Michael Rooney conducting The De Cuellar Suite.

Temple Bar, Dublin -- In the year of The Gathering, the massive Tourism Ireland initiative attempting to stimulate travel to Ireland in 2013 from the Irish Diaspora around the world, you can’t get too early a start reaping the hoped-for harvest.

So the Temple Bar Trad Festival (TBTF) drew the important role of being the first big festival enticing visitors to the Dublin’s capital city and also marking the first traditional Irish music festival to get out of the blocks as well.

It’s now in its eighth year of operation under the auspices of the Temple Bar Company representing the many businesses within the confines of the historic district on the south side of the Liffey River near O’Connell Bridge, with Dame Street more or less the main boundary up to Christchurch Cathedral.

Festival director Martin Harte, who had been working with the organization since graduating from college, created the TBTF as a way to draw people into the innovative quarter in late January when attracting tourists of any kind would be a challenge. 

He hit upon the idea of using trad music as the focal point because Dublin lacked a large festival for at least 20 years, and when musician Kieran Hanrahan came aboard as the artistic director four years ago they formed an effective team moving it forward.

Hanrahan is both a musician and presenter with his finger on the pulse of the trad scene who not only has an informed handle on trends and development from his work with RTE Radio, but also an easy-going personality imbued with a keen sense of humor.

Last year, I had the opportunity to sample a few concerts in the incredible Christchurch Cathedral seeing Rod McTell and the 50th anniversary concerts of the Dubliners who have since disbanded.  The limited exposure to such a grand concert venue whetted my appetite to experience more of the TBTF the next time I could.

So 2013 provided the chance, and the expansion to six days afforded many additional options, though try as I might I couldn’t be in more than one place at a time.

The week started with a bang, with some of Ireland’s most creative voices and musicians joined in a concert dedicated to love songs entitled “A Stór Mo Chroí,” which was taken from a compilation produced a few years ago by the Celtic Note record store opposite Trinity College. 

The featured singers included Karan Casey, Muireann nic Amhlaoibh, Lumiere’s singers Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon and John Spillane, with extraordinary accompaniment of stellar musicians Donagh Hennessy, John McSherry and Donal O’Connor. A talented ensemble like this set the tone for the quality entertainment to be experienced all week, and it was hard to know who enjoyed it more, the artists or the audience.

On Wednesday another matchup of the Sands Family (Tommy, Colum, Ben and Ann) opened up the Christchurch Cathedral evening and gave a well-received opening set that displayed the delightful folk charm that they have exuded over 40 years.

Fiddler Martin Hayes and his compatriot Dennis Cahill once again found another venue that they could conquer with their mesmerizing musical act as they made their maiden appearance at Christchurch Cathedral to another sell-out crowd which would number about 500 in full-view seating. 

Starting on Thursday the choices became more difficult, but like any good festival there were only good ones.  Each provided spectacular opportunities to see great artists and hear wonderful music in historic settings in Dublin like Christchurch, the 18th-Century gem City Hall and St. Werburgh Cathedral just steps from Christchurch which was founded in 1178 after the Normans arrived in Ireland. 

In keeping with gathering overseas visitors, musicians from Cape Breton appeared representing Celtic Colours International Festival, including Wendy MacIssac, Mary Jane Lamond, Kimberly Fraser and others who performed at City Hall, which is where most of the talent from abroad was featured.

A short walk up Dame Street once again to Christchurch allowed the rare opportunity for the Irish to see Maura O’Connell, the Clare-born songstress who lives in Nashville who was one of the Yanks who were brought home.

O’Connell has made a career of not trying to be typecast, and as she told the audience when asked what kind of singer she is she said, “A good one who sings good songs.”

She wouldn’t be far wrong because her body of work has ranged from Irish ballads to more contemporary Americana and Irish fare that reflect her 30 years of living in Nashville, where she moved to from Ennis. 

She held the Dublin crowd in the palm of her hands for her entire set which included unaccompanied songs from her latest CD Naked, which was nominated for a Grammy Award a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it over to St. Werburgh’s to see an updated version of Sean O’Riada’s Mass that included Zoe Conway and Iarla O’Lionaid, who as a young man knew O’Riada in the West Cork Gaelthact who also performed that night in the church.

On Friday evening the diasporan theme was well-served by the Pride Of New York Band comprising of Joanie Madden, Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey and Brendan Dolan at City Hall, who later linked up with a number of attending musician friends back at Blooms Hotel VAT pub on Anglesea Street in Temple Bar.

I detoured first to the Merchant Arch Pub upstairs room to see the venerable singer Sean O’Se, who also had the O’Riada connection, lead a singing session that wasn’t well attended and also disrupted by the overbearing intrusion of sound from the downstairs entertainment.

It was the first reminder that the weekend would be shared with the usual inundation of the quarter by folks who had no interest in the discerning offerings of the Temple Bar Trad Festival.

Saturday and Sunday brought a plethora of additional free and paid programming appealing to many weekend visitors to the area, though the blustery cold winds on Sunday discouraged too many folks from enjoying the outdoor stages.

This year saw another new venue enter the TBTF venue stable with the addition of the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral a healthy walk beyond the Temple Bar area which would host Sharon Shannon on Friday and Saturday nights.  Celebrating 21 years as a performing act, the diminutive accordion player with a large international reputation also had a family reunion with her brother Garry and sisters Mary and Majella joining her in concert.

Thankfully the proximity of St. Werburgh’s and Christchurch Cathedral allowed me to enjoy two acts on Saturday night that were high on my card for the week. I started with seeing T-With the Maggies (Mairead ni Mhaonaigh, Mairead and Trina Ni Dhomnaill and Moya Brennan) perform their exquisite harmonic act just a few years after the group’s performance debut at the TBTF. The sound and performance was terrific and outshadowed by far seeing them at an outdoor festival last summer in the U.S.

Then I ambled over to Christchurch to catch the Dublin premiere of composer Michael Rooney’s The De Cuellar Suite, dramatically performed by over 60 Sligo and Spanish musicians and dancers symbolically remembering the plight of the Spanish Armada and in particular Captain De Cuellar. 

Comprised of 11 movements based in Irish, Scottish and Galician music originally debuted in Sligo back in 2011, the impact of the performance was powerful to say the least. 

Since most of the musicians were part of the Ceol na nOg Sligeach orchestra up for the performance with their parents and staying at Jury’s Hotel, there was an extra celebratory mood that night as it was announced that Sligo Town had won the bid to host Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in 2014 earlier that day by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann.  

The De Cuellar Suite presentation was just one of the examples of the innovative nature of the Temple Bar Festival and also the Arts Council of Ireland which not only sponsored the appearance at the TBTF, but also the companion publication with the music score and CD of Rooney’s magnificent opus making it the highlight of his still promising career.

More information can be found at www.draoicht.com including order information for this crowning achievement. 

Also of note was the closing show of the 2013 TBTF with a very intense collection of songs from Declan O’Rourke dealing with the grim poverty and deprivation of the Irish Famine and its aftermath before an audience at St. Werburgh’s that may make its way to a recording in the near future.

A dazzling array of carefully chosen entertainment made this a memorable visit to the Temple Bar Trad Festival and one which I look forward to experiencing again at some point in the future. Visit templebartrad.com for more details.