|Sharon Shannon and Martin Donohoe|
One of the more important vehicles for the preservation and promotion of traditional music, which was at very low ebb when Comhaltas or CCE as it is commonly known got its start in Mullingar in 1951, was an annual music competition to encourage learning and standards that could ensure a future for the music.
This event would bring people from all over Ireland to a central place to share and celebrate the rich legacy of traditional Irish music before it disappeared due to general disinterest in the land and the loss of many of its most ardent fans through emigration.
And so Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann was born, and it spawned legendary fleadhs (or music festivals) throughout Ireland. Fortunately they went well past the task of preservation and became an extremely vital aspect of grass roots music education throughout Ireland and abroad through the Comhaltas movement.
Music fleadhs were always about much more than just a testing of skills in the various strands of Irish traditional music because the essence of carrying on the tradition lay in the genuine sentimentality and gra for the music and the native heritage from which it came.
When like-minded people came together at a fleadh it encouraged them to go back to their own localities with a renewed sense of purpose and cultural identity that the Irish are known for throughout the world.
So the evolution of the fleadh over 60 years has been a steady progression and was especially evident in the 2010 and 2011 editions of Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann as hosted by Co. Cavan in Cavan town.
It has been a long time since my first fleadh in Buncrana, Co. Donegal in 1976, and the changes have been as great as they have been for the Emerald Isle in that timespan.
One of the most obvious innovations up in Cavan has been the introduction of many more events and concerts that one usually associates with festival curation and promotion. The intention was to appeal to and expand the interest of families and the hard-core followers of the trad circuit who don't really engage in or give a fig about music competitions.
Cavan didn't have to look very far for a energetic and imaginative curator than the Cavan town native Martin Donohoe, who has steadily opened up the Breiffne County as trad music destination through his own NYAH Festival and recordings of Cavan musicians, as well as his weekly radio program The Wind That Blows on Northern Sound Radio (www.northernsound.ie) featuring traditional music and events.
He is man known for pushing the envelope and having a great feel for what is happening in the scene and offering a window into it. He saw the massive potential of the fleadh in Cavan as a very appropriate vehicle to expand those capacities.
Through his experience with the NYAH Festival held around St. Patrick's season, he also amassed a great deal of experience and exposure for bringing in tourist and arts council bodies both locally and nationally to get onboard in promoting cultural tourism from which Cavan benefited greatly.
He is simply a man who knows what he is doing on his side of the pitch, and with great teamwork from other people with areas of specific knowledge and responsibilities they accomplished so much more than on their own.
And the cultural agenda or more accurately the programming options were non-stop from the fleadh's official opening on Saturday, August 13 through to Monday, August 22.
I blew into town on Tuesday, August 16 knowing that a severe test awaited me thanks to the numerous email alerts and Facebook postings coming from Cavan and Donohoe wondering how I would ever get to half of what intrigued me on the schedule.
One has to be content with making choices at any great festival with so many tempting offerings that reflect on the imagination and knowledge of the presenters, and usually you just decide wherever you end up is the right choice and enjoy yourself. And so I did.
In the second year of a fleadh, the host committee tackles the things that needed repair in the inaugural year or perhaps it is better to say "fine tuning" in the musical spirit of the fleadh.
Cavan immediately set out to get it right in presenting Sharon Shannon and her band early in the week in the expansive temporary but most accessible fleadh dome on the grounds of the Cavan Institute.
Last year the late Sunday night slot at Peace III open air Gig Rig in the Egg Market proved way too popular for the swelled-Sunday night crowd and Shannon's many fans, and it was cut short due to crowd control issues which are necessary in public events these days.
With a more sophisticated approach to planning issues in Cavan, they turned a negative into a positive straight away and were able to accommodate a sold out crowd of 2,000 people for the Shannon concert on a Tuesday night and created a buzz that carried right through the week.
The fleadh dome was a most amenable facility and huge improvement over the tented marquees of old because the more secure and sealed structure would hold up in any weather conditions and more comfort for larger crowds and access along with sight lines.
Over the course of the week I saw Donal Lunny and Ciorras perform there for an audience of over 600 midday on Friday afternoon and the setting and sound was as good as any venue on the day.
Later that night it was hosting what was billed as the "60th Birthday Comhaltas Tea Party" where free cups of tea were given out during one of the intervals. It wasn't the tea that was the attraction, but rather an opportunity to showcase some exceptional talent from America through the bands Pride of New York (Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway and Brendan Dolan) and Cherish the Ladies (Madden again, Mary Coogan, Mirella Murray, Kathleen Boyle and Grainne Murphy).
These New York-based bands gave a vivid display of the strength of traditional Irish music in America, and fittingly placed in between them was the great Joe Burke, whose own New York connections helped foster the love of Irish music in America and in particular with his many ties to the Pride of New York members.
The fleadh dome also would be the site of the premier event associated with the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in the Sunday night Senior Ceili Band which generally brings the fleadh to an official close except in Cavan where another day was added on Monday as a wind-down or up depending on your outlook –and stamina.
Twelve bands vied for the honor of being crowned the champions recognized for great teamwork, style and musical prowess and joining an illustrious group of memorable ceili bands over the years.
Danny O'Mahony's excellent Shannonvale Ceili Band from Ballyduff, North Kerry copped the cup for the first time and excited the crowd of 1,700 in the fleadh dome for the enjoyable competition that symbolized and included many of the great musicians who were present and teaching and playing all week.
Like other great festivals there were many tasty musical interludes in places like the centrally located Farnham Arms Hotel, where sessions filled its many corners in general.
But upstairs the function rooms allowed for special focus for album launches and exposure by some of the best musicians in the Irish music scene.
This kind of attention on artists who have dedicated lifetimes to quality music enhances the overall fleadh atmosphere as well as allows a more inclusive participation by those who don't necessarily fly in the Comhaltas orbit or fleadh environs.
On Sunday alone I made my way twice to the Farnham upstairs to hear wonderful music from the Connemara gems Marcus Hernon and Johnny Connolly along with Marcus' talented sons Breandan and Proincias who could do sean nos dancing as well as play music. Later the veteran London-based band Le Cheili provided late night chunes after the ceili band competition was over.
For the fleadh 2011, it was a concerted effort (pun intended) it was an inspired approach to arrange for so many fine additional programs and venues with so many great musicians from all over providing great entertainment from morning until night.
It was also a testament to their organizational skills that will be talked about whenever great fleadhs are discussed and banded about because the added value is attracting a wider audience under the Fleadh banner and can only heighten the attractiveness of this moveable music feast.
Well done Cavan for thinking outside the box and bringing a festival ethos to an already viable fleadh experience.
Here's some clips of the talent and craic at the Fleadh: