For sixty years, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann – Irish Musicians Association – has been spreading the gospel of traditional Irish music all over the world, setting up over 400 community-based branches, including 44 in North America.
Today many consider Comhaltas to be one of Ireland’s most successful cultural groups, having trained generations of Irish to study, perform, promote and preserve traditional Irish culture. Tens of thousands of youngsters have learned to play music on traditional instruments, while over two million people attend the sessions, concerts, festivals and workshops sponsored by Comhaltas annually.
“Without hesitation, I can say that traditional Irish music song and dance would not be vibrant or visible on either side of the Atlantic without Comhaltas,” says Helen Gannon, Chairperson of CCE North America and founder of the Comhaltas branch in St. Louis.
“Comhaltas saved Irish music from near extinction,” says Seamus Connolly, ten-time All Ireland fiddle champion, who was a young boy in County Clare when Comhaltas first formed. “When Comhaltas first began teaching, Irish music quickly became more popular.”
Families are at the heart of the Comhaltas movement, since it is family stewardship which keeps cultural traditions alive. Grandparents, parents and children play music together, and then pass it along, making folk traditions last for generations and centuries. You need only look at the great traditional Irish musicians playing today, to note how many of their parents and children are musicians as well.
Even non-musical family members contribute to the Comhaltas cause by raising funds, baking bread, making costumes and taking long car trips to the competitions.
“There is a richness about our heritage that feeds our need for the past, both for ourselves and for our children and their children,” says Gannon.
As with all families, there are the occasional squabbles from within, but overall Comhaltas has nurtured a tight-knit camaraderie and allegiance to its original vision that has benefited Irish music and culture immensely.
The Early Years
CCE was formed in 1951 in Mullingar, County Westmeath by traditional musicians from the Pipers Club in Dublin and other Gaelic culture advocates from around Ireland. They sought to improve the standing of traditional Irish music, dance and language in Ireland, which had suffered due to a general cultural and economic stagnation on the island, and from the emergence of an American-dominated cultural ethos after World War II.
“Our founders realized that with modernization in Ireland the traditions were quickly disappearing,” Gannon said.
“People were concentrating on getting their lives together after the war,” Connolly remembers. Comhaltas organizers “felt that something needed to be done to preserve the music…they showed great vision and foresight.”
The first Fleadh Cheoil (festival of music) organized by Comhaltas in May 1951 was poorly attended, but it helped set in motion a renewed interest in Irish music. Today the Fleadh is one of Ireland’s most popular events: the one in Cavan last August drew 300,000 people.
In the early years, the Comhaltas movement was complemented by men like Ciaran MacMathuna of Radio Éireann, who recorded unknown musicians in rural areas, and Sean O Riada, a talented Irish musician, composer and arranger.
O Riada’s ensemble, Ceoltoiri Chua-lann, gave Irish music a special distinction during the 1950s through concerts and radio appearances. Paddy Moloney and others from Chualann went on to form the world-renowned Chieftains.
Moloney in turn admired MacMathuna. “I have a great respect for Ciaran’s contributions to the revival of Irish music,” Moloney once told an interviewer: “He traveled around Ireland and persuaded the people to come out and play. (He) got rid of their shyness…about their music.”
Also in the 1950s, political leaders like Sean Lemass and Sean MacBride unveiled a new vision of Ireland that would value its cultural and family traditions even while promoting global trade, tourism and economic growth.
Comhaltas, grounded as it was in community centers, local pubs, and parish halls, became the perfect vehicle for restoring Irish music to the forefront of Irish life, as it had been in earlier centuries. Before long, every county in Ireland had a Comhaltas branch, while in Britain and Scotland chapters formed in Liverpool, London and Glasgow, and other places with large Irish communities. Eventually that enthusiasm spread around the globe, and today branches of Comhaltas flourish in Japan, Australia, and Argentina and in several European countries.
ComhaltasComes to America
The Comhaltas wave didn’t reach American shores until 1972, but then it caught on rapidly.