Like the harvest, the green grassroots of traditional Irish music grow the tallest around this time of the year as the pinnacle of the Irish fleadhanna season rolls around in Ireland this week.
Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann-- aka the All-Ireland Music Festival and Competition-- has already unfolded this past Sunday, August 11 when President Michael D. Higgins once again did the honors of launching this year’s edition in Drogheda, looking to top last year’s maiden effort in the Louth town on the banks of the Boyne.
If the weather proves kind they could top last year’s record-breaking number of 500,000 people swelling Ireland’s Ancient East historical region and bring a healthy dollop of euros and attention to the venerable town.
Perhaps no one will enjoy the second and final year of Drogheda’s reign as the rotational host of the annual Fleadh Cheoil, Ireland’s largest (and the world’s) celebration devoted to its native music, than the local hosts, the Drogheda Comhaltas branch. Led by Irish dance teacher Lolo Robinson and her hard-working Fleadh Executive Committee, they can look forward to the end of the week and breathing a sigh of relief after a job well done.
After all, it has been a seven and half year sojourn to bring this all to fruition, and that is a lot of time to extract from what essentially is an all-volunteer labor force working for the CCE branch, but such is the evolution of today’s Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann which requires that kind of commitment.
And it has been a winning effort for the CCE branches who stepped up to bolster Comhaltas in their regions, the county councils who encouraged them to bring attention to their areas, and the tourism and hospitality sectors who both wanted the business and delivered it every year.
It was County Cavan that first realized the annual Fleadh Cheoil’s potential to draw people to Cavan Town and to roll the dice in the teeth of the recession back in 2010 as the only county to bid on it then when money was scarce and the nation’s psyche at a very low ebb. It was time to celebrate Ireland’s rich native heritage and ride culture back to a healthier frame of mind and pocket.
With the County Manager Jack Keyes and the Cavan Council fronting the effort, they had three brilliant years from 2010-2012, bringing almost a million people into town over what was now a nine-day festival/ competition with a spend yielding over €100 million, much needed at the time.
Sligo, Ennis and Drogheda all entered the fray for the 2012 bidding, inspired by the economic boom the fleadh now suggested, but other forces arrayed to allow an important and historical nod to select Derry in the north of Ireland the opportunity to host Fleadh Cheoil na HEireann for the very first time north of the border.
That well-monitored fleadh was said to draw over 430,000 people in a harmonious week that was the highlight of Derry’s year-long celebration as the U.K. City of Culture in 2013, and it was off the charts in celebrating the cross-border cooperation that is the underpinning of the continuing efforts in the cultural and tourism sectors these days.
In their turn, Sligo, Ennis and now Drogheda patiently waited for their opportunity to host the fleadh, and the rest of the country got to appreciate the massive reservoir of human capital that is volunteerism that could hold together for five years of canvassing and planning and then two years of execution.
It was to Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’s credit that it had built such a movement to lay the foundation of these successful fleadhs and a country-wide infrastructure. It played a large part in getting the Irish government to support CCE financially so well in the first 20 years of this millennium recognizing its community contributions and cultural stewardship. But enough about the business aspects.
The fleadh now is very much a brilliant festival enlivening the host venue for nine days that caters to people of all ages now from all around the world. And the main Comhaltas aspects remain the All-Ireland competitions on the second weekend Friday to Sunday, culminating in the All-Ireland Senior Ceili Band competitions on the Sunday night.
In recent years as many as 20 bands vied to garner that prestigious and historical honor of All-Ireland champions mounting the gig rig after the win. Their educational showcase during the week is its Scoil Eigse with top-class tutors working with hundreds of young musicians furthering their craft whether they are competing or not.
Another outlet for CCE units is to take to the Gig Rig during the week and perform complimentary performances stoking the street scene quality that is a hardy perennial of the fleadh world.
Drogheda has been very creative and resourceful too in seeking sponsorship to help underwrite the huge logistical burden that goes along with the endeavor of presenting stage shows that appeal to the masses. Using a mix of suitable church and performance venues along with the Coca-Cola sponsored dome that can hold over 2,000 people, they have a massive entertainment lineup this week which will feature many of the great stars in Irish music from yesterday and today in a well-curated program throughout the town.
Some of the most prominent acts are Horslips, Four Men and a Dog, Stockton’s Wing, Altan, Garadice, Hothouse Flowers and Nathan Carter who has his own All-Ireland championship medals on the mantelpiece at home. Frankie Gavin and his latest group Provenance and Shaun Davey and Rita Connolly appear on various nights.
At midweek, Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies will take to the Coca-Cola Dome with another blockbuster show including their featured guest singers Kate Purcell and Don Stiffe and incorporate a number of surprise guests as well.
Last year the Drogheda Fleadh team featured a number of families from the area in concert, and they continue to showcase that vital aspect of the traditional world this year again with afternoon gigs for the McCague/McGovern families from Fermanagh and Monaghan; the O’Brien clan from Dublin; the Valleys from Armagh; the McEvoy/McGormans from Meath and the Mhic Gabhanns also from Meath.
Congratulations to all the Drogheda Committee for keeping their shoulders to the wheel with all its triumphs and letdowns, and I’m sure the folks in Mullingar will be paying close attention as their turn comes next August when the Fleadh dates advance a week earlier to August 2-9.
They are already anticipating an even bigger occasion for 2021 for Mullingar when Comhaltas marks its 70th anniversary in the town where its humble origins were first unfurled in 1951.
Discover so much more at Fleadh.ie if you aren’t fortunate enough to be in Drogheda this week.
Here are some highlights from the 2018 Fleadh:
Fleadh TV has it all
ONE of the jewels in the crown of the present-day Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann is television production known as Fleadh TV, which presents live entertainment from the Fleadh towns for four nights from Thursday to Sunday Nights (August 15-18) for three hours each night on TG4.ie.
Now in its seventh year highlighting many of the acts in town and younger musicians vying for competition gold in a fast-paced and thoughtfully-curated live feed blended from three venues around town, producer Paul McKay and his brilliant team (including many hand-picked traddies on staff) at Gifted Empire Productions capture the magic of the multi-faceted scene every year.
The award-winning production garners over a million viewers live on TG4 and online as well and double that on social media outlets all year to promote the Fleadh and increasingly the Provincial Fleadhanna Ceol leading up to the All-Ireland.
Presenter Hector Ó hEochagáin handles the street scene hosting duties through the series, and he is a regular TV star in the TG4 firmament. Trad musician and singer Doireann Ní Ghlacáin from the Dublin Glackin family of musicians will be center stage on the main stage introducing acts.
Making her debut this year is Roisin O’Reilly, daughter of singer Mary Black and brother of Danny O’Reilly of the Coronas who is a brilliant singer in her own right who will be stationed on the acoustic stage.