For the second year running, our nearby town of Drogheda hosted Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann and we were delighted to be stuck in the middle of it. The nine days of activity are only the tip of the iceberg following months of work by countless volunteers. With the Fleadh on our doorstep, we were once again proud to volunteer and do what we could to ensure the success of the event. Parallel to the Fleadh, other musical and research activities continue, much of which reinforces the connections between music and place.
As the crowds gathered in Drogheda, we set about preparing for the aspects for which we held some responsibility. Adèle joined her team to prepare the Seomra na Gaeilge ahead of a busy week of activities. Daithí met briefly with some of the FleadhTV team and watched as the Gig Rig was set up. There are many layers and aspects to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann now and a huge amount of work is undertaken by those involved, requiring teamwork and dedication. As the physical infrastructure changes, roads are closed and it’s time to begin.
The official opening was presided over by President Michael D. Higgins, who met us along with other volunteers and employees of Louth County Council before going on the Gig Rig to acknowledge our efforts. Later on Sunday, Daithí reprised his role as one of the MCs on the Gig Rig with fantastic music from some of the Scoil Éigse tutors, local piper Darragh Ó hÉilligh and Siansa award winners Léargas from Dublin.
Seachtain na Gaeilge
On Tuesday, we prepared for the launch of Seachtain na Gaeilge and were delighted to sing ‘Dilín ó Deamhas’ with audience participation to demonstrate how Seachtain na Gaeilge at the Fleadh seeks to engage everybody in the Irish language. It is the intention that the language should be central to all aspects of the Fleadh in Drogheda and the programme included a mix of language, song, dance and music. We had lots of events for all age groups during Seachtain na Gaeilge from Irish classes, conversation circle, Pop Up Gaeltacht, Irish language play for children and their parents, storytelling, puppet show, puppet making workshop, singing workshop, basket making workshop, historical walking tour, historical treasure hunt, lectures, family quiz, biodiversity workshop, STEAM workshop, music workshop and much more to provide opportunities for people wishing to improve their Irish. The Coiste Gaeilge na Fleidhe were delighted to work closely with Conradh na Gaeilge for this year’s programme of events and a number of exhibitions curated by Conradh na Gaeilge which celebrated different aspects of the Irish language were exhibited. We were also delighted to facilitate a cultural exchange event with Conradh na Gaeilge for the ‘New Irish’ living in the area who had an opportunity to engage with Irish song, language and dance and share a little of their culture with us too.
The linguistic heritage of the region was highlighted by talks during the week. Éamonn Ó hUallacháin gave a lecture on Éigse Oirialla and the literary greats of the region as part of Seachtain na hÉigse in Drogheda Library. His insights not only reflected on the rich cultural heritage of the Oriel region including poets Peadar Ó Doirnín and Art Mac Cumhaigh, but also the politics of cultural heritage. A notable reference was to the concert Ó Riada Sa Gaeity, now recognised as a seminal recording in Irish traditional music, which was inspired by the activities of the Éigse Oirialla.
Photographs by Robin Barnes, Orbee Digital
A focus for many at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is the competitions and while we did not attend any of this years’s competitions, Adèle celebrated the success of Louth musicians in competitions fifty years ago at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Presenting a paper entitled ‘We are the champions: celebrating the All-Ireland winning Siamsa Céilí Band’ in Drogheda Library as part of Seachtain na hÉigse, Adèle reflected on the music scene in Dundalk in the 1940s and 1950s. It is in this context that the Siamsa Céilí Band is founded in 1956. They are a significant group in the discourse of Irish traditional music in the north-east but have been neglected in research on Irish traditional music of this region. Indeed, many of the significant musicians associated with this region have not been studied nor credited for the work that they did to promote Irish traditional music in the area. While some people were familiar with the success of the band at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Adèle engaged with the narrative from the founding of the band, the establishment of a branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Dundalk, the band’s activities playing for various functions and travelling to America for the 1972 Comhaltas tour of North America. She provided biographical detail on members of the band including John Joe Gardiner, Rory Kennedy, Brian O'Kane and Brendan Gaughran. Her talk was illustrated with photographs and recordings of the band, which brought back memories for many of those present who had danced to the music of the Siamsa Céilí Band in times past.
The importance of Public Musicology has been variously highlighted and the benefits are two-fold. As Adèle continues her research on the Siamsa Céilí Band and its members and activities, it brings her into contact with potential informants who can add to the story. It also ensures that the research is accessible and the work that we do is meaningful to our communities. The location of the Fleadh in Co. Louth provided a motivation to critically consider the musical heritage of the region and, as well as this lecture, Adèle provided an article on Rory Kennedy for the Fleadh programme, another article focused on Brendan Gaughran and musical performances, including our performances with Brian O’Kane and the Oriel Traditional Orchestra, featured music that has strong associations or connections with the region. We also performed on Fleadh TV on Friday and, in keeping with the themes of the week including an awareness of local musical heritage and the celebration of Pat Ahern as Ard Ollamh, Adèle played ‘the Man from Newry’ associated with James O’Neill from Co. Down while Daithí danced hornpipes from the Munnix tradition of North Kerry that Ahern did much to preserve.
Raidió na Gaeltachta also do great work to share some of the action of the Fleadh and, throughout the year, inform listeners about Irish traditional music events, recordings and news stories. We have been fortunate to feature on a number of occasions and this year we were delighted to play two sets of tunes and speak about some of the activities at the Fleadh.
Fr Pat Ahern, who has been central to a lot of Daithí’s research and performance activity, was honoured as the Ard Ollamh at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2019 and we were delighted to be part of it. Daithí was Fear an Tí for the evening and Adèle, who was influenced in her piano playing by the late Brendan Gaughran of Dundalk, another great friend of Pat’s, joined in the performance. Best known for his role in founding Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, which has presented a summer season of performances for over half a century, Pat Ahern is a former Chairperson of CCÉ in Kerry who produced the first three Fleadh Nua in Dublin (1970-1972) and the inaugural Comhaltas tour to North America. Speaking at the banquet, Ard Stiúrthóir Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Dr Labhrás Ó Murchú noted Pat’s influence on the presentation of our culture on the stage.
Following a presentation, Pat was joined on stage by a number of his friends in music. His brother Seán delighted the audience with his renditions of An Clár Bog Déil and Róisín Dubh. Musicians included Nicky and Anne McAulliffe and Mike O’Shea who were part of Siamsóirí na Ríochta in the 1960s. Ahern’s long-term friend and colleague, Antoin MacGabhann, who assisted Pat in the early Fleadh Nua also joined. The group also included current Musical Director in Siamsa Tíre, Tom Hanafin and former Siamsa musicians John Fitzgerald and Michelle O’Sullivan, who have featured on a number of Comhaltas tours, also performed.
Patricia Hanafin and Jimmy Smith led the dancers who gave a wonderful demonstration of the Munnix style of dance. Ahern was himself a pupil of the great North Kerry dancing master Jeremiah Molyneaux, known as Munnix. Patricia and Jimmy are part of that tradition, having learned from Irene Gould and Phil Cahill, who was another Munnix pupil. They were joined in the dancing by a younger generation who had in turned learned from them including Daithí, Patricia’s daughter Bláthnaid Coakley, Sharon Phelan, Bernie MacGabhann, and current Siamsa cast members Noreen Lynch, Anne O’Donnell and Justin Walsh.
In accepting the honour, Ahern made reference to a number of well-known figures in the story of Comhaltas with whom he made his journey in music. Former President of Comhaltas, Diarmuid Ó Catháin, and former Ard Ollamh Mícheál Ó hÉidhin, were key figures in establishing and developing the movement that is Comhaltas today. Both he and Labhrás included memories of others, including the Kerry dancer Liam Tarrant and the story of his journey to Dublin by pony and trap for the first Fleadh Nua, which included a brief stop to speak with Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show.
After the formalities of the dinner, many of the performers gathered to continue the informal music-making that reflects their lifelong dedication to Irish traditional music, song and dance and the influence and leadership of Fr Pat Ahern and we enjoyed sharing music and stories. Daithí was delighted to have the opportunity to dance again with his teacher Patricia Hanafin and her daughter Bláthnaid with whom Daithí danced in many scoraíocht and seisiún productions in Tralee under the guidance of Máire Bean Uí Ghríofa.
Culture and Community: A Fleadh Symposium
A symposium on the connection between culture and community was hosted in Drogheda Library during Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2019 in association with the Creative Arts Research Centre at Dundalk Institute of Technology. Chaired by Daithí, the speakers included Ard Ollamh 2019 Pat Ahern.
The concept of community has been central to the development of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and is at the heart of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. In many instances, this community is underpinned by voluntary structures and efforts that have not only helped preserve and promote Ireland’s rich cultural heritage but have created an invaluable social network for Irish people around the world. In this symposium, presenters spoke about their experiences of a sense of community surrounding their musical lives.
The first presenter, Siobhán Ní Chonaráin, Príomh Riarthóir don Chomhaltais, began with her own experience of learning in a branch. She continued by outlining some of the structures within the organisation that is Comhaltas and how these structures support the development of communities. She pointed to the roles of regional centres and outreach centres and the importance of branch classes in bringing Irish traditional music beyond musical families and established musical areas. Patrick Morrison, Project Officer for Comhaltas, followed Siobhán by giving an international perspective on the organisation, highlighting different challenges faced by groups interested in Irish traditional music in different parts of the world. He discussed how we express our identity and the growing affinity diaspora – people with little or no Irish heritage who have become immersed in Irish culture.
Mairín de Brún, Cathaoirleach an Bhoird, Oireachtas na Gaeilge and a member of the Coiste Gaeilge, provided a very positive presentation on the potential of the Irish language, noting how her own parents met through a shared interest in the language. She reflected on her childhood in an anglicised Irish town where the English language dominated but valued her immersion in Irish culture through periods spent in the Gaeltacht and her parents’ determination to raise their children through the Irish language. Mairín presented communication as a skill that can and should be part of learning a language and this skill is integral to the strength of communities. Indeed it was noted that, as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge at the Fleadh, there was an opportunity for new Irish residents to engage with and learn the language with the support of Conradh na Gaeilge.
Following her illustrated lecture on the Siamsa Céílí Band from County Louth earlier in the week as part of Seachtain na hÉigse, Adèle further developed her focus on local culture by engaging with groups that operate parallel to Comhaltas in the promotion of Irish traditional music in Co. Louth. Noting the role of Scoraíocht Lann Léire, founded in 1974, in promoting crossroads céilí and the wren tradition, Adèle reflected on her own experience joining the groups for particular events. She also highlighted the development of the Oriel Traditional Orchestra, a voluntary, inter-generational cross-border orchestra in the region that has grown and developed rapidly since its establishment in 2017. It has engaged closely with a number of Comhaltas branches from Cork to Cavan and was nominated for a 2019 EPIC Award for Voluntary Arts.
Singer Senan Lillis presented his experience of two song communities located in Cooraclare, Co. Clare and Blackwater, Co. Wexford. He noted how the history of the country is communicated through song and that new songs add to a repertoire and to the energy of the tradition and community. He highlighted the development of singing clubs and activities in both locations to encourage participation and recover songs to the repertoire.
Ard Ollamh Fr Pat Ahern brought the symposium to a conclusion, speaking in conversation with Symposium Chair Dr Daithí Kearney from the Creative Arts Research Centre at Dundalk Institute of Technology. Pat proposed that we should consider just one culture, human culture, and work on developing our skills in communication, which is at the core of community. He highlighted how our human culture, including all of our emotions, can be so eloquently expressed in song. Pat exemplified this by quoting from the song Dónal Óg, highlighting the imagery of the language and the universality of the ideas. He made reference to the ‘rud Gaelach’, the unspecified Irish thing that binds us together as a community of people. Drawing on traditions such as the Meitheal, aspects of community that he lived through and later drew on as inspiration for his stage productions, he underlined the need for humans to live in a community and share their lives with other people, enriched by music, song, dance and storytelling.
The symposium provided an opportunity to share ideas and provide inspiration for future development. It highlighted some of the excellent projects being undertaken in communities based on cultural activities and highlighted how important communication is in order for us to learn from each other.
Gig Rig Friends
On Monday night we were delighted to perform on the Gig Rig with Ciara Brannigan on piano and Conor Walsh on guitar to perform as A Louth Lilt. The evening began with Orla Brannigan’s 'Cas Amhrán' project that encouraged the audience to sing a number of well-known Irish songs. Other acts included the Robinson School of Irish Dance, led by Chairperson of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann Lolo Robinson and her daughter Orla Brannigan. FastTrad from Armagh, Scoil Rince Cos Ceol from Darver, Warrenpoint Comhaltas and The Wednesday Gang from Slane reflected the richness of the surrounding region.
Photographs by Karen Smyth, All Sorts Photography
We returned to the Gig Rig on Saturday, first with the Oriel Traditional Orchestra and later to perform with Brian O’Kane. The Oriel Traditional Orchestra is a voluntary cross-border, intergenerational community orchestra established in September 2017. With members from Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Armagh the OTO concentrates on Irish traditional music repertoire from the Oriel region arranged especially for the orchestra. The orchestra benefits from the voluntary involvement of local music teachers, as well as lecturers and researchers at Dundalk Institute of Technology and the support of Carrickmacross Workhouse and Tí Chulainn in Mullaghbawn. Despite it being a windy day, a great crowd turned out to see us on the Gig Rig and we opened with a set of three polkas that we composed, which feature on the A Louth Lilt album.
Later in the afternoon, we were honoured to perform alongside Brian O’Kane with Don, Darragh, Louise and Emma O’Kane, Noreen McManus, Donal Fitzpatrick and his son Donal Junior. Originally from Monaghan, Brian O’Kane is a noted composer of marches and hornpipes for céilí bands. He played with the Siamsa Céilí Band who won the ‘three-in-a-row’ All-Ireland title fifty years ago (1967-1969), which was the focus of Adèle’s lecture at the Fleadh. The O’Kane’s headed down to the Tholsel later that evening where they performed for FleadhTV with Hector.
Amongst the guests at the Gig Rig was An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who enjoyed a performance from the Royal Meath Accordion Orchestra under the direction of Gerry Kelly. The Taoiseach personally thanked a number of the volunteers who gave their time to the successful running of the Fleadh and met with employees of Louth County Council. Country music star and headline artist at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2019 also called around backstage and had a great chat with Adèle about her piano accordion, delighting a very select audience with a few tunes.
Aifreann na Fleidhe
It was appropriate that Aifreann na Fleidhe should also feature the music of Pat Ahern. Aifreann Pádraig Naofa was performed by celebrant Archbishop Éamonn Martin, and members of the Oriel Traditional Orchestra. We were delighted to perform as soloists. The Oriel Traditional Orchestra joined with the Lourdes Brass Band to perform a number of pieces with local significance including ‘Carolan’s Concerto’ and ‘Roslin Castle’, which were especially arranged for the occasion by Daithí.
While branches of the organisation are integral to the Comhaltas movement, there is room at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann for other groups who engage in the promotion, development and sharing of musical culture. There is a rich tradition of brass and concert bands in Louth and surrounding counties. The Lourdes and Drogheda Brass Bands performed in 2019, as did the Ardee Concert Band in 2018. The coming together of the Oriel Traditional Orchestra and the Lourdes Brass Band created a powerful sound. You can listen back to the mass, which was broadcast live on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, here.