IRELAND – Over the years I’ve resisted being a once-a-year Paddy who touted my Irish pride as the March holiday rolled around.
Many who know me would see that it’s year-round awareness and appreciation and heritage bequeathed to me by my immigrant parents from Co Clare, Martin and Mary Murray Keating. Their embrace of their Irish roots was as natural as the breath they took. I inherited their reverent love for traditional Irish music and the Clare sets they brought with them from Ireland.
I’ve been very fortunate to have retraced their path many times back to the Old Country as they fondly referred to the Emerald Isle, and my most recent trip, concluded last week, not only reinforced that fervor but made me extremely proud to be an Irishman. As you will know from my column here over the years, these journeys always reinforce my own grá for the tradition, and this latest foray was exceptional.
I wanted to begin the journey landing in Shannon Airport where I first arrived in Ireland at the age of 12 and to spend a week in Clare revisiting my roots and catching up with relatives. My arrival also coincided with the 20th annual Corofin Traditional Festival, a boutique village festival with a reputation for excellence that mere numbers can’t accurately convey.
Organized by the O’Reilly and O’Loughlin families and a small but dedicated committee, their effort this year was the first since the pandemic first appeared at the last one in 2020. They patiently waited to resume it and used the opportunity to build it back with improvements to the marvelous Teach Ceoil Hall that caters to a small but utterly attentive audience for two stellar concert nights plus a night to recognize an esteemed local musician which this year was Pat Lynch of Kilfenora.
Friday night’s concert began with Rebecca Collins and Vincent Fogarty from the local committee followed by three outstanding University of Limerick alumni in Cathal O’Currain, Marty Barry, and Conor O’Loughlin who have remained together after the short-lived Conifers Band formed at the university who appeared at a previous visit.
The main act was the Kerry maestro on accordion, Danny O’Mahony, with Liz Kane on fiddle, a tasty collaboration that comes from the heart of the tradition and worth traveling from anywhere to see and hear them.
On Saturday night, youth was on display with a young fiddler named Mairead O’Brien from the Meitheal Summer School opening followed by the All-Ireland accordion senior champion Keelan McGrath, matched with an amazing young Donegal fiddler named Megan McGinley.
The night would finish with four top-class veterans in Charlie Harris, Maeve Donnelly, Eamonn, and Geraldine Cotter whom I brought to the Catskills in 2011 and Lincoln Center.
Well-attended workshops on the Saturday and a special gathering recognizing the influence in Co Clare of the Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples also drew a good crowd. The curation of the Corofin Trad Festiva is always of a high standard and tastefully surrounded by nightly sessions up and down the small but symbolically important village. Worth a visit anytime you might be in Clare early in March.
A day later, proximity and timing proved to be in my favor as TG4 scheduled its launch for the nominees selected for this year’s Gradam Ceoil Awards to be televised on April 23 on tg4.ie.
I spilled a lot of ink on this two weeks ago, but it’s worth mentioning the wellspring of tradition was well served with the latest awardees announced not far from where the honors will be doled out on the campus of the University of Limerick.
Piper Mick O’Brien will be the Musician of the Year, Meabh Smyth the Young Musician of the Year, Fintan Vallely Lifetime Achievement, Maurice Lennon Composer of the Year, Sile Denvir, Singer of the Year, and the Mulcahy Family as Group of the Year.
The cumulative contributions of this august group of honorees speak volumes as to why the traditional music sphere continues to evolve from strength to strength, and from generation to generation.
As the week drew to a close, an invite to the latest concert in the Drawing from the Well series produced by the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) was nothing short of sensational in its scope and performance.
Presented at the National Concert Hall (NCH) in Dublin, it was a tour de force presentation by the crème de la crème of Irish music and dance. The critical collaboration between the NCH and ITMA, the Arts Council of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both a credit to those bodies as well as a testament to high regard and standing the pure drop enjoys after many years of practical fieldwork and focus coming together. Ireland’s premier concert setting with perhaps the most magnificent sound engineering that I have ever experienced at a mega event like this totally did it justice.
The opening vocalist, Muireann Nic Amhlaoich, set the tone from the start with two songs in Irish that soared in perfect pitch to each of the 1,200 people fortunate enough to be there. Catherine and Patrick McEvoy followed with a formidable duet with broadcaster Aoife Nic Cormaic and Derrick Hickey afterward.
Cormac Begley played for sean nos dancer Sibeal Davitt before Frankie Gavin, the Galwegian maestro of De Danann fame with Catherine McHugh, proved that he lost none of his touch after a nasty bout with esophageal cancer last year. Davitt returned with an innovative choreography to the music of Cormac Begley and ITMA director Liam O’Connor who continues to display a mastery over music and administration.
Liz and Yvonne Kane shone once again with their gorgeous synchronized fiddling honed over a lifetime of playing together. Piper Padraic Keane excelled on the pipes including an old set that fell into his hands.
And the venerable Charlie Lennon, at 86 years of age, showed why his playing and compositional flair are still something to behold. Conal O’Grada on the flute conveyed his prowess also on the night.
The evening concluded in grand and fitting fashion in a tribute to the late Seamus Begley led by his daughter Meabh ni Bheaglaoich and siblings in song and dance with an exuberant West Kerry Set bringing the house down.
It was a fabulous week to take in and one of the reasons that I feel very blessed to have a seat in the hob while the tradition of fireside music burns so brightly around the world and at its source here in Ireland.
*This column first appeared in the March 22 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.