Monday, 26 August 2013

The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann Diary 2013

Si’s Sights And Sounds looks back on a selection of highlights from a truly magical week in Derry-Londonderry

What was already known as the largest festival of song and dance in Ireland took on an even larger quality in Northern Ireland's second city and the cultural capital of the North West.

An estimated 430,000 people were stunned, conquered and delighted by the sights, sounds and general "craic" that washed around them in what was a truly glorious communal and musical experience.

We at Si's Sights And Sounds were fortunate enough to be writing about and taking pictures of several of the week's events, and we are happy to present to you our written and pictorial chronicle of them: The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann Diary.


There is already quite a commotion in St. Columb's Cathedral when a photo of the Cor Gaelach singers of Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone is taken. Sitting patiently beside the numerous spotlights that give their youthful faces an even more effervescent glow, they seem to be beaming with pride in response to the goodwill already drummed up in the city from Sunday’s opening ceremony. What we will hear tonight promises to be more mute than the likes of Sontas but no less chorally rich.

Being not so well versed in the Irish language, I must rely on the tune to carry me through Evensong, compositions intended to highlight both the differences and the unity between Ireland and Scotland. A series of well balanced tunes lend themselves kindly to the mostly delicate, sparsely triumphant and ethereal vocals of the Cor Gaelach singers, with some neat, angelic and entrancing soprano solos raising their talents to the fore.

Somewhat less kind are the acoustics in the church toward the Psalm Singers of the Isle Of Lewis, Scotland. When this quartet do not perform solos, they sound like a series of braying bagpipes screaming for each other’s attention, although once they adjust to the confines of their surroundings, they become much more assured. And there is something about their Highlandish nature that grows on you, particularly their diction. Best of all on the night, however, is “Hi, Bill!”, Padraig O’Mianain’s warm, rippling and rather jolly accordion-led tribute to a certain former US President, his impact on the Derry community, and his contribution to the peace process.


Sorrowful sung soliloquies, accomplished musicians, unexpected calypsos, feisty compassion, spilled water bottles (yes), a charismatic host and the maxim that "talent runs in the family" – all of the aforementioned are vital components in Imrice, aka Songs Of Emigration. The enriching and inspiring possibilities of folk music are delightfully explored in this suitably intimate concert at Derry’s Playhouse Theatre. Guitarist Barry Kerr, and later, the sister duo of Triona and Mairead Ni Dhomnall, offer an easy-to-enjoy and contemplative brand of solid professionalism and wistful warbling, with Kerr coming across as a particularly skilled guitarist.

To the eyes, Co Kerry's Pauline Scanlan may appear as sweet and timid as a little bird, but she soars through her numbers like an eagle; she radiates extreme confidence and conviction through a musically bouncy but lyrically dark set list, creating a very lively spin on Mary Black. The bottle of water belonging to Damien O'Kane – once of Flook – may have unwelcomely exploded in his back pocket, but the only explosion the audience are thinking about by the end of his set is the enthralling rhythm and depth of the sound provided by O'Kane, bodhran player John-Joe Kelly, guitarist Ed Boyd and bassist Duncan Lyall. Lyall, it turns out, has flown from Edmonton to Calgary to New York to Belfast for this twenty-minute selection of good humour, happy harmonies and merry melodies, and displays not one touch of tiredness or nervousness. That's dedication for you.


Most beautiful of all are the airy Celtic tones, sometimes more mournful than at other times, of the evening's last performer, Mary – sister of Cara – Dillon. At gig's conclusion I remark to her famous sibling that hearing Mary on the Playhouse stage gave me a feeling akin to hearing Cara's debut album for the first time almost a decade ago; and that's high praise indeed.


The first concert to be screened for TG4 and Fleadh Live, Highlands and Islands, begins with the arrival of The Campbells Of Greepe, who hail from the Isle Of Skye. The Guildhall is bathed in a purple glow as the Campbells sing excitedly, relying on their voices to carry a steady beat, which makes for addictive listening even with the tiniest instrumental accompaniment. So when back up strengthens thanks to piano and woodwind accompaniment, and later the dancing of John Sikorski, it's rather special. The knowing winks of the Campbells' four female singers and extremely in sync vocals tie in with their easy-going adaptability to the sometimes markedly abrupt tempo and spirit changes.

Award-winning Scottish duo Marit Fait and Rona Wilkie are what you would call a totally different kettle of fish. Fait's singing and bazouki playing is loaded with aggression, or so it seems. Once we discover that her first tune is a lullaby warning a baby to "beware of a bad man who will come and put (the child) in a bag and throw (him or her) in a river", everything becomes clear, and we can happily reflect on the sly amusement the tune offers. Equally amusing, though not as angry, are Wilkie’s lullaby about farm animals and her ode to the town of Kilmartin. Fait and Wilkie are an expressive and versatile pair that you can’t really take your eyes away from; and you don’t want to either. When the Campbells join the duo for the mournful finale of "Down To The River To Pray", we share the sadness they clearly feel at the end of the performance.


A line-up of North American acts greet our eyes for Across The Atlantic at the Guildhall. First up to the bat is skilled fiddle player Liz Carroll, accompanied by Sean Og Graham's acoustic guitar and Trevor Hutchinson's double bass. On her first visit to Fleadh Cheoil in many years, the award-winning American-born violinist dazzles us with her levels of concentration, thoroughness, and chemistry with those both on and off the stage. If first song "Drumlasies" scores high marks for comprehensiveness, her second song is more notable for its quiet beauty, its smooth, flowing sentiment. The series of traditional Irish reels that follow cement her place in both the hearts and minds of the Guildhall audience, the city's populace looking as lost in the clapping of hands and the tapping of feet as Carroll and her accompanists are with their instruments. You do believe that the Guildhall floor would transform itself into a nineteenth century dance hall, were it possible.

Less string-dependent and far more vocal is Massachusetts' own Tim Eriksen, whose Ralph Stanley-esque voice echoes around the new old hall in a haunting, macabre, yet strangely resonant fashion. Hard though it is to "go nuts", as he says, at the sound of the rather morbid "O Death", one can only admire the skill of his violin and later banjo playing, and the strength of his voice. It is left for Eriksen's jokes to provide the levity in this short set: "I saw three signs when I came here: Derry, Doire and Londonderry. I asked a girl in (the hotel) reception, what was the proper way to pronounce this place, and she said 'Travelodge'!" Such humour no doubt endears him to the locals, but the important thing about this set is not so much Eriksen's pronounciation as his enunciation, which is crystal clear.

The talent really speaks for itself in the case of Nova Scotia musicians Troy MacGillivray, Andrea Beaton and Matt McIsaac, who literally take our breath away with their interlocking instrumentals. While the sound is not quite as rich as Liz Carroll's, it need not be; these driven and seemingly fearless musicians take to whatever instrument they pick up, be it fiddle, keyboard, bagpipes or whistle, like a duck to water, and, aided immeasurably by Beaton's Irish dancing skills, startlingly and harmoniously intertwine in a near glorious concoction. This fast-paced set is all about expecting the unexpected, encouraging even the normally calm Fleadh Live presenter Sile Ni Bhraonain to move to the music along with the audience.

Those unfortunate enough not to make the Cara Dillon concert taking place inside the city walls tonight – or those who are simply looking for something different – have a little treat waiting for them in the one-time venue for the Other Voices spectacular. Several hundred people, or so it seems, are packed into the Glassworks for Hidden Fermanagh, in an atmosphere more worthy of a lively pub than a music hall.

Led expertly by Cathal McConnell and featuring Brenda McCann, Pat & Valerie McManus, Francis Rasdale and Annette Owens, among others, the performance consists mainly of cockle-warming, high tempo reels, with a few reflective solos thrown in for strong measure. Rosie Stewart's low, worn and vulnerable tones evoke memories of the struggle to move on, while Catherine Nugent impresses with her expressiveness, particularly on "I Ran With An Irishman". Most melancholy and definitely most memorable of all is the sight of McConnell leading everyone – musicians and audience combined – in a performance of Cathie Ryan's "So Here's To You". It's the perfect finale to a fine evening in the company of musicians with such a friendly presence. Except it isn't – the amusing “The Second Hand Trousers I Bought In Belcoo” is still to follow, leaving us to make our way into the packed city centre streets in good humour...


A series of stage performers – and, most notably, the Fidget Feet company's "Fire Birds" show – bring the curtain down on what has been an absolutely unreal week in Derry-Londonderry. And there's no better words I can use to sum it up than in this poem I’ve written…

I stood in the corner of Ebrington Square
While a jaw-dropping show took place up in the air.
We'd rarely seen anything quite so neat
As the awesome sight of the Fidget Feet.
Like Political Mother, but not quite as long
The singers and dancers put not one foot wrong
In an artistic, exciting feast for the eyes
That lit up the dark in the wet and black skies.
And my camera and notebook dropped right by my side
As I found myself totally filled up with pride.
The folk of the city were alive with belief.
This had warmed through their hearts and removed all their grief.
And if there’s one thing we’d say, oh yes, say right out loud:
It would be "Well done Derry - you did the Fleadh proud."


Grainne McCool said...

These words are simply wonderful. They sum up the night perfectly. Lovely :)