Donnell Leahy remembers exactly how he felt when he made his stage debut as a fiddler at the age of four.
“Mom and Dad had a band when we were growing up as kids. They played locally at round dances and square dances and weddings and things,” he says. “One night they took me up to play my piece, and I can remember standing in front of the microphone terrified. And, of course, the roar from the crowd, regardless of whether I was good or bad. I didn’t know whether to cry or jump or laugh, but I do remember being scared.”
Leahy and his wife, acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster, have since seen five of their six children perform publicly. The sixth is sill too young, but is no doubt destined to follow the family tradition.
“Natalie and I take the kids on the road, and they want to carry a fiddle, and they want to be part of it. So they can carry their fiddles and they can get shoes ready and they can feel important and part of the team, and when they get on stage, that just completes it,” he says.
“After it’s over, it’s like they just won the Olympics or something, they feel so proud of themselves. I think that’s important for little ones to have that sense of accomplishment.”
Leahy grew up as the fifth of 11 children on a farm near Lakefield, Ontario. The kids all started playing at an early age.
“We worked on the farm, of course, and the only reason you could get out of work was if you were going to practise. At various times, practising was better, and at various times working was better. It was a terrific incentive,” he says. “Every Wednesday night in the summer, there would be kind of an introductory square dance for kids about half an hour north of us, so one of us would have to go and play. I can remember throwing bales of hay all day, then being told I was going to play tonight. It was like I’d won the lottery.”
Leahy and several of his siblings later went on to garner widespread recognition, and a handful of awards, first as The Leahy Family, then later as simply Leahy. While they no longer play together, Leahy still performs occasionally with his brothers Doug and Angus.
He was in Germany when a friend introduced him to the music of the young Cape Bretoner Natalie McMaster.
“I never knew what she looked like, never knew anything about her, just knew the name and knew the age.”
He decided to visit Cape Breton to meet the girl behind the music.
“So I drove down there and found out where she was at school, and phoned her and asked her out. And, shall we say, things worked out. We dated for two years, then broke up for 10, then got engaged in May and married in October.”
Donnell Leahy, presented by the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, performs at the Yukon Arts Centre on Friday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m.