|The final concert at the Frankie Kennedy Winter School on New Year’s Day.|
The Christmas/New Year’s season is all about beginnings and endings and everything in between. As the old year draws to a close we remember and reflect on what was important in our lives and feel the loss of loved ones. Christmas brings us new hope reinforced by the New Year and a fresh start.
Those notions circled around my head as I considered from afar the cessation of the Frankie Kennedy Winter School up around Northwest Donegal in Gweedore as the 20th and final year played out over the holidays.
It was on my bucket list to attend at one point but the opportunity never arose. Now it is gone from the scene though its impact will last for generations to come.
Much was written in Ireland about the reasons why the Mooney and Kennedy families decided to bring down the curtain on their very personal and professional salute to the gentle flute player from Andersonstown in Belfast each winter. Journalist Victoria White poignantly wrote about her own pilgrimages to Gweedore to attend each of the 20 years in the Irish Examiner on the day after New Year’s Day where Altan –the band founded by the late Frankie Kennedy and his Donegal bride Mairead ni Mhaonaigh -- performed the last concert dedicated to his memory and spirit.
They bore the twin burdens of organizing such a well-respected festival with its critical learning components in fostering workshops by day and Irish music 24/7, and the grief the extended family members faced in remembering the beguiling Frankie gone too soon at 38 from bone cancer in 1994. Time to move on they reasoned, and hadn’t they given it a good run for 20 years.
The importance of the school was not unlike the impact that Kennedy and his beloved wife brought to the Irish music world after they married in 1981 and started performing together. Drawing on the rich treasure trove of fresh tunes in Ulster and their native Belfast and Donegal respectively, they quickly made everyone take notice of their spirited and highly personable act and dedication to the primary sources they shared.
With vision and daring they built a band together in Altan, sensing the time was right for not only their music but for a younger generation to tour the world in the footsteps of the venerable Chieftains. For more than a quarter century the band has trumpeted the highlands, schottisches, reels, jigs and Irish language songs that have long characterized Donegal as a vital source for Irish music.
The creative spark and technique in their performances was gracefully matched by the craic they had on stage, and shared with their audiences dismissing any false sense of formality. They inspired a whole new generation of young musicians and singers with their prolific recording and performance career that continues in today’s tougher environment.
Nowhere was that more evident at this year’s school than at a launch one night for the Friel Sisters’ new CD (www.frielmusic.com), a trio of Glasgow girls reared by Donegal parents who weaned them on Yuletide visits to the festival as they grew older and evolved as fabulous musicians and singers themselves.
Twins Sile and Anna are 22 and younger sister Clare 20. They were immersed in the Glasgow Irish music scene and similarly in Donegal where the family maintained a cottage near Gweedore and carried the same love and enthusiasm for the chunes and craic and made it a large part of their lives.
Anna and Sile both play the flute inspired by Kennedy and Clare the fiddle like so many others with the Donegal traits, and Sile also has mastered the uilleann pipes.
What they do most exceptionally is sing in three-part harmony from a repertoire of songs learned from their mother Sheila and grandmother Nellie Duffy. Their musical paths have taken them from Glasgow to all over Ireland and from the Catskills to Korea. They not only reflect a more mobile celebration of Irish music but epitomize its role as a vibrant living tradition.
That living tradition is very much a legacy of Kennedy, Altan and the Frankie Kennedy Winter School, so while we mourn his loss and the cessation of the school in his honor we are also proud of its many accomplishments and contributions to the world of Irish music.