Back in 1951 in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, a group of traditional Irish musicians gathered together to bring a halt to the decline of their native music and the heritage enveloped in it. It was the start of the cultural movement called Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann or the Irish Musicians Organization.
Emigration and low self-esteem were problems for the fledgling Irish nation, taking its toll on the number of musicians playing its own folk music. This visionary group sought to encourage musical education throughout Ireland and initiated an annual festival or “fleadh” featuring competitions to aid the oral tradition associated with the music.
By moving the annual gathering around from county to county, musicians got to meet one another for the first time and develop bonds that led to greater solidarity and appreciation for the pure drop music.
It was an ambitious notion to reverse the steep decline of Irish traditional music, but fast-forward 62 momentous years as that vision played out so well and Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann is still tackling big challenges.
These thoughts came back to me as I attended the Tionol Leo Rowsome at the Comhaltas Culturlann in Monkstown early last month as a CCE delegate from North America (where I also serve as the public relations officer for CCE North America in full disclosure).
The tionol celebrates the piper who was one of those founding fathers from the Pipers Club in Dublin and one of the teachers who passed on the important piping legacy, but also it pays homage to an individual who has served the organization well.
That honor fell to Jack Keyes, the county manager of Cavan who engineered an extraordinary three year run for the Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan from 2010-2012 estimated to have brought in over €100 million and three-quarter of a million people during that record-setting run.
Calm and level-headed, he also had the vision and determination that a well-branded and organized Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan might do wonders for cultural tourism and business in Cavan when the Quinn insurance empire was collapsing and Ireland deeply recessed from the bank and real estate failures.
He built a talented and dedicated team that included the master music impresario based in Cavan, Martin Donohoe, himself the Comhaltas chair in Cavan Town and Martin Gaffney, a sophisticated media and design consultant, and many others who forever changed how fleadhs would be operated from now on.
Donohoe may have had “the dream of bringing the Fleadh to his Cavan Town but Jack Keyes had the nightmares.” But Keyes proved his mettle by being the right man for the job of combining the massive management job complicated by today’s health and safety concerns with creative programming not only on the music side of things, but also with fringe events that would lure families and visitors whose penchant for trad music competitions or endless sessions up and down town were not high on their holiday list.
Cavan turned the fleadh into a mighty festival which meant drawing people to town for 10 days instead of just a week or long weekend as it had operated up until then.
When Cavan won the bid to host the fleadh in September 2009 it was the only town that put in a bid, so deep was the recession, but they rolled the dice and the gamble paid off.
Now the competition to host the fleadh is looming larger every year when the vote is taken, with three or four towns seriously in the hunt.
The City of Derry got the nod for 2013 for largely symbolic reasons despite a great deal of controversy about going over the border into the north of Ireland and doing so when a spotlight was placed on it as the “U.K. City of Culture in 2013,” a designation that only excited the Nationalist community for the wrong reasons.
CCE’s Director General Senator Labhras O’Murchu was convinced the time was ripe, and extra funding was there to move forward with the bold decision which, if successful, would pay incredible dividends long after the last note was sounded on the weekend.
He saw it as a watershed event filled with goodwill from both communities “whose heritage we were celebrating was so ancient, it preceded any recent political divisions and could be embraced by all people living on that island who emanated from that heritage and could claim it outside of partisan politics.”
The crowd estimate this year by the police and media was a record-setting 440,000 for the 10 days of the peaceful and event-filled fleadh. What looked like the steepest challenge thrown at a fleadh was met head on once again, and there are winners all around as all roads lead to Sligo town for 2014 Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann.
At this year’s fleadh in Derry there were some wonderful achievements for North American competitors which is indicative of the high standard of teachers and students involved in Irish music over here to be able to compete and place in Ireland.
One of the most exceptional achievements belonged to wunderkind 11-year-old Haley Richardson of the Delaware Valley branch from South Jersey who won first place in the under-12 fiddle competition and another first in under-12 fiddle slow airs. Her fellow DV branch member Emily Safko won a first for under-12 harp slow airs.