Masters of Tradition

It was just 15 months ago when Ireland seemed the center of the cultural universe as Culture Ireland announced the opening of Ireland’s most significant foray of the arts called “Imagine Ireland 2011”at New York City’s center for artistic creation, Lincoln Center.

What is hard to imagine after the numerous highly creative and successful efforts that criss-crossed the U.S. throughout the year in all genres is that the small but effective government unit of seven employees is under siege now, or should I say being “rationalized” in a misguided attempt to save a few euro in administration through consolidation.

It is truly ironic considering that one of the pillars of that opening salvo in 2011 was a stage show offering featuring “The Masters of Tradition” music from the traditional arts sector.

The mission of Culture Ireland since its inception in 2005 was to organize a more transparent path to promote Irish artists in all disciplines, and provide both employment and encouragement for their respective art forms.

If it could entice audiences to return to Ireland and experience it in a variety of venues as cultural tourism, then that would be a real bonus and the ultimate rationalization.

And in the music sphere, nothing could tick all the boxes like the ensemble put together by the Clare fiddling genius Martin Hayes, who is the understated and inspired impresario of the “Masters of Tradition” festival hosted by West Cork Music ( in Bantry.

Each year in August over five days traditional music is served up as the main course at the courtly Bantry House Manor and a church in the town square, with the beautiful West Cork scenery all within easy day trips for visiting tourists.

Hayes organized a sample overseas performance troupe that first appeared at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 for a six-gig jaunt this April.  Four legs were in the East Coast in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and the D.C. area.

I caught the Sunday evening show at the marvelous Zellarbach Theatre at UPenn’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, just the type of venue that Culture Ireland seeks for its artists abroad.

Along with Hayes and Dennis Cahill, his long-time musical partner, Hayes’s cast included singer Iarla O’Lionaird, piper David Power and a current performing trio in fiddler Cathal Hayden, guitar/vocalist Seamie O’Dowd and accordion player Mairtin O’Connor.

Over 600 people attended the Sunday night show in Philadelphia and saw and heard a dazzling demonstration of the old and new approach to traditional Irish music skillfully blended by masters in their own world of Irish music.

The overall concept is very simple and spare, yet the execution and performance far exceeds those modest parameters in the hands of these very talented artists who deserve the wider stage at this point of their careers.

We will return to a review of the show and its significance in next week’s column after further cogitation and assessment of its first presentation in America, because in my opinion it is an approach to Irish music that will be revisited in many ways hereafter.

Here's a video of Martin Hayes in action: