About ten years ago I stumbled into the traditional Irish music scene and life has never been quite the same. My first article for this magazine was about that experience, but this time around I’d like to delve into the truly arcane world of The Fleadh Choil (literally, Festival of Music), or The All-Ireland Championships (AIC). Now, if you’ve ever been to any Irish session, concert or ceilidh worth its salt, you’ll know that if one of the musicians present can boast an AIC title, they are treated with awe and reverence. For these are the crème de la crème, the best players out there; men women and children (for there are many categories) who have come through the fire of competition and been judged the best. I have had the pleasure of playing with some of these winners, and even recorded an album with one of them.
The Fleadh Choil is more commonly referred to as The Fleadh (pronounced Flah), and the first gathering was held in Mullingar in 1951, with the intent to establish standards in traditional Irish music, but also to include concerts, sessions, master classes and workshops and a fine time for all. Instrument categories (too many to itemize here, suffice it to say from fiddle to war pipes, yes, war pipes) and age groups were established, and in the following decades the Festival has grown by leaps and bounds, to the point that some 20,000 performers compete each year. Not all in one place of course; regional and international “fleadhanna” became necessary with first and second place winners going on to the final.
The U.S. has two qualifying venues, the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest; there are fourteen in Ireland, starting at county level, then provincial; there are two All-Britain qualifiers also. This is serious stuff!
In 2007 the Fleadh took place in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, and a good young friend of mine, Dylan Foley, having qualified at the Mid-Atlantic, took second place in the 15-years-and-under fiddle category, out of a group of 25 finalists. This was Dylan’s fourth year of competition; the first year at the age of 11, at Clonmel, Tipperary, he won the whole thing, and we of the Hudson Valley where Dylan lives were ecstatic for him. I’ve known him from the days I benignly winced as the small lad scraped his way through “Turkey in the Straw” to the six-footer he is now, soaring through any tune you care to mention.
At Letterkenny, Donegal the following year Dylan won again, and in the subsequent two years he placed second.
I asked Dylan what it was like to get up in front of a panel of judges and be expected to perform one’s best.
“Nerve-racking; the day of the contest I wake up tense; then you wait on the stage while the judges write notes about the previous contestant. I’m shaking; I have to have a Snickers bar to calm me down. But when I start to play, the music just comes out, I do think I play my best at the contests.”
Is it a friendly atmosphere?
“Absolutely; the competition is intense, but everyone is supportive of each other, and you make good friends.”
Dylan also took third place in the duets category, playing with another good friend of mine Dan Gurney on accordion. Dan also grew up in the Hudson Valley, and we locals have our memories of a small lad that looked remarkably like Harry Potter playing the most extraordinarily complex jigs and reels on the button accordion. Dan likewise has placed second at the Championships and is now another six-footer, studying at Harvard; there must be something in the water in these parts.
I’ve had the honor, as a guitar and mandolin player, of recording a CD with Dan, and it is one of my most treasured possessions. We have all been regular players at Father Charlie Coen’s venerable Rhinecliff session. Father Charlie is a seven-time All-Ireland champion and, with brother Jack, is one of the most respected and revered musicians in traditional Irish music, having come to America in the mid-1950’s and bringing their unique Galway style with them.
Dylan and Dan plan to continue competing for as long as they can, both doing so for the love of the music and the joy of visiting Ireland each summer. Now, I should mention I’ve met All-Ireland champions who question the whole experience of competitions – the tension and rigid nature of the judging.
Solas legend Seamus Egan has won All-Irelands in the flute, banjo, mandolin and whistle categories, but his feeling is that it was so totally nerve-racking he wishes he’d never done it. Bronx fiddler Dennis McCarthy of Jameson’s Revenge won several times, but says, “I’m not sure what that’ll get me at three a.m. in the diner.” So it’s not for everyone; my feeling is that it’s a wonderful thing that doesn’t necessarily translate into fame or fortune. (Eileen Ivers, Joanie Madden and Liz Carroll, however, have certainly used it as a springboard to successful careers). For the most part, though, the world of traditional music in the Youtube era is a labor of love. All I know is that when I sit down and play at a session with these guys, we have the time of our lives, champions or not.
Another institution I’ve meant to mention for a while is WFUV’s “Ceol na nGael” (Music of the Irish). Broadcasting every Sunday from Fordham University in New York, from 12-4 p.m., the program celebrated 30 years of continuous play in 2004, and still carries on strong, broadcasting the best of Irish music, often live, with a news report from Dublin followed by a sports update. With an estimated 50,000 listeners, it is Fordham Public Radio’s most popular program, and these days anyone with Internet access can listen to the show anytime (www.wfuv.org.) Hosted from the very beginning by Fordham students (some 50 dedicated volunteers committing to 12-15 hours a week of on-off air work), the music is contemporary and traditional – Solas, Altan, Saw Doctors – The 30th Anniversary Concert broadcast live featured Cherish the Ladies, Eileen Ivers, Mick Moloney and Celtic Cross, and on any given Sunday performers might drop in to perform live. Many of the hosts and artists credit Ceol na nGael as being their first introduction to Irish culture, and as a driving force in fostering Irish culture in the New York area. The current producer of the show is grad student Liz Noonan, who as an undergraduate was also a host; my thanks to Liz for the info on the program.