Summer Songs, Stories and Speyfest
This summer's blog reflects the two main aspects of our often-overlapping musicking activities – music performance and research. This summer marked five years since we launched our album, A Louth Lilt. We celebrated with a video with some of the memories of the night when Nicholas Carolan, Director Emeritus of the ITMA joined us in DkIT. We have had many adventures since, albeit opportunities for performance were interrupted by COVID-19. This summer we did return to live events and enjoyed fleadhanna and festivals. We continued to engage virtually with conferences while also returning to face-to-face events allowing an opportunity to meet old friends and new faces. This blog is divided between festivals and academic engagements and between local and international activities.
Daithí went up to Keady, Co. Armagh for the Maid of the Mill festival at the end of April. As well as performing with the Oriel Traditional Orchestra, he joined in a great session that evening, the first in a very long time. It was great to bump into and share news with wonderful musicians including the Maguire sisters from Fermanagh and Caoimhe Kearins from Sligo. In contrast with some of the better-known and larger festivals through the summer, events like the Maid of the Mill provide opportunities for musicians to learn in small class groups and participate in sessions that are not overly crowded.
The Louth County Fleadh was held in Drogheda this year and while the number of competitors was lower than pre-COVID levels, there was a wonderful friendly atmosphere. While the focus through the day was primarily on the younger musicians from the county who aspire to progress to Leinster and All-Ireland competitions in Portlaoise and Mullingar later in the summer, the highlight for us was the senior Grúpa Cheoil competition. Daithí played with a group comprised mainly of adult learners in the Drogheda branch. They competed against our good friends in Scaleforce, led by Olive Murphy and many of whom are members of the OTO. There was good fun and banter as a full venue celebrated the joy of participating in such groups and hearty congratulations to Scaleforce who were victorious on the day.
Daithí also traveled to Brunel University for the All Britain Fleadh. It was a wonderful weekend of music and an opportunity to catch up with old friends. The standards in the competitions were high and Daithí had the pleasure of judging underage bands with Mick Mulvey. On the Saturday night there was a great session led by John and Carmel Burke and involving many of the musicians. While Daithí intended to fly home on Sunday evening, he was affected by flight disruptions. Instead of rushing, he was one of the adjudicators for the senior Céilí Band competition before taking the tube into London with the inimitable pair of Mick Mulvey and Joe Searson reflecting on the wonderful generation of Irish traditional musicians in London that they knew. The tales and insights reflect the wonderful contexts for musicking that exist in different places and the value of music to different individuals and groups.
Topping off the festival aspect of this blog was our trip to Speyfest – one that had been delayed by three years. It was great to return, driving up by Alloway, where Robert Burns lived and is commemorated, pausing to enjoy a peaceful walk near the Brig o’Doon. Then on to Stirling where we took a walk around the site of Bannockburn as the sun set on the statue of Robert de Bruce and the distant monument to William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. Leakey’s bookshop in Inverness is a treasure trove and we added to our collection on Scottish music and musicians before driving on to Fochabers. This year’s festival, which was the 25th, was poignant following the passing of the festival founder James Alexander earlier in the year. James was somebody we enjoyed speaking with and whose music we enjoyed listening to and his presence was evoked in so many of the performances over the weekend.
Our Speyfest began with the session out at Spey Bay where there was a great sense of returning with joy as people saw each other for the first time in a few years. The following morning we facilitated workshops in the Scout Hall organized by James’ daughter Clare. We had a wonderful mix of participants and the wonderful local musicians Erika and Briony Stewart assisted us. Erika and Briony had attended our workshops in previous years and it was great to see how they had developed into fine musicians. We divided the group up and taught a mix of traditional tunes and some of our own compositions. In particular we shared Daithí’s song ‘The Ghosts of Fochabers’ and Adèle’s composition ‘Alexander’s Fancy’, both of which fitted with the theme of the weekend. We were delighted that our eldest son participated, making friends in the process and joining us on stage for his first performance.
We thoroughly enjoyed the fantastic line-up beginning with the Milne and Arc Fiddlers on the Friday night. Adèle had tuned into Claire Hasting’s Facebook postings for children during lockdown and it was great to see her live in this context when she gave an excellent performance. John McCusker joined Phil Cunningham in the absence of Aly Bain and they gave a wonderful performance backed by Toby Shaer. Phil demands respect for the piano accordion in Scotland that is sometimes absent in Ireland. We enjoyed listening to Tour Bus Fortune as we returned to the campsite while Daithí slipped out later to watch the Red Hot Chilli Pipers whose performance is highly produced and entertaining.
We enjoyed performing on stage with the workshop participants on Saturday and the community atmosphere and family-friendliness of the festival really shone through. Later that evening we really enjoyed the set by Colin Campbell who performed songs he composed related to the area around Moray. The piano accordion was foregrounded again as Mairéad Green joined Anna Massie on stage. Green’s understated musicality is balanced by Massie’s wonderful audience rapport and stories. They were followed by the Duncan Chisholm Band, which included Jarlath Henderson who had played with Daithí as part of Nuada at the University of Limerick Tradfest in 2006 – an opportunity to catch up after quite a while! We had the opportunity to say hello to Jack Smedley before wandering away to the rocking sounds of his band Rura.
Sunday was another wonderful day, which started with the interfaith service. We were delighted to contribute a few jigs before we prepared for a performance on the main Bothy Stage. It was a joy to be joined again by Erika and Briony for the set that was entirely comprised of our compositions and we had great fun. We had a chance to dance to the great music of local céilí band Makarakit before relaxing again to the wonderful music of Duncan Chisholm band and Anna Massie. We were very grateful to percussionist James Mackintosh who very kindly took our eldest son up on stage during the soundcheck to show him his fantastic range of instruments.
Across the weekend we were delighted to share time with our good friends John and Alison Mehigan and they joined us to enjoy the climax of the festival – performances by friends of James Alexander followed by ‘the Auld Fiddlers’, members of the Fochabers Fiddlers who gathered for the festival. 54 of these fiddlers, all of whom had been taught by James gathered on stage and gave an outstanding electric performance. Friends of James reflected his stature as fiddle players Paul Anderson, Charlie McKerron, Gregor Borland and Dougie Lawrence, James McGregor, Ian Grigor and Colin Campbell came together on stage to celebrate his memory. Probably the most poignant moment was their rendition of ‘Hector the Hero’, probably the last tune we had heard James himself play. The energy was maintained for the rest of the evening as Tour Bus Fortune, Rura and Skerryvore finished out the festival on a high.
Our experiences at the festival have informed our academic enquiry. Following our first visit in 2016, we presented a paper to the ICTM Ireland Annual Conference in Maynooth University about the community that underpins the festival. As part of our 2016 and 2018 visits, we were accompanied by students from the Department of Creative Arts, Media and Music who were engaged in Summer Undergraduate Research Projects to perform, facilitate workshops and create a video documentary of the festival. The film projects were supported by the Research Office at Dundalk Institute of Technology and we benefited from further support from Culture Ireland, IMRO and Speyfest. They were later shared as The Road to Speyfest (2017) and Finding Fochabers (2019) and were screened at conferences including the Society for Music Education in Ireland Annual Conference at DkIT and the International Council for Traditional Music at the University of Limerick in 2017, and the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, also at the University of Limerick in 2021. ‘Finding Fochabers’ was also screened by An Táin Arts Centre as part of their virtual programme during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Our experiences travelling with students also informed our teaching and we developed a poster presentation to the QQI/HEA Joint Conference on Internationalisation in Irish Higher Education in 2017. Our interest in Scottish traditional music has expanded and Daithí in particular has given this further consideration, exploring Scottish influences on Armagh fiddle player Josephine Keegan, the current awareness of Fochabers’ 18th century fiddle master William Marshall (1748–1833), and concepts of heritage and tradition as exemplified at Speyfest. The development of postgraduate research on festivals and events and the new BA International Tourism at DkIT will give us further impetus to continue to develop our thoughts on the festival. Speyfest is a wonderful example of a continuously evolving community festival that celebrates local musical heritage in an international programme and raises the profile of its location.
Each summer we attend a number of academic conferences. While the COVID-19 period saw us step back a little or attend virtually, this summer many conferences were blended. This allowed us to balance a little and participate in two conferences each. Adèle continued to develop her research on the comic opera Shamus O’Brien by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. She presented papers on different aspects of her research virtually at the Society for Musicology in Ireland Annual Plenary hosted by University College Cork and the tenth biennial North American British Music Studies Association Annual Conference hosted by Illinois State University. Daithí continued his focus on Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, travelling to University College Cork to participate in the 8th Biannual Conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) themed on Western Esotericism and Creativity: Art, Performance and Innovation. He also co-wrote a paper with Dr Susan Motherway from Munster Technological University who presented at the ICTM Conference in Lisbon, for which Daithí joined virtually.
The SMI conference has been a mainstay of our summer activities for nearly twenty years. The conference continued in an online format this year, which limited the social aspect but it did make it easier to participate. Adèle’s session was chaired by Professor Harry White and paired her with Anne Stanyon who compared the impact of the Leeds festival on the public careers of Arthur Sullivan and Charles Villiers Stanford. We have also enjoyed travelling to the USA for NABMSA but this year Adèle attended virtually, presenting in a session with Gordon Sly (Michigan State University) who presented on structure in the music of Benjamin Britten, and Vanessa Rogers (Rhodes College) who theorized on the development and influence of the ballad opera in England. The two conferences provided opportunities to place Adèle’s research in both a Stanford-focused context and in relation to the work of other composers.
The ESSWE conference reflected the interdisciplinary potential of Daithí’s research and challenged him to think about his work from new and different perspectives. Back as a face-to-face event after COVID-19, Daithí enjoyed returning to his alma mater and presenting in one of the new spaces, the Áine Hyland room, named for the distinguished Professor of Education who Daithí had encountered when studying there for his HDip in Education. The conference was also informative in his supervision of a doctoral project being undertaken by Luke Malone on the films of Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon at DkIT. He attended an interesting mix of papers that explored ideas that he might not usually encounter and flagged areas for further consideration as he considers how Irish artists and Siamsa Tíre in particular engage with esoteric themes in their work. The ICTM conference provided more familiar ground and the session in which Susan presented was a wonderfully connected set of papers from Anna Faulkenau on music in Galway, Pamela Cotter on Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, and Adrian Scahill on the conceptualization of contemporary Irish folk music. Daithí has a chapter in the forthcoming book on Siamsa Tíre edited by Susan with John Morgan O’Connell, to be published by Cork University Press in September.
MUSICKING AT HOME
As always, our principal activities take place at home. We continued with our choirs and were delighted to broadcast the LMFM mass from St Brigid’s Church, Dunleer and The Church of the Immaculate Conception, Louth Village again this summer. We welcomed friends from the Curso de Música Silva Monteiro, Portugal to DkIT where, amongst other activities, a group of music teachers engaged in workshops on Irish traditional music with Daithí. We had met some of the group previously when both of us had travelled to Porto and facilitated workshops and performed at the school in Porto for St Patrick’s Day 2018.
There were a number of research activities at DkIT at the end of semester. These included the School of ICA Coffee and Research event with respondent Dr Deirdre Ní Chonghaile whose recent book publication, Collecting Music in the Aran Islands: A Century of History and Practice, won the Michael J. Durkan Prize for Books on Language and Culture from the American Conference for Irish Studies. Deirdre responded to a wonderful morning of presentations from members of the Research Centres in the School, including several that reflected strengths in Creative Arts Research at DkIT. The Tourism Research Group also held its first formal meeting and welcomed new doctoral students who are engaging in projects that intersect with arts activities in the region. TrG Director Dr Kevin Burns has co-authored a book chapter on Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Festivals and the City, which will be published by the University of Westminster Press in September.
Every time we travel to Speyfest, as well as renewing friendships and making new connections, the place, the people and the sounds we encounter inspire us. This time was no different and we are brimming with ideas that we hope will come to fruition. It is wonderful to hear the approaches to music and the instrumentation in contemporary Scottish music that is so similar to and yet noticeably different from Irish music. While the banjo was largely absent in a fiddle-dominated soundscape, it was a joy to listen to piano accordion virtuosi Phil Cunningham, Máiréad Green and Daniel Gillespie (Skerryvore). The diversity of the groups’ sounds and arrangements highlights the great potential that exists. We have arrived home with a book of compositions by James Alexander and look forward to adding these tunes to our repertoire in the coming months.
While it is always nice to attend a conference in person and enjoy social interactions with colleagues, the ongoing ability to participate virtually has allowed us to maintain connections and continue to share our research to a wider audience at a time when travel is not always viable. Participating in conferences continues to provide us with goals in relation to writing up our research and insights into the work of other scholars that informs our own work. We have recently completed a number of publications and we look forward to sharing more information on these in forthcoming blogs. It is noteworthy that all of our publications begin with conference presentations, benefitting from feedback and questions from colleagues.
We are delighted to be part of an international music community but our community at home, both in academia and music performance remains central to our experience of music and research. It is nice to be back after our travels. We look forward to travelling to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2022 in Mullingar and perhaps some other events before the new semester begins. Perhaps we will meet you along the way.
Commins, A. 2022. “‘A Charming Picture of Irish Life’: The Transatlantic Reception of Shamus O’Brien”, North American British Music Studies Association Biennial Conference, Illinois State University, 24 July.
Commins, A. 2022. “‘A Story of Ireland 100 Years Ago’: Representations of Shamus O’Brien in the Press”, Society for Musicology in Ireland Annual Plenary, University College Cork, 25 June.
Kearney, D. 2018. ‘Grappling with ‘Celtic’: William Marshall’s 21st Century Struggles’. Society for Musicology in Ireland Annual Plenary, CIT Cork School of Music, 16 June 2018.
Kearney, D. 2018. ‘Scottish Overtones: the influence of Scottish musical traditions on Irish fiddle player Josephine Keegan’ North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, University of Aberdeen, July 2018.
Kearney, D. 2021. My Brigadoon Moment: Distinguishing Between Heritage and Tradition in Fochabers [Conference Presentation]. NAFCo 2021.
Kearney, D. 2022. ‘Tourism, Touring and Staged Folklore’ in Staged Folklore, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland 1968-1998. Editors: Susan Motherway and John O’Connell. Cork: Cork University Press.
Kearney, D. 2022. “Idir Eatarthu: Encountering the Otherworld in Productions by the National Folk Theatre of Ireland”, 8th Biannual Conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), University College Cork, 6 July.
Kearney, D. and Burns, K. 2022. ‘Come Enjoy the Craic: Locating an Irish traditional music festival in Drogheda’ in Festivals and the City: The Contested Geographies of Urban Events. Editors: Andrew Smith, Guy Osborn and Bernadette Quinn. London: University of Westminster Press.
Kearney, D. and Commins, A. 2017. ‘Let’s put up a stage: Experiencing Speyfest and a Scottish Music Community’, ICTM Ireland Annual Conference, NUI Maynooth, 25 February 2017.
Kearney, D. and Commins, A. 2017. ‘Performing on an International Stage: Sharing, Learning and Disseminating Practice Through Music Performances’ (Poster Presentation), QQI/HEA Joint Conference on Internationalisation: A Driver of Quality in Irish Higher Education, Dublin. December 2017.
McCallig, J., Conroy, H., Kearney, D. and Commins, A. 2017. Encountering Speyfest 44th ICTM World Conference, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, 13-19 July 2017
Motherway, S. and Kearney, D. 2022. Drawing from the Well: A Review of Siamsa Tíre’s Strategy for Sustaining a Living Traditional Arts Community in Rural Ireland’, 46th ICTM World Conference, Lisbon, Portugal, 26 July.