The Fleadh for First-timers

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is coming to Sligo. Translated, its name means The Music Festival of Ireland and that is exactly what it is. The Fleadh, as it is usually called, is the largest single festival of Irish Music and can reach attendances of 400,000 over the course of nine eventful days.

The Fleadh is a competition for amateur musicians. From the mythical times to the present day there have been festivals in Ireland judging and celebrating the skills and arts of entertainers. The focus was always on individual ability and so it is to this day. Few places in the western world have managed to maintain their musical traditions as successfully as Ireland has. The Fleadh is the showcasing of this tradition as well as  a celebration of the individual skills of the competitors. It is a valuable testament to creativity. It is a celebration of the new ways for doing the old things. It is a great holiday. It is a big party.

The Fleadh means many things to different people. The first half of the week is taken up by Scoil Éigse. Classes are held for people of all ages and abilities in traditional Irish music. Walking and historical tours are held for visitors along with films, seminars, street performances and markets.  The evening is usually spent crammed into a nice cosy little pub for a hearty sing-along, a seisiún and a ‘quiet’ drink!

As a folk festival you do not need to be an expert on music to enjoy the Fleadh. Audiences are welcome at the competitions where they will be delighted by the amazing skills of the (mostly) young competitors. There are adult competitions but these only make up a quarter of the bouts. Other competitions are held at u12, 12-15 and u18 levels. There are competitions for all the traditional instruments but also whistling, lilting, singing and dancing. The competitors have all won their right to participate at regional heats so every bout is a guaranteed concert.

The heart of the festival is the enjoyment of music. This is found in the lively street sessions and late-night seisiúns (same word different language) that the competitors and other musicians spin out in an unending offering of top-quality live music.

And when the day is over, and you creep back to your home, hotel, campsite, hostel or tent you will understand how easy it was for Ireland to keep this tradition alive.

A short history of Irish Traditional Music

Irish Traditional Music, or Trad as is better known, evolved through the combination of ancient styles with new ways of expression over a long period. The ancient Gaels played pipes, whistles, harps and flat drums.

This tradition was dominated by solo performance in song and dance. The Viking settlers brought the fiddle (violin) to Trad and a bit later the Anglo-Normans added flutes and lutes. Over the following centuries the lute gave way to the mandolin, as the banjo, melodeon and piano began to make appearances. These were followed in the last century with the inclusion of guitars, pianos and the bouzouki.

The styles of music also drew on different traditions; lilting and melody formed a large part of the Gaelic tradition and there appears to be no evidence of any tradition of choral or communal singing. The traditional ballads with choruses stem from the madrigal traditions of France that came to Ireland with the Anglo-Normans. As a consequence the sing-along is comprised of group songs in English with Irish tunes performed by soloists. Joining in the chorus is allowed but the old preference for enjoying an individual’s performance means that the crowd leave the verses to a soloist. In many Irish songs the crowd sing the third line of a quatrain and leave the last bit so the singer can shine.

The same is true of the dancing tradition. The combination of the intricate footwork of the Celt with the group participation of the Anglo-Normans gave rise to the energetic set-dance that complimented the individual styles of jigs.

Folk Music is music for People

When musicians play in a seisiún the measure of their joy is found in the spontaneous reaction of their listeners.

The instruments are all tenor and the lack of a strong base line lulls the listener into a light toe-tap that begins to fill out the sound. Next the hands want to clap along and the legs begin to get antsy. By this stage the listeners are hopping in their seats and often rise to batter the boards in an unrehearsed dance that compliments and completes the musical experience

Folk music remains popular in Ireland. Like all music it is open to interpretation and the Irish verb ‘cas’ (to turn) is the usual way to invite somebody to play or sing. Individual musicians interpret the same tune according to the way they would turn it. This means that the same song can have many different forms; type “The Foggy Dew” into YouTube for a good example of how individuals Sinéad O’Connor, Luke Kelly, James Bragg, The Wolfe Tones or Odetta turn the same song. Attending the Fleadh will give you a better experience of the many styles and interpretations that any song can have. The singing competitions will provide a restful change from the mimicked performances that dominate the countless TV contests with their focus firmly on the art of the singer him/herself.

The Fleadh can be enjoyed by anybody who has ears to hear and/or a body that appreciates rhythm. You do not need to be an expert nor even to be knowledgeable about music to enjoy the festival. As festivals go the Fleadh can boast that it does have something for everybody.

Sinéad O’Connor

Luke Kelly

James Bragg

The Wolfe Tones

Odetta

The Irish Brigade

The North-West Passage

Sligo is the venue for the Fleadh in 2014 and will also host the festival in 2015. The town is set on a plain surrounded by some of the most iconic mountains in Ireland.

Ben Bulben and Knocknarea dominate the approach to the town and the oddly shaped Curlew Mountains form a backdrop that is unlike any other place in Ireland.

People attending the Fleadh can avail of a wide range of facilities from camp-sites to 5-star and everything from a hot-dog stand to award-winning restaurants. The wider area has some of the best surfing in Europe, ancient megalithic cemeteries, lakes, fishing, sports … the only thing you shouldn’t be able to afford is you cannot afford to miss the opportunity of visiting Sligo during Fleadh.