Northwest Ireland welcomes New Year with captivating ‘faery tunes’

by Sean Hillen

As the evening countdown begins to the first day of a new year, traditional musicians, singers and dancers in the most remote and northerly county in Ireland are all set to welcome it in with a rousing all-night party.

Donegal’s annual Winter (Musical) School, ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ in the native Irish language of this ruggedly beautiful Gaeltacht region, has been in full swing all week, with formal concerts and classes in various instruments, as well as lively, informal music seisún in many local pubs.

Young and old, men and women, of different nationalities and creeds from Israel and France to Romania and Canada, gather every year at this time in this land ‘twixt the mountain and the sea’ to celebrate their love of Celtic music.

And tonight they’ll all come together for what is sure to be a humdinger of a New Year’s Eve party in the local football stadium in an area called Gaoth Dobhair where they’ll be entertained by dynamic Kerry-based band, Polca4, and An Crann Óg, composed of young local boys and girls who have entertained audiences far and wide with their unique brand of musicianship.

Mayo-based, three-solo-album harpist and social activist, Laoise Kelly, wooed her audience Friday night at local tavern-cum-restaurant-cum-hotel, Teac Jack, a place featuring strongly in new suspense-novel-soon-to-be-blockbuster-movie, ‘Pretty Ugly.’ Such is Kelly’s versatility, her renditions ranged from airs from the Cape Breton Islands of Nova Scotia to those by fellow Irish musicians, Donegal-born fiddler Tommy Peoples, multi-instrumentalist, Brendan Ring and 18th century folk-music collector, Edward Bunting. The friendly musician also played a series of what are best termed ‘Kelly melodies,’ which she had researched for a clan gathering of people sharing the same surname.

Intriguingly, the Westport-born musician’s repertoire also included a number of what she termed ‘faery tunes,’ tunes gifted by what are often termed, ‘the little people.’ During a post-concert conversation at An Chuirt Hotel, discussion focused on whether there are actual faeries that some open and creatively-minded people are able to communicate with. Or whether the term ‘faeries’ is a metaphor for Mother Nature and, as such, how tunes arrive to the ready-listener via universal energies, through for example, a babbling stream or a mountain breeze.

Dublin-based, four-member band, ‘Lynched,’ won their audience over with a rousing array of songs ranging from 1930s Musical Hall numbers to sea shanties and still others with a strong anti-Fascist message. Topics varied greatly, from mockery of recruitment sergeants in a song penned by Peadar Kearney, who also wrote Ireland’s national anthem ‘The Soldier’s Song;’ to their own composition, ‘Cold Old Fire,’ about life on the unemployment heap, as well as one termed a ‘grotesque’ folk song about a young woman being the victim of lecherous old men. One of the highlights of their performance was a rendition of the hilarious, word-filled, many-versed, unaccompanied, ‘The Irish Jubilee,’ featuring such bizarre lines as, ‘Well there was pigs’ heads, goldfish, mocking birds and ostriches, Ice cream, cold cream, Vaseline and sandwiches.’

Two different acts warmed an overcast afternoon at another venue, An Gailearaí (The Gallery). London-born John Carty and his daughter, Maggie, kicked-off the event, performing Sligo polkas and the well-known jig, ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps,’ on banjo and fiddle before entertaining their audience with a banjo duet, ‘Primrose Street’ learned from Peter Carberry of Longford. Best joke of the evening was John’s before introducing his daughter to sing the song, ‘To Hear the Nightengale Sing’ when he said, “There’s a long line of singers in our family. Even our sewing machine is a Singer.’

Gatehouse,’ comprising John Wynne, Rachel Garvey and Jacinta and John McEvoy, followed John and Maggie, providing fine entertainment with a mixed repertoire of jigs, reels and hornpipes, with silky smooth transitions, including the three-part, ‘The Frost Is All Over,’ ’The Mouse in the Cupboard,’ and “The Greencastle Hornpipe,’ as well as songs in both Irish and English such as ‘The Ploughboy’ and ‘Casadh an tSúgáin’ (The Twisting of the Hayrope).

Earlier in the week, Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox, the five members of ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble,’ captivated a packed audience at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘). Not only did they play versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of talents in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta’s northwest service in Donegal.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Yet another highlight was the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan.

The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name who’s fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

The duet’s diversity was impressive: from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others Gavin performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh, leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

Scoil Gheimhridh, Donegal festivals

Conor Byrne thanks Frankie Gavin (L) and Martin McGinley (middle) for their interesting lunch-time talk

As if diverse concerts, classes and seisún were not enough to fill a winter’s holiday week, the ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ festival also featured interesting interviews with leading performers. One such was conducted by fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, with Frankie Gavin.  Founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, Gavin regaled his lunch-time listeners at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair with an assortment of anecdotes plucked from his long and fruitful musical career, including playing on a Rolling Stones album in Dublin’s Windmill Lane Recording Studios and adventures at a Danish hard-rock festival where some concert-goers disengaged themselves from all their attire, preferring to listen to him in the comfort of their au natural ‘birthday suits.’  As for his jokes; “What do you call the beautiful blonde on the arm of a bass player? A tattoo.” As for Irish music, “It touches your heart, your soul, your very spirituality. It takes you off to another world.” Then he played his unique Celtic version of the Lennon–McCartney classic, ‘Hey Jude.’

Strong credit for a successful festival goes to its main organizers: Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player, mentored by Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy, who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named; Cathal Ó Gallchóir, manager of local community center, An Crannog; their excellent, friendly support team; and McGinley, who hosted the festival opening this year.

‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ was funded by The Arts Council of Ireland. Don’t forget tonight’s New Year’s Eve celebration party and a seisiún mór (big informal music/dance session) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag tomorrow afternoon (Sunday) at 3pm.

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