The Fleadh Cheoil is one of our favourite festivals in the Irish calendar. It is mostly free (apart from the paid concerts), which we think is a great thing. Young people flock to it (although it is billed as a family event and you will see more grey hair (or even no hair) here than at most other festivals in Ireland). It is uniquely Irish but it welcomes all. As President Michael D. Higgens explained at the opening, the Fleadh Cheoil is not defined by any narrow national territory but by a shared heritage of music and dance which attracts kindred spirits to our shores.
History of the Fleadh Cheoil
In 1951 a bunch of pipers met in Westmeath. They were concerned with the lack of support for traditional music in Ireland at the time. They decided to organise a competition. The musicians became Comhaltas and the competition became Fleadh Cheoil, a rambling musical festival that hops around Ireland like a traveling minstrel looking for a new spot to start playing in. There were only a few 100 at the first competition. It quickly grew to encompass musicians from all over the world. It is now the planet’s largest hooley of Irish music. The Fleadh Cheoil is now known for non-stop music, duelling dancers and streets full of craic. It has grown so large that qualifying competitions have to be held in each county in Ireland and around the world.
Every shopfront at a Fleadh Cheoil has chairs outside. There are deep luxurious armchairs that can swallow great whales of accordians. There are wonky benches ideal for bodhran abusers. There are old kitchen chairs that fiddle players would sell their soul for. The chairs are put out for musicians. Early on in the day they are used by tired mothers who are just sitting down for a minute and you better not say anything to them. Later, as the competitions and music schools finish, the tents let loose a stream of adrenaline fuelled underage musicians eager to show the world what they can do with rhythm and melody and youthful enthusiasm. Gangs of kids roam the streets looking for their favourite spot. This is one of those rare occasions when groups of young people are encouraged to hang about and make some noise. Thus starts a giant game of musical chairs which goes on for a whole week.
Reuse of Space
As hostel folk we are always interested in how spaces are used for interesting purposes. The great thing about the Fleadh moving through Ireland is that it allows each town to add to the atmosphere. Churches and other buildings are requisitioned for chamber orchestras, poetry readings, song-writing workshops, historical displays and various arts and crafts exhibitions. There is a theatrical musical walking trail happening somewhere at some time. We meet people lost on a treasure hunt. There is a talk about the hidden history of protestants and the Irish language. In other words, there is plenty going on. We are here for the open air and the music. In previous years, Ennis was all nooks and alleys and new discoveries. Drawda (as everyone not from the town calls it) uses its golden mile of West St to its advantage.The wide shopping street allows the crowds to stroll up and down sampling the tunes. Sean Nos dancers step out with their hard shoes on thrown down timber squares doing the sort of loose limbed shuffle that would make the head of St Oliver Plunkett nod along approvingly in the nearby church. The wide steps to the church are the perfect seating to watch new ceili bands form and reform like weird musical organisms. There is a Garda at one end jiving. At the other end of the street another is playing the banjo like he has just realised his true calling. There is a tattooed hillbilly duo who look like they have come down from the Mournes playing good-old-boy songs with a home made bass made out of a broom handle tied to a steel bucket with an elastic.
Within the pubs and hotels, seisúns are starting. When there are not enough pubs, a pop-up pub will appear. There is even a pop up Gaeltacht in the local bank which is probably the best use of a bank building we have seen in a long time. When the rain comes the musicians bring the chairs inside and carry on. The music never stops. There are concertinas, button accordians, harps, and even warpipes in use. And spoons. When they start playing music with spoons you know they could probably make music out of anything. Beautiful and powerful melodies waft out across the streets combining into a swirling hypnotic rhythm which is known as fleadhfever. This is the Electric Picnic of Trad Music. When the sun returns I miss Christy Duignam from Aslan lead the whole town in a version of Crazy World but I see it on Twitter. The big bands are playing on the gig rig in Bolton Square. Hector is out and about being Hector with Fleadh TV. I get talking to a young person who entered the whistling competition and the storytelling competition. This seems strange to me but nowhere near as strange as lilting, or Gaelic scat singing. It was supposedly invented when traditional musical instruments were banned.
Kila are here giving it socks with their African rhythms. Damien Dempsey will be hopping off the train from Dublin to add a bit of urban realism to the week. The Riverdance folk will not miss coming down to play where the sea comes pushing up the Boyne river. Martin Hayes the curly fiddle player from soulful trad supergroup The Gloaming is wandering around. Why wouldn’t he be here when he was the fiddle champion twice at the Fleadh in the 80s in his teens. There are trad music techno DJs from Glasgow, legendary 70s trad groups, Japenese ceili bands and people without a word of Irish or any inkling at all about Irish music (like me) who are just here because they want to soak up the atmosphere. I listen to a trad group play Daft Punk and I am nearing peak fleadh.
The week will culminate in some epic battles between ceili bands for the senior Céilí Band title. Groups will fight to add their names to legends such as the Kilfenora, the Táin, the Tulla, the Naomh Padraig and the current three-in-a-row winners from Cork, the Shandum. Like the hurling final, the playing will be analysed and discussed by experts and enjoyed by many who never played. Whover wins will have to return to Drogheda again next year to do it all over again and defend their title. You have been warned!
The nearest hostel to the Fleadh Cheoil in 2019 is Newgrange Lodge Hostel.
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