, a mysterious stranger materialized at Johnny's side, selling a bodhrán and stick for 10 shillings. Sold. By the end of the night, Johnny recalled later, “I was already doing better things than the other guy was doing.”
It also didn't take McDonagh very long to learn that by relentlessly experimenting with his bodhran, he could come up with new ways to play the instrument, and invent unheard-of sounds and tones. He was soon coaxing a wider variety of sounds out of a bodhran than anyone else ever had. When Johnny first got the idea of putting pressure on the drumhead with his free hand, then moving his hand up and down the goatskin, he had created the concept behind the tunable bodhrán.
Tommy Hayes, who after all should know about such things, has declared McDonagh the bodhran's finest traditional player. But Johnny has balanced traditional music with extended side trips to other musical styles. McDonagh has gone the Irish music route in his stints with De Danann and Arcady. But he also joined up with Mike Oldfield in 1979 and went on tour all over Europe, resulting in the live double-disc Exposed, offering interesting live performances of Tubular Bells and other Oldfield classics. Johnny recorded nine albums with De Danann from the early ‘70s to the late ‘80s, when he left the group to form Arcady.
McDonagh once had a very memorable conversation about the instrument with Peadar Mercier, The Chieftains' original bodhrán player. Mercier told Johnny that “the sound of the bodhrán should be what you hear when you're in your mother's womb, it's the heartbeat.”