Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (All Ireland Championships) -- Derry 16th-18th August 2013.
An August Saturday afternoon and I am in the debating chamber of the Derry City Council. Its decor is a mixture of high Victorian Gothic and 21st century Hi-Tech. Stained glass windows celebrating founding fathers and stainless steel microphones on every desk so their great grandchildren can be heard. Polished mahogany and the lightest of white beech, the space holds the paradoxes and potentials of this Northern Irish City.
Opposite me is a gentle giant, Harald Jungst, recording a documentary for his radio show back home in Germany. He has an ancient cassette recorder, and he is interviewing me about the All Ireland Fleadh, which is in town this week. I’m flattered of course to be asked, but he is firing some difficult questions at me, testing the line between candour and diplomacy.
You see this is a Fleadh with a difference, which could be summed up in one word. History.
History of course is more than simply important to understanding Northern Ireland, it is essential. Certainly when it comes to negotiating the social and cultural landscape of the Province. Heck, I’m almost as much an outsider as Harald, but maybe he’s relying on my eyes to see things that some others might take for granted.
So let’s unpack a few things, with the two big questions. What is a Fleadh? And, why is having one in Derry so special?
The Fleadh Movement began in 1951 when a number of Irish traditional pipers got together to save the music, that was in the midland town of Mullingar (it had a railway stop, handy for the masses on public transport from Dublin). Those pipers were afraid that the tradition was dying. Populist radio was becoming pervasive, the middle classes were ignoring native culture, the first tentacles of American teen-culture were insinuating themselves into modern life. It was a time of recession, and the lure of employment in the UK and the USA, with their post war building booms was emptying the country of thousands of young people.
The initial Fleadh, was a success, and it grew, by 1952 it had a committee who gave the movement a name: Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the Association of Irish Musicians. A self-governing body taking its operational model from the sporting world of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Organised into branches, counties, and provinces, with music competitions or Fleadhs being the highlights of its calendars. The culmination of year’s practice and regional competition was the annual All Ireland Fleadh, where if you were good, in fact if you were judged to be the best , you would be crowned champion of your age group and instrument.
Towns must bid for the prestige of hosting an All Ireland and with huge crowds in attendance each year, it is a real coup and a sure fire business windfall.
The organisation was and is to this day seen as something quite conservative. Catholic in its persuasion (even it professes to be non-denominational), Nationalist in its broadest outlook, and a staunch defender of the Irish language. For the past 60 years the All Ireland Fleadh had never been held in a large town, Dublin, Cork nor Limerick have hosted one and it had never crossed the border into Northern Ireland. Although the North holds county finals and sometimes hosts Provincial finals, it had never held the 32 county All Ireland. So Derry 2013 was a first and whatever happened, it would be forever part of Irish History.
Now Harald’s questions were barbed, he wanted to know what I thought of the Protestant take on the Fleadh? Well to be honest I hadn’t taken a straw poll that morning, so I gave him the message of hope. Irish Music I noted is played everywhere these days, by Belgians and Germans, the French and Argentines. They don’t see it as tribal, but of course here in the still-polarised North it is a badge of identity. One that Protestant community has over past two generations decided not to wear, they have tuned themselves out of the tradition.
Traditional music should and could be a force for good, for some sort of cohesion at the most basic of grass roots levels, at the one to one you get when playing along with a fellow musicians, but that’s a tough ask when peer pressures dictate otherwise.
The day before I’d been in the very Catholic area of the western part of the city, the famous Creggan and the Bogside, familiar to anyone who has heard the anthemic song The Town I loved So Well by Phil Coulter. Familiar to anyone who knows of the bloody Sunday atrocity of the 30th January 1972 when British troops shot dead 13 Civil Rights protesters.
Today the area has been partially greened over, there is a swift road running parallel to city walls which look down upon the Bogside. At Free Derry corner the gable ends of houses carry political murals, it has become a macabre tourist attraction.
In the Bogside Inn I had a pint with Patrick Lalor from Belfast and Danny Kilbride who were both over from South Wales to launch an album about the Titanic and sing some new songs about Belfast. Earlier they played a gig at the Free Derry corner’s open air stage. Having to run off and take some pictures across town I left them to their Guinness.
It was well past my bedtime before we met up again in the Don Bar in the Creggan, up the hill from the St. Eugene’s Cathedral. It’s called the Don Bar because it has a black and white mural at the entrance of Don Corleone from the Godfather movie. It was a long, tight, a local pub and a very friendly bar. I settled in to play a few tunes. Beside me were two older lads from Kildare in the Irish Republic, the Penn and Teller of trad, one of them was stony silent, the other a raucous singer. Whenever there was gap in the tunes he’d be in with a come all ye. About the size of a jockey, spare and angular he came alive as he burst into the Scottish song Come by the Hills. Song over we got chatting, the pair had been coming to Fleadhs for 42 years. How does it compare to others? I asked, “It’s different and it’s marvellous” said one, the other nodded.
Ciarán Carson in his book Last Night’s Fun essayed the perennial question for a musician at a Fleadh “where’s the good session?” Answer, it is 2013, a quick text to your mates will fill your session in minutes . So where to find a spot for a few tunes? One of a Derry’s innovations the Pop Up Pub was the way to go. Molly McGinty’s at dinner time on Sunday was an example, rumour had it that next week it would be back to normal as hairdressers, today it was jammed with musicians. The Pop-up-Session pub, brilliantly simple, practical and pragmatic.
The crowds flocked into the City Centre, streamed over the Peace Bridge and congregated around Guildhall Square. The lower half of Ship Quay Street filled with a mass of at least 15,000 people watching a live performance on a gig rig. In quieter areas small children busked for pennies, and whenever a few lads got the groove in gear a great circle of listeners formed around them.
Ship Quay Street had a number of pop-up music stores along its left hand side. I met Gerry Fiddle O’Connor here as he was setting out his stall, too early for him to gauge the level of business, but he was very positive about the way the City had welcomed the music into its fortress centre. Further up the hill Tom Cussen was in residence with other instrument sellers. Tom was flat out with work, selling strings, spare bits for banjos and having the craic with friends all day long. Michael Searson of Cairdin Accordions had an almost constant session going in the space he shared with two banjo makers and two fiddle sellers.
In many ways this was a hi-tech festival, with the Fleadh Live TV programme as the standout production. Broadcasting for three hours each night on TG4 with a central studio set up in the court yard of the touristy Craft Village, it was presented by Síle Ní Bhraonáin and Gino Lupari. It attracted a capacity audience every night, with hundreds outside waiting to get in. The BBC’s Lynette Fay was out and about in the City to provide vox pop spontaneity and continuity as bands changed over at the Craft Market. For the longer term, Joe McCarthy was on hand to record archival programming with Fore Front TV and he was certainly kept very busy.
More hi-tech at the Venue in Ebrington Square (the Loyalist epicentre of the City). The area also hosted the hugely impressive Ceílí band competition and the Closing Ceremony, which was so popular that tickets had to be issued to keep the crowd numbers to a safe level.
Now not everything was full to the brim, the CD launches in the Orchard Cinema were poorly attended, maybe because it was a hard place to find (in the basement of St. Columb’s Hall). They were also badly lit, one light bulb for whole band, they had a sound engineer who worked very hard to ensure great sound, but as the day wore on the hall go dimmer and dimmer until it was almost impossible to see anyone on stage.
On the other hand events at the Culturlan, the Irish language centre, were very popular and great value too. The Singer and the Song recital on Sunday perhaps set a new Fleadh record, it stated just after 1pm (the delay caused by the number people who wanted to get in, it was a sell out). It ran for around 5 hours. Given it featured Cathal McConnell, Len Graham and a recently reformed Voice Squad, no one complained about the extra helping of songs.
Victoria Market hosted the finest music every night. Reel It In impressed on the Sunday night, holding the crowd after the very popular RTÉ Radio’s Céilí House live broadcast. Saturday’s headliners at the same spot were Dervish. On top form they had the audience in the palm of their hands. Later I went to the Glassworks to see Liz Carroll; this was a standing only venue in an old Protestant church. The crowd were lively and enthusiastic. Liz, the consummate professional, rose to the challenge with her trademark grace and effortless fiddling.
When the dust had settled I took a quick look at Facebook to see how Derry natives had reacted to the event, two comments are worth a mention; from Siobhan Kearney “Derry should be very proud of the success of Fleadh Cheoil and the City of Culture. Who would have predicted 20 years ago that the city would have hosted an Irish event like this with such success and enjoyed by the whole community” and Gary Dunn who wrote “Just shows the potential of the city!!! Great week’s craic. It was like being on holiday in your own town!!! Unreal atmosphere.”
In a break during a sound check at the Craft Village I saw a young child tapping the steel-toed boots of a Police Officer. She giggled, he laughed back, the friendliness was palpable. The police have a tough job here, they carry side arms, they do get to be serious. But the hope is for that small child, who might grown up in an Ireland where the fun and good humour of Derry 2013 is more infectious than the sores of the past.
We all knew of course this was a game changer. The first All Ireland North of the border and the first in a big city. Spice it up with the cultural and political divide between the communities, sweeten it with much need funding as part the UK City of Culture (although that rankled with hard line Nationalists). It could have been candidate for compromise or a recipe for rancour. Congratulations to Eileen O'Doherty, Chairperson of Comhaltas Dhoire team, in bringing not only the Fleadh but some 430,000 people into City for an event that was truly inclusive and world class to boot.
Eileen and her team embraced the bigger picture, evidenced in the programming which took major gigs around the city. I experienced fantastic courtesy from all involved with the Fleadh, a genuinely friendly welcome and outstanding hospitality afforded by the Guildhall team in particular.
If the Derry All Ireland Fleadh has done nothing else it has shown us all that you can have your culture and share it with your neighbours. If you also have the likes of Eileen O'Doherty, you can do it on the grandest of scales. That’s something to sing about in the Creggan.
Next year’s Fleadh moves south of the border to the town of Sligo.
Photo Credits: (1) Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann Doire '13; (2) Harmony Hill Ceili Band, (3) Youth Band at Free Derry Corner, (4) Len Graham, (5) Clareen Banjos, (6) Niall Hanna (Reel It In), (7) Michael Holmes (Dervish) (by Seán Laffey).