Fleadh street session
When Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann comes to town it conjures up many images and goals for most of its participants who engage fully in it.

Many are there to test their musical skills against some of the best musicians in their peer group or study at Scoil Eigse to hone their musical IQ with some of the best teachers available.

Others come to support and encourage them and to share the craic inherent in the traditional Irish music sphere that may have nothing to do with competition.

For the town it means enormous business opportunities for the present and future (if they make the right impression) and can solidify the community if the right teamwork is in evidence.

And nothing captures all the sights and sounds of a great fleadh atmosphere like lively street scenes and crowds ambling their way around town and in and out of pubs to see who they might see and hear what they might hear.

My experience over seven days in Cavan Town from August 16-22 was truly exhilarating for many of the reasons that drew me into the world of Irish music without being able to play a note of it.

Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann is the culminating competition created by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE) over 60 years ago in an effort to preserve traditional Irish music in Ireland by encouraging people to teach it and set standards across the land.

Down through the years it has established county and provincial fleadhanna leading towards it, and CCE created grassroots branches at home and abroad to sustain them and foster local interest as well.

The rough translation for Comhaltas is the “Irish music organization,” but that has always come across as more formal than it really should be. To me it would be better if people saw it as the community of Irish musicians and dancers.

That was something that was rolling around my mind as I experienced as much as I could manage at the 60th anniversary Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan all reinforcing the community aspect of our Irish heritage while educating and entertaining us all at the same time.

What the Breifne County showed in the past two years that the fleadh reins were in their hands was that the All-Ireland fleadh could still evolve and expand and in these perilous times be a cure for much of what ails Ireland today, from pocketbook issues to self-esteem and cultural pride.

Last year Cavan’s promotional pitch was “Let Cavan Surprise You” as it hosted its first fleadh since 1954 when honorary president and lilter extraordinaire Seamus Fay was much younger and rode to the fleadh on a bicycle.

A major cross-county initiative led by county manager Jack Keyes and a very competent fleadh executive Committee seized the opportunity to prove the point, and Failte Ireland surveyed the results of their efforts and astounded people with the news the tourism spend surrounding the fleadh in 2010 was around $50 million.

While that return would be good news enough, the wonderful reviews that the Cavan fleadh and county got for their very organized 2010 edition would provide a much needed springboard into the second year, and early estimates by FEC Chair Keyes in the Anglo Celt shortly after the fleadh finished this year could yield a further 20% boost for the businesses in the area with estimates of 300,000 parting with their euros.

If that is the end result it wouldn’t have come without the huge extra effort that the Cavan FEC made to ensure that the 2011 edition in CCE’s 60th year would be one for the ages that could even win a third year for the county based on the most recent precedent of Tullamore, Co. Offaly which hosted it three years in row due to its organizational efficiency and success.

In an interview with Jack Keyes at Northern Sound radio studios in Cavan Town just after he was interviewed by the visiting Adrian Flannelly show on the irishradio.com network, he told me that modern-day fleadhanna need to have the interaction of the local government and business professionals along with the Comhaltas volunteer committee because of the issues that massive growth and public safety bring to the table.

It was very much in evidence at every event throughout the fleadh and allowed it to graduate to a much higher level without disturbing the grassroots charm of the myriad cultural events and activities that make up a fleadh or enhance it in the case of the Cavan Fleadhanna.

Great thinking, planning, and execution backed up by generous and strategic sponsorship partners were powerful pillars upon which to build this success story that has raised the bar considerably.

While all of that work may have been going on in the background, what was obvious for all to see was the very professional public face of the fleadh programming through clear, concise brochures, program books, leaflets and signage that was omnipresent.

The Cavan fleadh was well branded and established everywhere under the design skills of the award-winning Martin Gaffney, who owns his own design firm and just happens to be a Cavan flute player who is steeped in Comhaltas.

In addition he head-honchoed the public relations office for the past two years which attracted even more attention this year especially from state broadcaster RTE, but news crews could be seen around the fleadh town all weekend.

While all of the above are important for the well-being of the fleadh, the core of it revolves around the music. Cavan had the right man for the events chair in Martin Donohoe, a larger than life individual both in real life and in the virtual world of the Internet because he commands attention in both realms.

His handiwork and topical knowledge of all the major and significant players and the up and coming talent wove a terrific tapestry of choice concerts big and small, and certain to draw added attention to the event which was stretched out to 10 days this year.

CD launches and special programming like the 60th anniversary tea party on the Friday night of the fleadh that featured the Pride of New York Quartet and Cherish the Ladies were part of the multi-faceted strategy that helped bring in curious music fans as well.

Not to be overlooked either was the very important Comhaltas elements of the Scoil Eigse and the All-Ireland competitions themselves where educational goals and objectives intertwined and help carry out the CCE mission into the 21st century.

Scoil Eigse director Siobhan nic Chonnarain from Limerick runs a tight ship that catered up to 1,000 students for her carefully recruited faculty of 65 in all the key instruments used in traditional Irish music.

Seeing all the students and faculty at a promotionally arranged gathering on the steps of the Cavan Cathedral of St. Patrick and Felim gave a visual sense of this annual undertaking that helps foster the music in and out of Comhaltas.

The highlight though is the tutors’ concert on the Friday morning where you have to be impressed with the quality of the musicianship being transmitted at Scoil Eigse every year.

The competitions also tell the story of ever-rising standards and proficiency as trad music is definitely a cool thing for younger people today, leading to university degrees and professional opportunities that no one could have imagined 60 years ago.

There was concern that the U.S. was slipping behind with only one medal winner this year (Kenny Vesey of New Jersey who took a third place on the tin whistle after garnering a first place in 2010), but the standards are blossoming everywhere.

If the overall fleadh results (www.fleadhcavan2011.ie) suggest America is flagging in the Irish music scene, than that was counterbalanced by the presence of six American tutors in Scoil Eigse and some American adjudicators as well as the stage performances by them and the featured artists in Pride of New York and Cherish who are among the top Irish musicians and teachers to be found anywhere.

The growing importance of Fleadh Cheoil na HEireann as one of Ireland’s most prestigious and important tourist and economic boosters has been well documented thanks to the stewardship shown in Tullamore and Cavan while Ireland has been experiencing its most difficult financial circumstances.
Is it any wonder that Cavan, Ennis and Sligo towns are in a fierce competition to host it in the year 2012 to be decided at a CCE executive session this coming weekend?

And looming in 2013 is the specter of the first fleadh cheoil to be granted and held in Northern Ireland as Derry celebrates a year as the cultural capital of Europe as an ultimate cross border collaboration. You will have to stay tuned for those results.