The joys of music in Donegal




Ballyliffin, Co. Donegal--Over the St. Patrick’s season you would have noticed the Tourism Ireland campaign slogan to “Go Where Ireland Takes You” with its underlying premise that the Emerald Isle holds many great treasures, especially for those who experience the real Ireland when they veer off the most-well traveled roads.

For those who wish to drink from the well of the pure-drop of the tradition, there are any number of opportunities to drop in on festivals of varying durations and come away with an appreciation for those tradition bearers who keep it alive, not to mention a world of knowledge even for those of us who think we know a lot already.

This past weekend my current trip to Ireland allowed me a couple of days to sample one of the more popular singing session festivals remaining in Ireland with a dedicated phalanx of traditional singers from the British Isles.

Its remote locale for the Inishowen Traditional Singers Circle was up on the beautiful Inishowen Peninsula at the very top of the Republic added to the fervor of the very special weekend devoted to traditional singing.

Started 21 years ago by song collectors Jimmy McBride (Buncrana) and Jimmy McFarland (Derry), with a big folklorist assist from Tom Munnelly, who worked for Ireland’s Folklore Commission for decades, the effort back then was to preserve and foster the folk song and ballad tradition of the Ireland’s northern-most peninsula and its many elderly inhabitants who held on fiercely to the singing tradition.

Trying to capture as much of that rich historical lore before it goes below ground as time marches on and the native practitioners leave one by one became a mass-media campaign by those dedicated folks who saw the value of it and its importance for future generations.

Even if 21 years isn’t a patch on the amount of history covered in many of the long-form songs and stories that emerge over the weekend, it has grown to be one of the most significant events for encouragement of the oral singing tradition which gets often overlooked even in the traditional music realm.

There are no shortage of opportunities for traditional musicians playing instruments these days in sessions that may only allow for one song and singer (often with a stopwatch attitude) or for the more commercial singers of the common ballads that steal most of the limelight and attention.

As a result the spotlight rarely falls solely on those who invest so much of their time into researching songs and stories for their own appreciation and delivering them in a fashion that is as touching as it is entertaining but when they gather together the craic is no less mighty.

The event centers around the small village of Ballyliffin and the Ballyliffin Hotel, with the North Atlantic and Malin Head (Ireland’s northern-most point) within view. There are special guest presenters and participants who come from all over the British Isles.

This year Len Graham (Antrim), Jim McFarland (Derry), Maire Ni Cheaileachair (Cork), Con Fada O’Drisceoil (Cork), Michael Quinn (Armagh), Peta Webb (England) and Derek Williamson (Scotland) were featured artists in the seminars and concerts that help shape this seminal weekend.

It also included multiple singing sessions that took place in the Ballyliffin Hotel and nearby environs of McFeeley’s Bar and the Rusty Nail Bar in Clonmany and the North Pole Bar in Dumfries.

On the opening Friday night, Len Graham who along with Mick Quinn and Patricia Flynn was involved in a similar venture with the Slieve Gullion Singing Festival that folded after 25 years a few years ago, gave an illustrated talk called “A Journey Through Song.”

On the Saturday, co-founder Jimmy MacFarland lectured on a topic close to his work and heart on “Bringing it All Back Home,” illustrating the tremendous archival value of the festival in sourcing and celebrating this traditional art form that provided so many days and nights of entertainment in rural Irish communities or wistfully abroad to keep the memories of home alive for the Diaspora.

The daily singing sessions are the most important aspect of the weekend because of the reinforcement and bonding that takes place over the many hours that the select group of people gather together.

While under a hundred may register for the whole weekend, locals and visitors with an attention span that can endure multi-verse ballads form a capacity audience at all the events. The subject matter may be as grim and saucy as tabloid television news and newspapers, or heart-rending and poignant reminders of Ireland’s tragic history or life’s struggles.

One of the people who encouraged me to visit the Inishowen Folk Song and Ballad Seminar was New York-based Dan Milner, who along with his wife Bonnie are well-known as great singers, collectors and promoters in the Big Apple and welcome as well as frequent visitors to this part of the world annually.

They were called upon all weekend for a song, and helped point out some of the subtleties of the weekend capers and were typical of the generosity and graciousness of all the people who share this circle.

But so too were Patricia and Jim Flynn from Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh and Jimmy McBride, whom I met in Cape Breton last October, singing the praises of this annual and very meaningful gathering in an unofficial conspiracy that led me to go where Ireland would send me in search of this experience.

Perhaps one of the more symbolic aspects of the weekend and an example of its growing reputation and impact in my observation was the appearance of a young New Yorker studying in London, Brian Fitzgerald, who turned up at the North Pole Sunday afternoon session.

Just a few years ago he was getting in touch with his roots up at the Catskills Irish Arts Week studying with teacher Tim Dennehy, and now he was confident and worthy enough to share his gift with such an august and appreciative audience.

In that vein, full marks to the weekend organizers Kevin McGonigle, who is a member of a prominent local family steeped in song, Brian Doyle and Grace Toland, who work for the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, which also plays an important part in encouraging the work and influence of the weekend in preserving these traditions.

Since taking over the reins four years ago when it was in danger of disappearing, they took the initiative and brought in five young students involved in university programs this year to provide valuable field work to help carry it on to future generations.

Songs and spirits flowed all the weekend, demonstrating the ability for the Irish to let their folk music define who they are and what remains important about their culture. It will remain with them long after the current headlines of the Pope and pedophile priests, cabinet reshuffles and grim economic news.

The flat screen television that sat in the Ballyliffin Hotel lounge remained idle all weekend. No need for news or karaoke interruptions on this occasion.

And no fear that it was only the past that was being preserved in stuffy old lyrics, as one of the last songs rendered was by Mick Dunne of the Dublin-based Goilin Singers Club. He gave his own hysterically composed satirical song about the recently resigned Irish politician Willie O’Dea.

Singing circles represent the Irish ability to entertain themselves, and wouldn’t it be great if there were more of them. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on the old TV and computer at least for a night each month or open up those frenetic music sessions for a song or two or three.

A visit to Inishowen might inspire you and you’ll have a great time but remember to take the left at the North Pole.

Photo: Singer Marianne McAleer from Bristol deep in song at the Inishowen session. (Photo by Danny Diamond)

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