Fine feast for Fleadh
This year’s Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will live long in the memory. The sumptuous programme of events involving the cream of Irish traditional music and song resulted in some impossible choices between rival attractions. As the man said, there was something for everyone in the audience – and more besides.
The quality of the line-up was all the more remarkable considering that other major musical events were taking place around the country during the week of the Fleadh including the Kilkenny Arts Festival with its acclaimed Marble City Sessions. The street performers added to the buzz with a wide variety of combinations, styles and instruments on display.
The effective organisation that characterised the Fleadh was sustained by an army of volunteers in all of the venues and on the streets – dispensing advice and information and staffing the green patrols to maintain a clean and pleasant environment for the thousands of people drawn to the town. But most of all, the manner in which the people of Drogheda embraced the spirit of the week-long festival was evident in the warm welcome extended to visitors from near and far. They did their town proud. It is little wonder that Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has decided that Fleadh 2019 should return to Drogheda. That was some dress rehearsal: next summer can’t come quickly enough!
How do you begin to describe nine days of magnificent music played in a wonderful atmosphere with appreciative audiences encouraging performers to reach for the stars?
Each day of the Fleadh brought memorable moments some meticulously rehearsed and others rather less so – like the horse-hair of Martin Hayes’ bow suddenly coming unstrung in the middle of a flying reel resulting in a few minutes of ad libbing from the fiddle player followed by an impromptu guitar solo from Dennis Cahill while a replacement bow was retrieved from the dressing room.
The remarkable series of lunchtime Muinteras concerts created more memories. Each hour-long concert showcased a different family from the Oriel region of North Leinster and South-East Ulster – with three, and sometimes four, generations of one family on stage at the same time to play music, sing and dance.
Following the O’Connors from Ravensdale, the McAdams from Ballybay, the Byrnes from Newry, the Mulligans from Dundalk and the Ó Raghallaighs from Rathmolyon were the MacGabhanns from Baltrasna in County Meath: the patriarch, Antóin (fiddle), his children, Seán (button accordion), Áine (fiddle), Bernadette (fiddle) and Caitlín (concertina); and his wife Bernie, dancing together with their grandchildren – as well as two talented sons-in-law.
In a lively set, it was fitting that they included a number of Vincent Broderick compositions. Not only was Antóin closely involved in the project to transcribe many of Vincent’s tunes in the two-volume Turoe Stone collection; but August also marked the tenth anniversary of his good friend’s death in 2008.
And just when you managed to get your head around all that, the excellent singing recitals and sessions began towards the end of the week – creating more tough decisions about which must-see performance you had to reluctantly miss.
Each day also featured at least one recital/concert in the late afternoon or early evening followed by another major concert later in the evening as well as a late night session around 10pm.
Power, poise and pathos
Pride of place among the many early evening performances went to the sensational Rowsome Quartet. Reviving the concept first developed in the 1920s by his grandfather, Leo, and granduncle, Tom, uilleann piper, Kevin Rowsome was joined by fellow Dublin pipers, Mick O’Brien and Nollaig Mac Carthaigh along with Mark Redmond from Wexford for a remarkable concert combining power and majesty with exquisite digital dexterity and finesse.
As the quartet fired up the pipes, there was a frisson of excitement which intensified as they moved through the gears into the traditional core of the concert programme. The tasteful interplay between these master pipers – three of whom, remarkably, hail from Artane – not only resulted in wonderful harmonies from the four chanters but created the space for judicious complementary support from the regulators.
While most of the repertoire was drawn from that of the original quartet, some new elements had been included at the suggestion of members of the current incarnation. As an homage to the formal image of the original foursome, the current quartet appeared in bow ties and white shirts – which, despite the heat in the auditorium – remained in place until the end.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in traditional music that there is only room for one piper in any band line-up. It is acceptable to double up on fiddles, flutes, whistles and guitars but rarely on the pipes. Back in the 1980s Moving Hearts caused a stir when Declan Masterson joined Davy Spillane in the line-up that produced the wonderful album, The Storm.
Perhaps the success of the Rowsome Quartet project will encourage more collaborations between pipers.
River of sound
Music unbound – joy unconfined
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann is sometimes portrayed as a body of fairly narrow tastes – rather intolerant of anything other than the specified traditional Irish instruments played in the traditional way. We have all heard the “folk police” label to describe this purist, ultra-orthodox approach. But it is becoming increasingly harder to substantiate, if the Fleadh in Drogheda is any guide.
Of course, the competitive side of the Fleadh will, by its nature, be subject to the constraints of rules and agreed standards for adjudication. But in a festival which now celebrates what could be called music of traditional origin (MOTO), the programming of the concerts, recitals and events which make a substantial contribution to the Fleadh experience show a willingness to include artists who move beyond the conventional while at the same time honouring the spirit at the heart of the tradition.
On one side, there were examples of synergies with more classical musical styles. The Fleadh included a number of orchestral performances – not only by Comhaltas’ own National Folk Orchestra but also by the RTE Concert Orchestra with soloists, Zoe Conway and John McIntyre, and special guests, Donal Lunny, Bill Whelan and Mick O’Brien.
Piper, Mick O’Brien, was also the featured soloist in a concert of orchestral work by classical composer, John Olohan, supported by the RTE Contempo Quartet and the Boyne Chamber Orchestra. The programme for this concert included a number of pieces commemorating various local figures who were prominent in the history of traditional music – including Séamus Ennis from the Naul nearby in North County Dublin, Mary Ann Carolan from Hill o’ Rath, Drogheda and Caitlín Bean Uí Cairbre from Drogheda. Conducted by the composer, the ensemble also performed The Road to Lough Swilly, a musical representation of the life of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, which was originally commissioned by Na Píobairí Uilleann to celebrate the millennium.
Another commemorative orchestral work featured at the Fleadh was Marbhna 1916 Requiem, composed by Odhrán Ó Casaide and inspired by Seán Ó Riada. Straddling classical and traditional genres, the requiem features both sean nós and classical solo voices, supported by a chamber choir and orchestra supplemented by traditional instruments. A further nod to the classical influence on the traditional (or vice versa) was evident in Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s series of suites celebrating the blind harper, Turlough O’Carolan.
Cross-fertilisation of ideas and styles between the Irish and Persian musical traditions was showcased in the unique and ground-breaking collaboration represented by Navá. The interplay between traditional and more contemporary musical forms was also given recognition on the Fleadh programme in performances by the Hothouse Flowers and the Damien Dempsey Band. Although neither of these bands would claim to be traditional acts, both would clearly acknowledge the influence of traditional music in the formation of their own artistic sensibilities.
Among the wealth of more generally accepted traditional performers on show during the Fleadh this year were Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhómhnaill, Moya Brennan and Cormac de Barra, Frankie Gavin and his band, Beóga, Téada and Séamus Begley. Yet few if any of them would claim that their music was purely traditional. Influences from other national traditions and other musical forms means that there is a continuing interaction of ideas, sounds and rhythms – which keeps the tradition alive.
Driven to succeed
Great performers from the ‘Wee County’
The Fleadh provided a great opportunity to highlight once again the remarkable pool of highly talented musicians and singers who have emerged from Drogheda and the surrounding area. The first of the early evening recitals saw fiddle virtuoso, Zoe Conway from nearby Dundalk in a unique collaboration with the well respected Scottish singer, Julie Fowlis, setting Irish and Scots Gaelic poems to music accompanied by their respective husbands, John McIntyre (guitar) and Eamon Doorley (bouzouki) from Danú.
There was a justifiable sense of home town pride in the enthusiastic reception for the Voice Squad – with two of the trio hailing from the banks of the Boyne. The threesome’s pitch perfect a capella presentation was delivered with the comfort in performance that comes with years spent honing their craft – both individually and collectively. Their unique renderings of the American folk hymn, What Wondrous Love Is This, and Philip King’s setting of the seventeenth century Gaelic poem, I Am Stretched on Your Grave, were particularly memorable.
The trio also seem to have added jokes to their concert repertoire – and though some of them may also, rather generously, be described as traditional, too from the telling of Frank Carson – they were, nevertheless, well received by the audience. Voice Squad member Gerry Cullen, was to feature prominently in the singing sessions later in the week, as one of the stalwarts of the Drogheda Singing Circle,
Another Drogheda-based band, Lir, showcased the talents of piper, Daragh Ó hÉiligh, fiddle-player, Noreen McManus, pianist, Bríd Dunne, and cellist, Ríoghnach Dunne Ward.
The Fleadh was also a sort of homecoming for singer and bouzouki player, Seán Corcoran. As well as performing as part of the band, Cran – with Desi Wilkinson (flute, whistle and vocals)) and Ronan Browne (uilleann pipes, flute and vocals) – Corcoran also donned the mantle of erudite researcher to provide some thoughtful insights into the pivotal role played by Drogheda in the history of Irish traditional music in the course of an illustrated lecture entitled The Seven Ages of Irish Music in Drogheda.
Cran provided a superb finale to an early evening concert with a focus on the music of the Oriel region – which also included performances by the esteemed traditional singer, Padraigín ní Uallacháin, along with Sylvia Crawford on the metal-strung Irish harp or cláirseach, and fiddle players, Breige Quinn and Darren Magee.
A homecoming for some and a bon voyage for others as local band, Kern, played the opening night of the Fleadh – in a concert showcasing the music and dance of the North-East – before heading off to play at the Milwaukee Irish Fest which claims to be the largest celebration of Irish culture in the world – with over 130,00 people attending over the course of four days. The Fleadh Cheoil modestly claims 400,000 visitors over eight days in Drogheda.
Star of the Fleadh
Despite the dazzling array of amazing musicians and singers who packed into Drogheda for the festival, the spirit of the Fleadh was best captured by the sight of a small child – no more than eight years old sitting out on St. Laurence Street on one of the chairs available for musicians with her tin whistle and her instruction booklet patiently working her way through a tune. The Fleadh not only encouraged her to make music for herself – but also to perform for others in public. A magical moment!
Fleadh strikes rich vein of singers
The Fleadh Cheoil found its unaccompanied voice towards the end of the week – involving recitals and late evening Singers’ Club sessions in the Barbican Centre and the afternoon Singers Café events in the nearby Boomerang Café during which singing circles and Comhaltas branches from many parts of Ireland took turns to host sessions.
The overall standard of the performers – both the special guests and those among the audience who sang afterwards was exceptionally high. And the value for those who came to listen was remarkable: all the singing events were free.
Among the guest performers at the first recital was the incomparable Len Graham, whose love for traditional singing is not only evident in his technical skill in delivering each song – but also in the rich background of historical and sometimes geographical research that underpins the song he happens to be performing.
National treasure is an often overused term these days. But Len is a national treasury – a storehouse of song, folklore and social history and a man of grace and charm. Len was joined at the opening recital by All-Ireland champion singers – Rachel Garvey from Roscommon and Brigid Delaney from Offaly via Kildare – and by champion song-writer, Michael Marrinan from Cork via Clare and Waterford – along with two international guests, Alberta Lathan from Indianapolis, and Muhammad al-Hussaini from London, who sang The Green Fields of Canada and Casadh an tSugánnn.
Growing up in a diverse community with many Irish friends, Muhammad developed a deep love for Irish culture. Initially a student of fiddle playing at the London Irish Centre, he began to sing traditional songs in both English and Irish with support and advice from Wexford-born, Séamus Brogan. Noting the stylistic similarities between the Arabic-Islamic musical tradition and sean nós with its heavy ornamentation, Muhammad says “when I sing sean nós, I feel like I am reciting sacred verses in Irish.”
The line-up for the second singing recital was drawn from the locality – but none the poorer for that. Gerry Cullen was joined by his daughter, Gilly, by Paddy Branigan, Ruth Campbell and Dr. Dáithí Kearney, a music lecturer in Dundalk Institute of Technology.The bill was completed by Pat Carolan, son of the renowned Mary Ann Carolan – who achieved almost legendary status among song collectors of the last century with her comprehensive memory of many songs and airs. A very fine singer in his own right, Pat is also the father of another talented singer, Stuart, who compered the recital and, with Noelle Bowe, chaired the following Singers Club session.
While all of the performers at this recital provided moments to admire, the finale was especially impressive as the six singers were joined by many colleagues from the Drogheda Singing Circle to enrich the harmonies in a rousing rendering of The Bonny Light Horseman – one of the songs preserved for posterity by Mary Ann Carolan.
The Singers’ Club sessions that followed each recital and continued throughout the weekend – featured singers from the floor of a remarkably high standard including Katie Boyle and Rose Daly.
Glimpsing the future
Competitions reveal new talents
Many of the excellent musicians who graced the professional stages of the Fleadh in Drogheda were themselves previous winners of All-Ireland titles at fleadhanna in years past. With so much talent on view it would have been easy to forget that many intense competitions were taking place alongside the wonderful programme of concerts. These contests represented the culmination of months of preparation and selection through regional competitions leading to the All-Ireland finals in Drogheda in over 180 categories covering a variety of instruments (including the human voice) in a number of age ranges.
It is highly likely that among the ranks of the many gifted competitors were future stars of traditional music and song including Michaela Keenaghan from Offaly who won the senior ladies singing competition (English language) and Danielle Ní Chéilleachair from Cork who took first in the senior ladies’ sean-nós category. The winner of the senior men’s sean-nós competition was Lughaidh Mac an Iascaire from Portmarnock with Liam Ó Cinnéide from Douglas in Cork winning the English-language competition.
Among the instrumentalists, four Sligo musicians reached the pinnacle of success: Caoimhe Ní Chíaraín won the senior fiddle title; Tomas Ó Gabháin took the senior flute competition; Síofra Hanley headed up the senior Irish harp contest while Liam Ó Neadán emerged victorious in the senior whistle competition.
Galway’s Úna Ní Fhlannagáin added the All-Ireland senior harp slow air title to her Bonn Oir Seán Ó Riada success last year. Another Galway winner was Rhianne Kelly in the senior piano accordion competition.
John McCann from Lisnaskea in Fermanagh won in the senior button accordion category while a scion of the great Mulligan family – Sárán Mulligan from Dundalk – took the senior concertina title. Timmy Flaherty from North Kerry triumphed in the senior uilleann pipes competition while Dean Ó Gríofa from Killarney led the senior banjo contest.
Derry’s Jack Warnock, who was nominated for a BBC Young Folk award earlier this year, won the senior accompaniment competition, while Tairseach from Tipperary were acclaimed as the best senior music group. Another young remarkably versatile Offaly musician was Ademar O’Connor from Edenderry, who took first place in both the 12–15 button accordion and melodeon categories, second in mandolin and third in banjo as well as a third place with Sinéad Hanamy in the duet competition.
Always among the most hotly anticipated events on the competitive side of the fleadh is the final of the senior céilí band competition – which moves to centre-stage in one of the big festival venues. In Drogheda the atmosphere was highly charged as the battle of the bands got under way to fill the vacancy left by the three-in-a-row champions, Shandrum Céilí Band, who had declined to defend their title after stepping away from competitive playing.
In the ensuing battle royale, the Blackwater Céilí Band from Clogher Valley in Tyrone – who had tied for second last year in Ennis – took the big prize with the Knocknashee from Sligo, as runners-up.