St Cecilia's Grúpa Cheoil from New York. PHOTO BY MARIANNE MANGAN.
By Daniel Neely
As many of this column’s readers will know, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann is the world’s largest group involved in the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music. Established in 1951, it boasts of more than 420 branches spread out around the globe and each year tens of thousands compete on their instruments at the regional and provincial fleadhanna (or festivals) for a chance at the coveted “All-Ireland” title. It’s an amazing experience and an important way Ireland’s traditional music culture continues to thrive.
The culmination of an extended period of intense practice, hard work, and sacrifice, the “All Ireland” awards are conferred each year at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (fleadhcheoil.ie), the world’s largest celebration of Irish music, song, dance, and culture. The event routinely attracts hundreds of thousands and is heaven on earth for traditional music lovers. There is music absolutely everywhere. Like last year, the Fleadh Cheoil will take place in Drogheda, Co. Louth, this coming Aug. 11-18 and it promises to be a memorable event.
But don’t sleep on the Provincial fleadhanna – they’re fantastic as well and have a much more intimate character that not only hints at what the Fleadh Cheoil has in store, but that reveals the thriving current state of traditional music.
Take, for example, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Mid-Atlantic Region (www.cce-ma.com), which will hold its Fleadh in Parsippany, NJ this weekend. Open to competitors from Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, West, and Canada, the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh is one of two All-Ireland qualifiers in North America. (The other being the Midwest Fleadh, which took place at the end of April.) Thousands will attend and you’ll find music being played everywhere, from the competition rooms to the hotel’s innumerable nooks and crannies. But because the North American convention is part of this year’s event, there’s even more going on than normal. The event will span four days, it’ll include a Céilí Mór every evening with music from bands including the Ceol na Croi Céilí Band, the Windy City Céilí Band, and the Pride of New York, set dance workshops with Bridie Dal Pizzol, and finally, a great banquet honoring Billy Furlong, Marie Barrett, Keith Sammut (R.I.P.) & Mike Berry (R.I.P.), this year’s regional Hall of Fame inductees, and Joseph M. Reavy, who will receive the Gradam Ceoil Award. It’s quite a schedule!
In Ireland next month, there are parallel events taking place in the four provincial fleadhanna: the Connaught Fleadh (July 1-7), the Leinster Fleadh (July 8-14), the Munster Fleadh (July 14-22), and the Ulster Fleadh (July 22-28). Each is a major event unto itself and a great display of cultural pride.
Take the Ulster Fleadh, for example. Expected to draw in excess of 25,000, it’s going to take place in Castlewellan, Co. Down (as it did last year) and is considered one of Ulster’s largest and finest festivals.
The Ulster Fleadh was where notable musicians like Brid Harper, Cathal Hayden, Brian McGrath, Ciaran Tourish, Martin Donohoe (who was the events and entertainment chair for the 2010/2011 & 2012 Fleadh Cheoils), and Frankie McCormack (the current chair of Comhaltas North America) cut their teeth, and it remains home to a bumper crop of extraordinary young musicians, like Aoife Cunningham of County Cavan, who won the senior fiddle in 2015, Séamus Tierney of County Cavan, who won the senior flute in 2016, Eoin Orr of County Donegal who won the senior uilleann pipes in 2017, John McCann from County Fermanagh, who won the senior button accordion last year, and the Blackwater Céilí Band from Clogher Valley, Co. Tyrone, who are the reigning senior céilí band champs.
But Castlewellan is a compelling spot for the Ulster Fleadh because it has as many possibilities as a holiday destination as it does as a fleadh spot. Nestled between the Mourne Mountains and Slieve Croob, it is home to scenic Castlewellan Forest Park, Castlewellan Lake and the Peace Maze (the world’s second largest hedge maze). It is also close to numerous beaches, the Legannany and Goward Dolmens, and the award-winning Royal County Down Golf Club. There’s lots to do there besides music, and I’m sure the folks who are planning on being there will be rewarded with a beautiful week of music and crack.
There’s so much happening with the music, sometimes it can be hard to keep up! But you can’t beat a good Fleadh when it comes to bringing friends and family together in celebration of traditional Irish music and culture. Make plans to check one out sometime! For more information about the Ulster Fleadh, visit their website www.ulsterfleadh.com. Keep up with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann through their website, www.comhaltas.ie.