Making merry music in Monaghan




County Monaghan — Like the Memorial Day holiday in the U.S., in Ireland the Irish welcome the May Bank holiday weekend with optimistic hopes for an enjoyable and relaxing summer season.

Dotted throughout the island are festivals aplenty, luring many for a three day escape from the daily throes of care and woe.

For visitors around this time, especially those with a bent for Irish traditional music, the choices are many and varied.

I found myself attracted to a place where I had never been before in Co. Monaghan associated with a fiddle competition has that brought additional acclaim to a number of Ireland’s top fiddlers for over 40 years.

The Féile Oriel in Monaghan town would see another senior champion don the crown as the “Fiddler of Oriel” during an action-packed weekend that gave ample evidence of the strength of traditional music in this part of the country.

After an 11-year hiatus, the festival was revived in 2009 under a newly organized volunteer effort, and more favorable sponsorship environment surrounding cultural events like this.

Going back to the year 1969 when “the Yank” Kathleen Collins won the very first Fiddler of Oriel prize, the list of champions is very impressive, including Tommy Peoples, Antóin Mac Gabhann (this year’s patron), Joe Ryan, Gerry O’Connor, Jim McKillop, Tony Linnane and Liz Kane among others, giving you a notion of the talent that is drawn to the Oriel region for the competition.

This year’s senior championship went to Niall Murphy, 18, of Camlough, Co. Armagh, along with the ***1,500 ($2,000) first prize with Lydia Warnock from Co. Down taking the junior slot (***200 or $266).

Appropriately enough, the weekend opened with a concert by Fidil, a trio of young Donegal fiddlers who have already distinguished themselves in the wider arena of Irish music.

Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Aidan O’Donnell are TG4 Young Musician of the Year awardees who teamed up with Damien McGeehan in a fabulous trio, taking Donegal double-fiddling one better performed in the centuries-old Market House.

Their prowess is documented on a new CD, Fidil 3, released last year (www.fidilmusic.com) by the Music Network in Ireland.

Now referred to as the Teach an Mhargaidh as a cultural center in the town center, it proved a worthy venue for subsequent concerts by fiddler Tony Linnane paired with Lunasa’s Kevin Crawford on flute and whistles, and fiddler Bríd Harper joined by Dermot Byrne, the box player from Altan.

The pairing of Harper and Byrne has become a recent and welcome concert attraction in the past year or so, reuniting two excellent musicians who electrified Irish music fans over a score of years ago as emerging talents in the scene, and the Sunday night show had plenty of sparks.

Harper, in particular, was very impressive and for too long out of the limelight as she was rearing a family because she is surely one of Ireland’s finest fiddle players with a steady command of the bow.

She opened the night with a set of reels (“Glencolmcille,” “Golden Keyboard” and “Kiss Me Kate”) that she learned from the records (yes LPs) of Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds of New York fame.

Unabashedly, the still youthful-looking Harper confessed, “Most people these days learn their tunes from CDs, but I learned my music from records.”

She and Byrne delighted the audience with some reels (“Graf Spee,” “Lady McDonalds” and “As Birds Fly”) that were learned from Tommy Peoples, with settings from Johnny Doherty, two iconic Donegal fiddlers. Some French-Canadian tunes learned from Denis Lanctot on some early trips to North America pleased the crowd.

Harper and Byrne were joined by the newly-crowned Murphy for a tune, as well as a lovely singer P.J. McDonald (outstanding version of “Raglan Road”) on guitar

For the finish, piper Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn (the principal musical organizer to the weekend) came up to play a set of tunes leading with “Never Was the Piping So Gay” which may have described O’Duinchinn’s mood as the successful weekend was drawing to a close.

He would have much to be pleased about as the well-organized four-day spread of entertainment and cultural activities offered great value and a wide variety of talent.

In these recessionary times, to be able to offer free gig rig shows in the Church Square on the Saturday and Sunday featuring major acts like Frankie Gavin and the New De Dannan, Kila, Altan and North Gregg was a testament to generous sponsorship led by the Peace III program of the European Union’s Development Fund and Ireland’s national funders like the Arts Council, Failte Ireland and Foras na Gaeilge and local councils in Monaghan.

Nothing defines the healthy state of traditional music in Ireland like the amount of innovation and integration of other musical styles that drift in and out of it in these multicultural times.

This festival would be well-attuned to those developments, and the need to get younger people enthused about trad music in a hipper fashion and delivery.

So the availability of a great late-night locale like the Westenra Hotel conveniently perched in Church Square with the handy bar extension suited acts like the Niall Vallely Quartet (Donal O’Connor, Brian Morrissey and Sean Og Graham), Brian Finnegan with former Flook mates Ed Boyd and John Joe Kelly.

On the Sunday night, it was an inspired choice to spotlight Beoga, the five-piece Antrim-based band in a return engagement in 2010, for their very name translated into English is “lively”.

Their sophisticated arrangements of songs and tunes reflects the skills and intelligence of the increasingly popular young band on both sides of the ocean, and they had the beautiful function room in the hotel mad with music for the late-night final set.

Beoga is driven by the double accordions of Damian McKee and Sean Og Graham (who also plays guitar), bodhran player Eamon Murray, keyboardist Liam Bradley and sensational singer Niamh Dunne who also plays the fiddle. Sean’s sister Brona Graham joined them on banjo for the night.

Sean nos dancers Ger Butler and Jim and Katie Scanlon, who graced stages all weekend with the free-form stepdancing that dominates the informal dancing world these days, took to the table tops to the excitement and encouragement of the crowd of over 300 squeezed into the hall.

Set dancers were catered for in the Four Seasons Hotel on the town’s outskirts, with the sweet swing of the Emerald Ceili Band (Janette and Paul Mongey and Jim McGrath from Fermanagh).

Nine town pubs created a session trail over the weekend, and visitors to Master Deery’s were treated to an art show in addition as the paintings on canvas by Barr Kerr and Lorcan Vallely (of the musical and artistic Vallely clan) provided a festival enhancement in the “Canbhás Ag Ceol” exhibition that brought the magic of music to the eye as well as the ear.

The scope and creativity of the Féile Oriel is impressive and indicative of a culturally fertile county that is also complemented by the lush green and sloping hills that surround it.

Like so many others this bank holiday weekend, I’m glad that the road to Monaghan was so easily traveled, and I’ll keep my eyes peeled on future events at www.feilioriel.com to see how it is getting on, and with fond memories of my first visit to it.

Bays, Keane Tour

RANDAL Bays and James Keane will be making the rounds in the metropolitan area over the weekend of May 14-16. Keane is the Drimnagh, Co. Dublin box player who immigrated to North America four decades ago without losing a beat of his soulful approach to Irish traditional music, teaming up with his Fingal mate, Randal Bays from Washington State for a series of shows in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Bays is an exceptional and versatile musician on both the fiddle and guitar especially when he is playing Irish tunes.

First up is a Friday night concert (May 14) at the Blarney Star Concert Series at Glucksman Ireland House (1 Washington Mews, on Fifth Avenue between Eight Street and Washington Square) with sets beginning at 9 p.m. (www.blarneystar.com).

On Saturday, May 15 at 8 p.m. it’s onto performing for STIMS (www.shamrockirishmusic.org) in Fairfield County, Connecticut. That show will be in the tasty folk music venue known as Tressler’s Barn in Easton, home to many a historic folk music concert.

They’ll finish the area visit with the first ever Sunday clubhouse concert on May 16 at 7 p.m. at the Irish American Center of Northwest Jersey with a session to follow. If there is enough interest for workshops beforehand (via email to irisnevins@verizon.net by May 14) they will be held from 4-5:30 p.m.

The IAANJ clubhouse also hosts a session on Saturday, May 8 starting at 8 p.m. led by Pearl River box player and teacher Patty Furlong.

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