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Fortune favors the fiddle fair - 20th Anniversary of the Baltimore Fiddle Fair

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Altan performing at the fair (Con Kelleher)

Baltimore, Co. Cork -- Sunny skies prevailed over the 20th anniversary Baltimore Fiddle Fair in West Cork over the five-day span from May 9-13.  

Cool temperatures betrayed the summer calendar but made the wool hats created especially for the fair more than a fashion statement for those who find choice locations like this for a music festival.  

Smart and innovative programming laid on for the 20th birthday assured the music would be hot, and the zealous faithful from many countries and around Ireland for this small but tasty affair also fanned the flames with their collective enthusiasm in all of the venues.

The beginnings of the fair were humble enough though. From the outset the focus was on strong fiddle playing and fiddlers in the pub owned by Brendan and Eithne McCarthy that overlooked the small harbor of Baltimore and West Cork’s colorful coastline.  

That part of Ireland has a long sailing and boating tradition (the Fastnet Lighthouse is off shore), and leisurely drives from Kinsale to Mizen Head expose some of the most beautiful scenery and seascapes you will find anywhere.   

The accessibility and chance to escape to Clear and Sherkin Islands from Baltimore Harbor help tick the right boxes for a Failte Ireland escape where you can enjoy a well-organized multi-day music festival married to an ideal location making for a memorable holiday on several fronts.

While the fair has grown over two decades, the growth has been more in stature and scope than in size which is significant because the essential atmosphere is a festival that is still intimate and family like in the McCarthy family tradition of the old pub.  

Taking on the principle task of shaping the fair falls to fiddler Declan McCarthy, who has been exposed to all kinds of roots music through festivals like Celtic Connections in Glasgow and Celtic Colors International in Cape Breton (where we first met).

Along with seeking the best Irish artists every year, he takes great delight in exposing talent from other countries revolving around the violin (or fiddle as we commonly call it) with just enough overlap and divergence to help raise a consciousness for cultural influences from further afield which is appreciated by the international audience as well.   

While it mirrors those larger festivals above in variety, spreading out the talent over nine concerts and corollary workshops and sessions over the long weekend, it does so in a fashion that allows closer encounters with the artists and an amazing flow in scheduling that allows you to take in as much as you want.  

It is this type of sophisticated programming that appeals to a government body like the Arts Council and its small festivals funding scheme that makes their relatively small investment worth so much more as the event’s reputation expands worldwide while maintaining its small village scale.

Admirable as those traits are, it would mean nothing if the lineup didn’t blow people away.  Given the celebratory nature of the 20th birthday, virtually all of the entertainment contained fair favorites with many appearances down through the years. 

All were delighted to be asked back and infused this year’s festival with a palpable party-like presence from the first night to the last which was mostly manifested in the hellacious and enduring music sessions in Casey’s Bar alongside the main performance marquee on the grounds of the hotel.

The talent included Cork veterans Matt Cranitch, Dave Hennessy and Mick Daly (Any Old Time) who opened on Wednesday night at the Dun Na Sead Castle and organized a session on Thursday in Bushes Bar.

Also on Thursday, there was a preview showing of an excellent television documentary entitled Johnny Doherty –Ar Leirg na Gaoithe to be aired in the fall directed by Eoghan MacGiolla Bhride featuring Ciaran O Maonaigh on a personal journey to discover why the iconic Donegal fiddler Johnny Doherty was such a huge influence on Donegal fiddling and in Ireland. 

It set several tones for the weekend which is part of McCarthy’s genius because it spoke about the importance of the fiddle as a community instrument, and also the massive importance of Donegal fiddling.  

The main act on Saturday evening would be Altan, who have made a career out of exposing that music around the world thanks to native Donegal fiddlers Mairead ni Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish and their accordion player Dermot Byrne also from Donegal.

On a Sunday afternoon at the historic Dun Na Sead castle, the exquisite Derry-born fiddle Dermot McLaughlin gave a rare concert of Donegal fiddle music pulling from the Doherty catalog and many others as he is considered to be one of the finest interpreters of that style of music.  

He was a founder and promoter of Cairdeas na bhFidileiri (donegalfiddlemusic.ie) along with several others preserving the spirited music of the northwest overlooked for too long. 

The restored castle holds about 100 or so and was just perfect for this musical seminar filled with humorous remarks by McLaughlin between tunes rendered deftly.  

Fiddler Michelle O’Brien (Clare) and harpist Laoise Kelly (Mayo) reprised a duet performance from 2010 in the castle as well on Saturday which was both sonically and picture perfect venue for them.   
The Thursday night concert was divine and diverse. Opening were three young men working through the Irish and Appalachian tradition in Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh (Dublin), Cleek Schrey (Virginia) on fiddles and dancer Nick Gareiss (Michigan).  

They gave a smart, intelligent performance extremely well choreographed musically, and through the footwork of the young impressive American dancer Gareiss from start to finish including a stylish triple turn move.  

Schrey and Gareiss also attracted 41 dancers to an early workshop on the Saturday morning.  They were followed by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, who mesmerized the audience once again as a dazzling duo with great energy and drive and changes of speed and emotion.   

The attention given to both acts in the marquee was notable as well and spoke volumes about the quality of the people who attend.

Friday started with a concert for local school children hosted by the Cork County Council as one of the community building aspects of the fair. 

Setting the early alarm clocks were Tim O’Brien and Kevin Burke, Schrey and Gareiss (all resident in the U.S.) to help entertain and inform the youngsters which is sure to make future fans of traditional music and dance among them.  

The evening concert would once again swing from green grass to bluegrass which was a common theme all weekend with O’Brien and Dirk Powell on hand.   

Tyrone fiddler Cathal Hayden and guitarist supreme Arty McGlynn opened the night with a fantastic set enhanced by the McGlynn jokes throughout the performance.   

The Foghorn String Band followed and gave ample evidence of why they have been asked back again and again as the quartet was strengthened with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Powell.

Joining Altan on the Saturday night card were Dermie Diamond (Belfast fiddler) and singer guitarist Frankie Lane, who gave a great opening performance before Altan raised the tent roof with one of their classic shows featuring much of their new album, The Poison Glen. 

It was hard to know who enjoyed being there more, the band or the audience.

On the Saturday and Sunday afternoons, concerts were arranged for the grassy amphitheater at Glebe Gardens Café, one of the main venues, and Mother Nature cooperated with sunshine and warmth both days. 

Saturday was a clever enterprise dubbed “Second Fiddles,” showing off the fiddle prowess of Dermot Byrne, Derek Hickey, Michael McGoldrick and John Doyle backed up by McGlynn on guitar which gave further recognition to their collaborative skills.  

The Mystery All-Stars 
On Sunday afternoon, the Fiddle Fair Mystery All-Stars appeared, featuring most of the weekend’s entertainers who could stay for the entire weekend. It demonstrated what an exceptional esprit de corps exists at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair not only this special year but every year.

The Sunday night show teamed up bluegrass superstar Tim O’Brien with the London-born Kevin Burke, who have toured and performed together many times before as the opener.  

After a comical fancy dress interlude based on tune titles, the boys from Manchester, Dezi Donnelly, McGoldrick, John Joe Kelly and accompanist West Cork boy Jim Murray, performed a truly explosive set that was as powerful as any performance that I have witnessed anywhere. It capped the weekend magnificently.

Launched in conjunction with the festival was “Fiddle Fair 3,” containing live performances from the years 2007-1011 which is a fair sampling of the crossroads connections of the music performed here thanks to McCarthy. 

It is available via www.fiddlefair.com as is information on this year and the future festivals.

Director McCarthy was justifiably pleased that the weekend was enjoyed by record numbers without damaging its charm as a right-sized festival which he hoped would continue.  

On the last night he advised the crowd to “tell no one about it,” so if you should happen to attend a future Baltimore Fiddle Fair in early May, don’t tell him that you read about it here.

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