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  • Writer's pictureDaithí and Adèle

Tasting Tralee Traditions

During August I had the opportunity to spend a few days visiting my parents in county Kerry. While there I reconnected with the vibrant and diverse musical eco-system[1] that exists in the town, experiencing primarily aspects more closely related to Irish traditional music. The trip was a research journey to a field that was formerly my homeplace, where I performed research and these reflections are my fieldnotes that help me to understand personal and social experiences, all the more challenging as my perspectives and relationships change.[2]

Plaque commemorating the founding of Siamsa Tíre

Growing up in Tralee I learned piano from Reneé Fitzgibbon, focusing on Western Art Music and completing my grades with the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I was in the school band in CBS Primary under the direction of Jim O’Connor, where we played an eclectic mix of musics including pop music. I learned Irish dancing from Patricia Hanafin and competed in feiseanna. I joined Siamsa Tíre with whom I performed for many years and continue to write and research about the company. I was a member of Craobh Trá Lí CCÉ under the guidance of Máire Bean Uí Ghríofa and a member of Tralee Musical Society. In a short few days I again encountered evidence and memories of these different musical influences and legacies for both myself and others in the town.

Máire Bean Uí Ghríofa was a significant influence on my musical development and it was nice to spend a little time with her again. Many years ago, I would visit her house regularly to sing songs in preparation for Fleadh competitions. It was nice to sing again with Máire and she hummed as I played tunes that were once part of our Grúpa Ceoil, Scoraíocht and Seisiún performances. While her memory has largely faded, she can still remember tunes and lyrics for songs from her childhood in Co. Tipperary. A daughter of former President of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Sailbheastar Mac Conmhaigh, Máire herself had won All-Ireland honours and was always very dedicated to Craobh Trá Lí CCÉ.

Fr Pat Ahern

I continued my conversations with Fr Pat Ahern about the importance of folk culture and the nature of folk theatre in the past present and future. Widely recognised for his work Siamsa Tíre, my recent research has highlighted the breadth of his influence both beyond Tralee and beyond traditional music. We discussed his development of a choir, production of religious pageants and composition of two masses. Our conversations invariably develop beyond focused research and our differing perspectives lead to interesting debates about life, culture and society.

I attended two performances by Siamsa Tíre over the weekend. Turas, a cabaret style performance featuring five excellent musicians, three Irish dancers and a singer, is the weekend-night production. The full-house enjoyed the interplay between the technology of lights and sound and the dancers, the energy of the music, and the engagement with the audience. The host for the night was accordion-player Conor Moriarty with whom I played for a few years for set dancers in Scór competitions as well as gigs in Sean Óg's pub in the town, which led to the group Southbound with whom we performed at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Australia. I had performed with all of the three dancers – Helena Brosnan, Mary O’Mahony and Darragh Hurley – from when they were young children starting out. Indeed I regularly performed alongside Darragh’s parents in Tralee and on tour with Siamsa Tíre. The younger performers now command top-billing and regular applause. Singer Laura Lee Curtin had been in a number of Musical Society productions with me. As a daughter of guitarist Alfie Curtin who had begun his musical life as a member of the St John’s Choir under the direction of Fr Pat Ahern, Laura Lee further reflected the development of a tradition of Tralee passing from generation to generation.

On Monday night I attended Fadó Fadó, a revival of the original production of the Siamsa Tíre company, first staged as a summer production fifty years ago in 1967.[3] Sitting in the auditorium, I found it easy to recognize the enjoyment visible in the faces of the cast during the performance. There were both familiar and new faces on the stage – I had performed with the majority of the cast during my time as a member of the company. As I spend more time with older and former cast members through the course of my research, I found it enthusing to see how this cast were taking ownership of the production. Recognising the generational change, it was enjoyable to see Pierce Heaslip in a role once filled by his father, or Geraldine Hurley joined on stage by her son and daughters in roles that she and her husband Oliver once filled.

In many ways, Fadó Fadó provides a direct link to a proud history of not only a theatre company but an innovative and pioneering community. The narrative of the production is based around a seemingly simple rural way of life – a simplicity that can be challenged by anybody who tries to use a flail, milk a cow by hand or seek help from their neighbours to complete necessary tasks. Complexity too was found in the beautiful choral arrangements that were well-sung; the arrangements by Fr Ahern were part of the distinctiveness of Siamsa from the early years. Similar themes and messages may be found in the other current summer season production, Oileán, which is based on the stories and culture of the Blasket Islands.

Sitting in an auditorium in Tralee listening to the varied accents and enthusiastic comments of the audience, I am reminded of the reaction to this production when it toured to America in 1976, a tour that included a run at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Repeatedly, it is the apparent simplicity of the production that are its strengths, reinforced through the performance of unaccompanied solo singing or solo tin whistle which disguise the complexity of the tradition and skill of the performers. The simplicity of the life being represented is so often absent from our modern world and our modern soundscape, a contrast that is highlighted in the opening and closing sequences of Oileán.

Making my way through town, it is possible to find examples of community and I was delighted to join in a session in the Brogue Inn with a group who also go by the name Oileán (and have done for as long as I can remember). Sitting in the bay window, the group comprise of guitar, banjo, accordion and tin whistle but it is arguably song that connects the whole community. John and Michael O’Shea are here tonight. They, along with their brothers Frankie and Timmy have been part of the St John’s Choir at various times over the past sixty years and Michael now conducts the choir. They are one of a number of musical families who have shaped and influenced Tralee’s soundscape. I remember performing with fiddle-player Timmy in Siamsa, and hearing John and Frankie sing down the years. I remember being fascinated in my childhood by Michael’s skills on the bones and, in more recent times, he has become a valued informant as I undertake research on Siamsa Tíre and the St John’s Choir. The group have cultivated a special atmosphere in the Brogue over the past few years and their own performance incorporates contributions from the audience, from whom there is little division. Most are known by name being regulars and locals, and visitors and tourists are welcomed and encouraged to also contribute a song. It goes unsaid and unnoticed that some of the people present performed on Broadway and for a Pope in Italy amongst an impressive CV of musical achievements.

Leonard Casey and Conor Moriarty

The following night I joined Leonard Casey and Conor Moriarty on stage in Seán Ógs. It is an altogether different context and aesthetic as we sit on stage with microphones, performing to a primarily international audience with Irish customers further down the bar. Singer and guitarist Leonard is from Rathmore in South Kerry. Having already toured extensively before entering third level education, he is a graduate of the BA Folk Theatre Studies at Tralee IT. He was a fellow cast member in Siamsa Tíre for a number of years and is now a central figure in the Tralee music scene. The aforementioned Conor, from Kilcummin near Killarney, was a child prodigy on the button accordion. He also performed with Siamsa Tíre for a number of years, regularly taking on the role of Musical Director for some performances, and also completed the BA Folk Theatre Studies. Conor’s presence in the Tralee musicscape is almost at odds with his quickly developing career in an international marketplace. He is a member of a number of groups including Cordeen, which includes two Newfoundland accordion players and with whom he facilitated workshops in Youghal, the music from which Adèle and I incorporated into our workshops with the East Cork Trad Orchestra recently.

Siamsa Tíre was a magnet for talent from around the county and some of this naturally spilled into the local scene. Early examples include Nicky and Anne McAulliffe, who continue to play a session in the Grand Hotel in Tralee each Friday night. Well respected all over the world, they were on early Comhaltas tours to America, performed with Siamsa Tíre for decades, and continue to teach, notably at events including Scoil Samhradh Willie Clancy and Scoil Éigse. They both influenced me initially through their teaching at the Teach Siamsa in Finuge, and later through their friendship. They are joined on Friday nights by the aforementioned Michael O’Shea, with whom they have shared many musical adventures down the years. These Friday night sessions attract wonderful musicians on a regular basis.

Another session that I try to attend while in Tralee takes place on Tuesday nights in Baily’s Corner. Regular musicians include Dublin-born guitarist Paul de Grae and his partner Dee Sullivan, fiddle player Kerry Barrett and the 1979 All-Ireland Accordion Champion John Lucid from Ballyheigue. Paul is possibly best known for his performances and recordings with Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Paudie O’Connor and Aoife Ní Chaoimh, while Kerry released an album with his father Tom (and accompanied by Paul) entitled Lios A’ Cheoil. I was fortunate enough to play with Tom Barrett (1923-2002) on a few occasions before he passed away. He was a fiddler, bagpiper and composer from Bedford, near Listowel, who contributed many tunes to Breandán Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hÉireann volumes. As a soldier stationed in Ennis and Clonmel, his influence extended beyond his native Kerry and he taught a number of pupils in each place. As well as regular session favourites, the session in Baily’s often includes a few special sets that draw upon the North Kerry and Sliabh Luachra repertoires, including sets sourced to Tom Barrett.

Like Ruth Finnegan’s book[4] on music-making in Milton Keynes, England, exploring contrasting yet overlapping worlds, I am drawn to the experience of the practice of music-making in Tralee. My experience is not just of amateur music-making but a community whose members are not bound by terminologies such as ‘amateur’, ‘voluntary’, and ‘professional’. The music scene is diverse, vibrant and interconnected. Education, tourism and performance practice are mutually supporting and dependent on each other. It is particularly interesting to experience the diversity and complexity that exists in the musical heritage of the town of Tralee and place in context my own musical learning and aspirations and our ongoing research into music education, music cultures and musical ecosystems.


[1] Jeff Todd Titon’s keynote at the ICTM Ireland Annual Conference 2017 has influenced my thinking.

[2] My approach borrows from Gregory F. Barz’s chapter ‘Confronting the Field (Note) In and Out of the Field’ in the seminal book Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology edited by Barz and Timothy J. Cooley (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[3] My writings on Siamsa Tíre that refer to Fadó Fadó include ‘The evolution of Irish folk theatre’ In: R. Amoêda, S. Lira and C. Pinheiro (Eds) Sharing Cultures 2013: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Intangible Heritage (Lisbon: Greenlines Institute, 2013).

[4] Finnegan, Ruth. The Hidden Musicians: Music-making in an English Town. Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

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