Baltimore, West Cork – It would be very hard to beat the triple pleasures of breathtaking seascapes, sunny weekend weather and a seaside resort area still offering great value and service as far south as Ireland stretches.
However, the McCarthy clan of Baltimore led by Declan McCarthy, a festival director of the famed and acclaimed Baltimore Fiddle Fair held each May, has found a way to create a small but bustling weekend feile that was simply one of the most enjoyable festivals that I have been fortunate enough to attend over the years, and that is saying something.
From Thursday evening to late Sunday night 14 acts participated in 25 events of varying sizes and shapes, providing entertainment and cultural awareness for hundreds of people who found their way to this charming village over the past weekend.
Since its inception in 1992, the Baltimore Fiddle Fair has been under the stewardship of fiddler McCarthy with the help of his family (parents, brothers and sisters) and friends in the area and up until 2004, it simply ran in the Family Pub there in the square overlooking Baltimore Quay and Harbor.
A different musician would be featured each night, and year by year it grew in interest and influence and choice selections. The sale of the pub meant tackling expansion while keeping the size and scope at a level that worked best for the organizers and participants, while keeping it as a community minded event as well.
Down through the years, many famous fiddlers like Liz Carroll, Mairead ni Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish were featured along with their performing bands or partners, and an invitation to this part of the world was very much welcomed.
Foremost among the performers here this year were Kevin Crawford and Tony Linnane, the Alan Kelly Quartet, Paddy, Seamus and Kevin Glackin, Michelle O’Brien and Laoise Kelly, Kevin Burke and Lunasa.
Outside of the Irish tradition but close kinsmen were Una Palliser and the Balkan Bears featuring Slovenian music, Andrea Beaton and Troy MacGillivray along with brothers Dan and Paul MacDonald from Cape Breton among others.
Many events were in easy walking distance from the Village Square. My B&B, the Fastnet House (www. Baltimore.ie) was only around the corner and next door to one of the real gems of the fair as a performance venue.
Dún na Séad was a ruined castle built in 1215, and under the care of owners Pat and Bernie McCarthy remarkably restored as a residence in 2005. It serves as a wonderful small and totally acoustic space for smaller concerts requiring a quieter environment and fewer seats.
On the first night of the festival, Clare music was to the fore with flute player Kevin Crawford and fiddler Tony Linnane doing a duo gig alongside a blazing gas-lit fireplace and real burning candles.
As usual Kevin did most of the talking, bantering and slagging while the two shared a tight musical camaraderie and set list. Kevin was spot on though when he opined, “You know when you do a house concert in a converted castle, it will be pure class.”
On Saturday afternoon, musician poet (and fiddle-maker) Paul Bradley from Belfast was joined by the phenomenal Armagh guitarist Paul Meehan for a sublime mix of verse and tunes in the room suffused with brilliant sunlight and eager listeners.
On Sunday the castle/concert hall was the inspired choice for harpist Laoise Kelly and fiddler Michelle O’Brien, who shared some time in the Bumblebees and once again as a duet when asked.
Listening to the harp and fiddle in this gorgeous sun-splashed setting made all of us who soaked it up feel like members of the privileged class.
Their set list and music particularly suited the venue and easily had you lapsing back into days of yore when music resonated in rooms like this.
Down the road a short walk was the principal venue for the festival, the Marquee at Casey’s Hotel conveniently placed just outside the very accessible indoor bar. From Friday to Sunday, this was the crossroads for most of the visitors drawn to the area for the music and the amplification and sound engineering was right for the job.
Tented stages when drink is nearby often can lead to noisy environs, but it was only problematic for one of the shows this year and that was the Friday night gig when perhaps the punters under the big top were more interested in being part of the scene than listening to the music.
Una Palliser and her Slovenian music mates known as the Balkan Bears perhaps got two much of a groove going, and the Alan Kelly Quartet certainly kept the crowd fired up with their up-tempo trad act and tight arrangements.
Things settled down nicely for the Saturday and Sunday shows, with more people on hand with no less excitement on stage by the way. Fiddles were definitely the main attraction for the Saturday bill as two of the best of large crop of Cape Breton fiddlers, Troy MacGillivray and Andrea Beaton, opened the night in dynamic style.
Following them were the three Glackin brothers, Paddy, Seamus and Kevin, natives of Dublin but steeped in the Donegal style of fiddle playing from their father Tom. Watching them up close was one of the real highlights of the festival where fiddle is king.
Sunday night’s marquee show got off to a later start due to the unsettling journey of Lunasa piper Cillian Vallely from New York due to the weekend ash cloud disruption. But if that was the cause of the late start, the sheer brilliance of the joint stage shows from first Kevin Burke and then Lunasa was the reason for the late finish as the crowd wouldn’t let them leave.
Burke proved that less is more with a stunning and very amusing solo opening set that showed why he is one of the most popular fiddlers to grace the fiddle fair over the years. Pure class all the way.
Lunasa came on afterwards on the opening leg of their Irish tour to promote their new CD La Nua, and seeing them on their home turf of Ireland was a long time objective for me. They did not disappoint as they had the tent bursting with enthusiasm and craic and support.
When Tola Custy and Donagh Hennessey (the former a frequent sub in the band when Sean Smith is doctoring and the later the brilliant guitar player from Lunasa’s early days) from the Alan Kelly Quartet joined them onstage along with Burke for a final blast of chunes, the crowd went wild with delight.
During the Lunasa gig, Crawford revealed that one of their signature pieces, Pierre Bensusan’s “The Last Pint” featuring the three low whistles of Crawford, Smith and Vallely, was first played in McCarthy’s Bar at an earlier fiddle fair.
As the Baltimore Fiddle Fair and my last days in Ireland were drawing to a close, the tune touched me even more because I knew it was a trip to cherish and remember.
The Baltimore Fiddle Fair (www.fiddlefair.com) is one of those small festivals that the current Arts Council supports with conviction, and is one that Bord Failte should closely observe for the manner in which people are served and welcomed into this beautiful part of Ireland by all the local businesses.
Many people that I talked to are repeat visitors, and after my first visit here I am not surprised. I might even come back even if the sun wasn’t shining but I am told that never happens, at least not for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair. They must be doing something right.
THIS Friday at the final Michael Coleman club (CCE) ceili at the Kerry Hall (305 McLean Avenue, Yonkers), the May 14 ceili will honor Kathleen Biggins who is approaching her 25th year as host of her popular traditional music radio program on WFUV (Fordham University) called A Thousand Welcomes.
The Coleman club along with so many other Comhaltas branches and area ceilithe have benefited from the free publicity for their events on her show where she makes us aware of all the quality shows, concerts, lectures, etc . taking place every week. The ceili runs from 8 p.m.-midnight. Music by the Pete Kelly Premier Ceili Band.
As a writer for CBS News, Biggins maintains a demanding professional career while still staying on top of the traditional scene and providing generous assistance through her radio program.
On the following night the Ull Mor branch of CCE will hold its awards dinner and ceili with the Ceol na gCroi Ceili Band. The guest of honor is set dancer and former chair Terry Rogers.
It begins with supper at 6:30 p.m. and ceili at 8 p.m. at the New York Irish Center at 1040 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City. Call 845-499-3703.
Top: Dun na Sead concert with Paul Bradley and Paul Meehan. Photo: Con Kelleher