President Michael D. Higgins having a laugh
at the Fleadh (Paul M. Reynolds)

Four years ago at this time the Breiffne County was putting the finishing touches to what would be the only submission to the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Executive Council to host the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann or the All-Ireland Championships and Scoil Eigse (summer school) that precedes the August weekend competitions. 

Long a dream of Martin Donohoe, Cavan’s most fervent traditional music booster who knows when opportunity knocks you open the door quickly, he mustered a number of other musicians in the county to join forces.  

With Tullamore, Co. Offaly finishing a successful run of three years hosting the fleadh during the final days of former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, a Tullamore native, Donohoe rallied forces in the county council, his native Cavan Town, county tourism and business leaders to take a crack at it.

A determined coalition led by county manager Jack Keyes was quickly cobbled together with the very clear intention of seizing a moment when Cavan needed to distinguish itself among Ireland’s 32 counties.  Their mantra in the first year of 2010 was “Let Cavan Surprise You.”

And so it did for three magnificent years as the Keyes-led team of very creative, energetic and indefatigable operatives built up not only fleadh branding in a way that had never been seen before, but also a Cead Mile Failte tourism blizzard that brought back that image of the very hospitable Ireland where people were glad to see you and not just your wallet. 

The humorous image of the miserly Cavan man was shelved and in its place visitors saw a county full of people who were determined to let people discover the wonders of Cavan in a manner that would keep them coming back again and again on visits to Ireland.

Since Ireland was going broke back in 2009 due to the bursting of the banking and housing bubble, the risk of taking on a niche event like Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann that managed to attract a lot of visitors to the rotating towns that hosted it usually in two-year stints was still a daunting prospect. 

Not only did you have to raise and hand over $100,000 to Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann for the rights to host the annual fleadh (which used the funds to cover their own extensive costs mounting the Fleadh Cheoil competitions and administration) at the outset, but you needed to get local businesses and organization behind you as well to front costs. 

Tullamore pushed the envelope under the leadership of chair Attracta Brady (who was honored in Cavan this year for her efforts) to make the fleadh more festive and community oriented to bring people to Offaly and it worked a charm.

Cavan was inspired and saw the chance to make the fleadh a warmer and more enticing place to visit which would require teamwork, and also allowing some people room to flourish with skills that were ready for prime-time promotion. 

It was time to roll the dice, and frankly there weren’t a lot of options in the dimming economic climate. They even weathered the collapse of one of their principal sponsors in businessman Sean Quinn, whose financial empire was imploding, yet he made good on his commitment in the first year of 2010. 

It was a gamble that paid off big time for Cavan and all Ireland – starved for any positive news at all in 2010 and anxious to build on it -- took notice of the Fleadh Cheoil.

Failte Ireland recognized the tourism potential in the first year with an estimated spend of €35 million in Cavan’s first year. That was bettered by €40 million in 2011 and likely achieved again during the 11 days of Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in 2012 recently.

That is roughly $140 million coming to Cavan’s coffers while also gaining a well deserved reputation for organization and presentation that has raised the bar dramatically for any town with hopes of hosting Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in the future.

At the last meeting of the CCE Executive Council, three counties (Derry, Clare and Sligo) all vied for the honor and the business, with Derry winning out mostly for symbolic reasons under special circumstances dealing with a true All-Ireland Fleadh, long a dream for its politically astute and long-time director general, Senator Labhras O’Murchu.

Cavan proved the case that the Fleadh as a business and cultural venture was a very welcoming scenario for Irish towns and counties seeking a much needed lift.

Bolstering the solid team assembled by Keyes and helping to raise the bar were two key people, in my opinion, who made Cavan a bulls-eye destination for the fleadh.

Graphic designer Martin Gaffney, who was also a musician and Comhaltas official, has a fine eye for marketing and branding that lead to the Cavan logo appearing around the country and the web and on the fashion cool and colorfully trendy hoodies.

Also tasked with public relations, the fleadh which heretofore had been one of Ireland’s best kept secrets despite being one of the largest festivals devoted to Irish traditional music anywhere in the world became a bustling operation under Gaffney’s charge. 

Print and broadcast media jockeyed to cover the fleadh increasingly each year, with more onscene coverage by national outlets, while social media was pushed to the fore as well under the modern stewardship of Gaffney and his team. Feeding the media beast gets easy when you have visitors like the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins and Olympic boxing medalist John Joe Nevin, both of who came to Cavan this year.

Working in tandem and creating music programming that seemingly overnight turned the fleadh into a full-fledged festival was Martin Donohoe, the self-proclaimed “Cavan Man” with vast experience on radio and festival presentation with his NYAH Festival in Cavan which was devised to draw attention on the county as a traditional music bastion in its own right. 

Over three years it seemed like he drew every big name in traditional music, from old timers to new timers and everyone in between for some kind of gig in a variety of settings throughout the town.

This year Clannad, Altan, Sharon Shannon and a veritable Planxty reunion (sans Christy Moore who must have been busy elsewhere) appeared in the Liberty Dome (a new sponsor brought in this year from the U.S.), a state of the art temporary facility holding 2,000 people where weather didn’t matter.

Cavan not only changed the dynamic of Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann but served as a practical model for the Gathering Celebration for 2013 to which they now turn their attention. 

Counties can now organize their own efforts to showcase themselves and use the overseas network to help regenerate what was lost in recent years. It sure worked for Cavan, the Breiffne County.