In the years before the Fleadh, although the ordinary people of Ireland loved traditional music, the hundreds of traditional musicians in the country were largely unappreciated in popular social and intellectual circles. The aim of the Fleadh was to promote traditional music and to arrest the decline in its popularity. The cream of traditional Irish musicians attending the Fleadh played a major role in furthering this aim.
This column was originally published in the Irish Echo.
This past weekend, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann held its Provincial meeting in St. Louis, Mo. A celebration of Comhaltas’s work promoting Irish music, song, dance and language, it attracted hundreds of people from all over North America and Ireland and as always helped energize interest and support in the organization and its mission.
Two of the weekend’s major conversational topics were the fleadh cheoil the Midwest region held April 13-15 and the one the Mid-Atlantic region will hold May 18-20. Fleadh Cheoil means “festival of music.” In a fleadh, players of all ages compete in a variety of solo and group competitions according to age. Musicians who place first or second in regional fleadh competition are then qualified to compete for an All-Ireland title at the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, which this year takes place in Cavan from Aug. 17-19.
Sean Cleland, the director of the Irish Music School of Chicago, and one of the Midwest Fleadh’s co-chairmen, told me that his Fleadh was a “huge success”; Cleland’s co-chair John O’Grady reported in the Province’s general meeting that the number of students was “significantly more than last year.” With interest in playing Irish music surging and a high playing standard more widespread than ever, Mid-Atlantic Fleadh organizers are preparing for similarly substantial numbers.
The Mid-Atlantic Fleadh is a special event. Frankie McCormack, the Fleadh’s co-chair, sees the event as:
“one of the few opportunities to get a collection of musicians, singers and dancers together in one place, and a good time for new and old to meet.”
Fleadh secretary Terry Rafferty loves how each year it brings kids and families together to keep the music going. Ultimately, it embodies the spirit of volunteerism – parents help out in event preparations, civic organizations donate rehearsal space and local businesses get involved in fundraising events that help send students to the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. All of this strengthens the bonds of community.
From a musician’s point of view, Fleadh preparation is a demanding process. Rose Flanagan of the Pearl River School (which includes Patty Furlong, Margie Mulvihill and Brendan Dolan), for example, starts preparing her students in January in small classes that offer a good amount of individualized study. The New York Sligo fiddle style she teaches emphasizes careful attention to bowing first and only later on adds ornamentation and variation.
“I really drill the bowing into them,” Flanagan joked. It’s a long and sometimes arduous path.
|Players in St. Louis (@Dan Neely)|
Erin Loughran, Comhaltas’s North American Province Youth Officer who competed in many fleadhanna growing up, understands the excitement and anxiety associated with competition preparation. “It definitely made you practice more and gave you something to work towards,” but it also brought “a very, very high level of stress.” Ultimately, though, she returned to the experience each year because
“it’s fun putting your tunes together and practicing with your friends – there’s definitely a social aspect to it.”
Today, Loughran has dozens of her own students.
Like the Pearl River School, the Acosta School of Irish Music & Dance, the Woodlawn House of Irish Music and other schools around New York City, the students Loughran, Flanagan and others work to prepare develop confidence and skill in their playing over time.
In addition to a full range of competitions and Ceilithe with the Dartry Ceili Band, new to the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh this year is Tír na nÓg, a non-qualifying competition for children under 10 years of age, intended to introduce kids to the music and the competitions. In addition, the Rafferty family has donated a cup for the winner of Senior Trio Over 18 competition, in the memory of Mike Rafferty, who won the competition in Ireland with Mary McDonagh and Cathy McGinty in 1984.
As well as fleadh events, the weekend includes the Hall of Fame Banquet. This year’s inductees are Jerry O’Sullivan, Jesse Winch and the late Johnny “Accordion” Cronin.