Two of the most famous ceili bands in history, the Tulla and the Kilfenora, will once again square off this weekend in the center of the North Clare village of Kilfenora, gateway to the Burren region.
The outcome is pre-ordained, however, as the rivalry will not be contested as the Tulla will ceremoniously yield to the hometown boys and girls on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the Kilfenora Ceili Band. Their Sunday get-together on the final day of the four-day hooley highlighting the release of the new Kilfenora Ceili Band CD, "Century: A Celebration of One Hundred Years,"will tap into a mother lode of tradition in Clare when it comes to Irish Traditional dance music.
The spotlight from Thursday evening to late Sunday night will be on the 10 decades of music that have defined the community and families that share this hallowed history down through the years.
In 1909 a brass and reed band was formulated to help raise funds for a new church by a Canon Cassidy. Some of those original members would see future generations take their place and continue providing music which was mostly for dancing in an area where the country sets went from house dances to community halls to dormancy until the revival of the 1980s.
It is a rarity for any band -- even taking into account the many personnel changes -- being able to celebrate a centenary, but the Kilfenora is doing it in style with a series of events including this weekend in Clare where the history will resonate the strongest with the locals.
The kickoff event occurred over St. Patrick’s weekend in Dublin where an appearance by the Kilfenora Ceili Band of current vintage was a huge media event.
It began with a Friday evening appearance on the "Late Late Show" on RTE 1 and a huge sold-out concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Monday, March 16 for which I was fortunate enough to be in attendance.
A thousand people enthusiastically enjoyed a sit-down affair featuring a well researched program that was as informative as it was entertaining as we sailed through the years with music that came from the different eras and influences.
Flute player Garry Shannon, who earned one of the first master’s degrees in traditional Irish music performance granted by the University of Limerick’s World Irish Music Center, ably served as the program presenter as archive photographs provided further context and memories.
Most of us would be more familiar with the musical history of the past 60 years where the modern ceili bands burst on the scene in the 1950s, paralleling the rise of the Comhaltas Fleadhanna movement and more opportunity to travel around Ireland and England, and eventually to the U.S.
The Kilfenora won four All-Ireland senior championships in that first decade of the Fleadhs (1954, 1955 and 1956 and again in 1961) under the steady leadership of Kitty Linnane, the piano player and devoted organizer. After her death in 1993, banjo player John Lynch from Clogher in Kilfenora became the third generation family member to join the band, which reorganized to a contemporary unit that forty years later also won three years in a row at Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann (1993,1994 and 1995).
After the three-peat they retired from competition and focused their energies on recording three CDS and doing more ceilithe and touring that allowed for more concerts as well as larger dance events that could accommodate the 10-piece orchestra concept that was the hallmark of the Kilfenora Ceili Band.
The ensemble today comprises three fiddles (Pat Lynch, Anne-Marie McCormack and Anne Rynne), two flutes (Shannon and Anthony Quigney), concertina (Tim Collins), accordion (Claire Griffin), keyboards (Aidan McMahon), banjo (John Lynch), and drums (Sean Griffin).
In addition, an independent video documentary entitled "In the Blood," exploring the rich history of the band and its members was produced over the past few years to mark the centennial celebrations. It was aired on RTE 1 on April 7.
There are a number of occasions throughout the year where this centenary will be prominently marked in Clare, like in the Glor Theatre in Ennis during the Fleadh Nua on May 23, the Clare Fleadh in Kilfenora on June 21, and once again on July 8 during the Willie Clancy Summer School.
Irish Fest in Milwaukee has hosted the Kilfenora Ceili Band a few times, including recently when documentary footage was captured, so the troupe returns there this August (www.irishfest.com) to share this once-in-lifetime occasion with their Midwest friends and patrons.
It is hoped that there will be a New York opportunity later in the year if their schedule allows, and once again they are cruising the Mediterranean as part of a large entertainment contingent for Gertrude Byrne’s European cruise in September.
The new recording "Century" is no ordinary ceili band record as you might imagine under the august circumstances in which it was produced. It is as high voltage as their earlier recordings while still remaining true to the legacy that the current band undertook when it was revived in the 1990s.