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Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Congress celebrates growth - with 415 branches in 15 countries

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The Pearl River under-12 All-Ireland champions in Cavan in 2012.
The Pearl River under-12 All-Ireland champions in Cavan in 2012.


DUBLIN -- I’ve only just arrived back from the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Congress held at the Monkstown Culturlann headquarters of the worldwide Irish cultural movement that has 415 branches in 15 countries in time to write this column.

CCE was founded in 1951 in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath to halt a serious decline in preservation of the traditional arts of music, song, dance and the Irish language for myriad reasons in Ireland at that historical timeframe.

Those devoted founding members had equal measures of concern that the native culture would die out and a visionary spirit that would reverse the spiraling downward trend afflicting their heritage and set out on a course to correct that.

The primary vehicle driving the revival efforts would be a fleadh (or festival) using music competitions to stimulate a musical education and preservation structure starting on county levels working its way up to the four provinces of Ireland (Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster) and ultimately to Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann or the All-Ireland music championships as we know them today.

Fast-forward to today seeing that fleadh structure as a critical driving force in measuring the vitality of Irish traditional music and its importance in Ireland’s economy and cultural identity.

You need only to appreciate the fact that the last three years the All-Ireland Fleadh was held in Cavan it generated over $130 million to that county’s economy and that multiple bids to host future fleadhs are now the norm. 

The seeds in Mullingar have sprouted far and wide, and that growth was on display all weekend in Dublin at the Congress through the work of dedicated CCE officers and members who made their way there on the May bank holiday weekend.

The missionary work of Comhaltas at home and abroad was duly recognized by the Irish government which has invested almost $40 million in CCE development projects and resource centers abroad between the 50th and 60th anniversaries of Comhaltas, and continuing up to the present day under the Minister Jimmy Deenihan’s Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 

Recognizing the grassroots nature of the organization and the spirit of volunteerism from to the branch to the county or region and within the now six CCE Provinces (Britain and North America have status also), Senator Labhras O’Murchu, the director general of Comhaltas, told Congress that 75 percent of the government funding is spread throughout the provinces to support their work.

The weekend clar or agenda dealt with fleadhanna cheoils throughout Ireland, Britain and North America for the most part in both its celebratory and regulatory capacities.  A number of rule changes were offered as motions in effort to keep the fleadh competition structure current and relevant and practical. 

The most newsworthy addition was the enthusiastic welcome to granting All-Ireland status to sean nos stepdancing within the fleadh system, giving an deserving boost to the most popular dance innovation in the traditional arts arena.  

Also on display via leaflets and podium pitches were the significant upgrades around the fleadhs as they have become magnificent displays of creative programming. 

The point was made over and over again that Comhaltas has been gathering folks for decades through its many activities and fleadhanna, and that is especially true of Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann. 

And this year in Derry for the first time the All-Ireland Fleadh will take place in the north of Ireland from the August 8-18 (http://www.fleadhcheoil.ie/) which will be truly historic and ground-breaking in a very positive way, and another coup for Comhaltas.

Over here in North America, the track record of Comhaltas has been similarly impressive as the recent convention in Bethesda, Maryland last month and the upcoming fleadhanna cheoils in Parsippany and St. Louis this month will no doubt prove.

Coming up this weekend, May 10-12 at the Parsippany Hilton in New Jersey is the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil being held at the hotel for the third year in a row, the site of four very successful North American convention weekends. 

The weekend kicks off with a ceili mor with the Shannon Vale Ceili Band on Friday at 8 p.m. featuring the All-Ireland Senior Ceili Band champions of 2011 in a visit from Ireland. They will perform as part of the Hall of Fame ceili on Saturday at the gala. 

Competitions are the order of the day on Saturday and Sunday featuring solo, duet, trio, grupa cheoil and ceili band, and also some dance and Irish language competitions.

This column often writes about the thriving music standard among the younger generation inside the New York area and beyond, and it is very much in evidence all weekend at the fleadh.

Since moving the fleadh to the Parsippany Hilton two years ago, one of the jewels in the weekend’s crown is the Hall of Fame induction as the centerpiece of the Saturday banquet.

This year the Honorees are Rose Conway Flanagan and Patricia Conway Furlong (no relation), two Bronx-born gals who have been instrumental as both teachers and musicians in putting Pearl River (their adopted hometown) on the traditional music map. 

With last year’s inductee Margie Mulvihill, another partner in the Pearl River School of Music, they celebrated the fruits of their labor when their under-12 ceili band won the prestigious All-Ireland ceili band competition last summer in Cavan. 

In keeping with the custom also of recognizing a venerable senior musician, the late Gerry Lynch from Kilfenora will also be inducted in acknowledgement of his contributions when he lived in New York for many years.

You can attend fleadh events by paying at the door, but room reservations and banquets seats need to be booked in advance. Visit www.cce-ma.com or call 201-705-8948 or 201-965-6598.  (Information about the fleadh in St. Louis is at midwestfleadh.org.)

The North American convention hosted by the O’Neill-Malcom branch entitled “Ireland Over Here” in April was an exceptional gathering of people from all over Canada and the United States. 

Chairs Jesse Winch and Maddy O’Neill-Dean and their team did Comhaltas proud in putting on a wonderful display of Irish music and dance featuring many of the very talented musicians and dancers who have toiled in the Capitol District of D.C., Virginia and Maryland. 

The dance floor was crowded all weekend and the committee set up three performances stages around the pub and corridors which made for crossroads-type performances all weekend. 

There were also some literary events and a series of great films with Irish music as subject matter curated by the Irish Film Institute based in Dublin which was a marvelous adjunct to the weekend’s activities.

Indicative of the very strong connections between the Irish government and Comhaltas, the Irish Embassy threw a welcoming reception on Thursday night for the visiting delegates and special guests from Ireland with performance from a troupe of young musicians and dancers from Co. Clare who are part of a developing Irish center called Cnoic na Gaoithe in Tulla.

The Saturday gala was attended by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, an Irish musician himself, as he welcomed everyone to his state.   There was a two-tiered reunion of two bands that played seminal roles in getting trad Irish music going in the 1970s down in Washington D.C. area.

First was Celtic Thunder featuring founding members Jesse and Terry Winch, Dominick Murray, Linda Hickman and Tony DeMarco. Sean nos dancer Siobhan Butler joined them for some steps.  

The Irish Tradition with Brendan Mulvihill, Billy McComiskey and Andy O’Brien followed and gave us many of the standout chunes which inspired many folks back in the days when they were a force at the Dubliner pub and around D.C. It was a memorable weekend for all.

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