Irish music in Donegal attracts international aficionados from far and wide

by Sean Hillen

Shooting of sci-fi movie ‘Star Wars: the Last Jedi’ in Donegal may have brought international attention to Ireland’s most northerly region recently, but the county’s annual traditional music festival ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ has brought international visitors.

In the space of just fifteen minutes this week at Amharclann, Donegal’s newest theater in the coastal village of Bunbeg on the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area, I met people from Germany, Japan and the United States, all of whom had travelled long distances for a week brimful of concerts and classes.

Winter School Festival Donegal, Irish music on the Wild Atlantic Way

Toru Kumagai (l) from Japan and Reuben Ó Conluain (r) congratulate fiddle player, Theresa Kavanagh, on release of her new CD ‘An Choill Uaigneach’ (The Lonesome Forest).

Toru Kumagai journeyed over 10,000 kilometers to the festival – from Kyoto, Japan where he is a communications specialist. “I fell in love with Irish music when I first heard the Boxtie Band on a cassette. Since then, I’ve come here almost every year since 1998. I can now play flute and perform set dances.

Also at the festival was Irish-language teacher and cultural enthusiast, Reuben Ó Conluain, who brings musicians every year from Ireland to the annual international ‘Festival Interceltique’ in Brittany, France, an event that attracts an impressive 800,000 attendees over 10 days.

I’m the Irish contact for ‘Festival Interceltique de Lorient’ and over the years at Scoil Gheimhridh I’ve discovered many artists – both local and invited – whom I’ve been able to bring to Brittany including Theresa Kavanagh, Réalta, Cór Thaobh a’Leithéid, The Friel Sisters, Skippers Alley and the Bonnymen, as well as sean nós singers Máire Ní Choilm, Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde, Noleen Ní Cholla and Diane Cannon. Scoil Gheimhridh is a great way to see the artists not only on stage but also socially at the wonderful late night seisiúns.”

Reuben added, “As a volunteer festival organiser I’m always aware of the great sacrifice made over Christmas by organisers Cathal Ó Gallchóir and Conor Byrne – and before them Clann Uí Mhaonaigh – and by all the volunteers so that others can enjoy the culture, language and beauty of West Donegal. Tá muid buíoch daofa.”

Amharclann Gaoth Dobhair, the county’s new Irish-language theatre with picturesque views over Gola Island, provided a scenic setting for the launch of the fourth annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh.’

Celebrating the culture of Donegal’s Gaeltacht, the festival’s opening night entitled ‘Oíche Ceoil Na gConallach’ showcased local talent including Manus Lunny, Theresa Kavanagh and Diane Cannon, in addition to Belfast uilleann pipes player, Robbie Hannan, and The Friel Sisters from Glasgow with strong family roots here. Kavanagh adroitly played complex melodies from her new CD ‘An Choill Uaigneach’ (The Lonesome Forest), while the three sisters – so versatile they even utilized a Tibetan singing bowl – did the same from theirs, entitled ‘Before The Sun.’

Young uilleann pipes players, Gráinne Ní Ghallchóir and Caoimhe Ni Fhearraigh, reflected the wealth of local talent, being members of An Crann Óg Community Centre, managed by the evening’s host, Cathal Ó Gallchóir.

A festival venue for the first time, Amharclann, also hosted a diverse concert Friday night featuring three diverse performances. Opening the evening was ‘Glórthaí Uladh,’ a combination of three choirs from Belfast, Derry and Donegal, directed by award-winning sean-nós singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde. Steeped in the Gaelic tradition, Doimnic has composed and arranged a range of songs, including his own compositions set to ancient Gaelic poetry.

A lively set of jigs, reels and hornpipes by the talented duet of tenor banjo player Angelina Carberry and Limerick accordionist Dan Brouder, whose album is entitled, ‘A Waltz For Joy,’ then followed. They were ably accompanied on bodhrán by Seamus O’Kane, a tutor at Scoil Gheimhridh.

Singer-songwriter-musician Liam Ó Maonlaí, formerly with Irish rock group, Hothouse Flowers, then took to the stage with RÉ, a group of musicians he had initially gathered together for a theatre project entitled ‘Rian.’ The members, Cormac Begley, Maitiú Ó Casaide, Eithne Ni Chatháin and Peter O’Toole, entertained a packed theatre with both songs ‘as Gaeilge’ and English and mesmerizing instrumentals on fiddle, uilleann pipes, guitar, synthesizer and concertina that captured magical, mystical and melancholic moods.

In a climactic finale, all performers returned to the stage for a rendition of the haunting ‘Gleanntáin Ghlas’ Ghaoth Dobhair,’ a beautiful song about immigration written by the late Francie Mooney, a well-respected local fiddle player.

Other festival concert venues included The Gallery in Gaoth Dobhair’s Business Park where Donegal singer Rita Gallagher, whose album ‘The May Morning Dew’ features many local songs, and fiddle players Conor Caldwell and Danny Diamond, performed. Diamond’s solo album is called simply, ‘Fiddle Music.’

Classes throughout the festival included fiddle, harp, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, bodhran, guitar and children’s arts and crafts, as well as formal concerts and seisiúin, continue through Monday in Teach Jack, Derrybeg; Teach Hiúdaí Beag, Bunbeg; CLG Gaoth Dobhair and The Gallery.

A special event at Amharclann highlighted the life of traditional singer, Joe Éinniú, with the screening of ‘Song of Granite’ by Irish film-maker, Pat Collins, followed by a Q&A with people involved in the film. Tonight (Saturday), the theatre hosts Cork sean-nós singer Iarla O’Lionaird, Australian Steve Cooney, formerly with ‘Stockton’s Wing,’ and fiddle player, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

Scoil Gheimhridh Festival, Irish music festival in Donegal, Cathal Ó Gallchóir Donegal

Festival organisers Cathal Ó Gallchóir (center) and Conor Byrne (left) enjoying the company of volunteers at this week’s opening event.

The festival rises a few decibels this weekend with a rousing New Year’s Eve celebration at CLG Gaoth Dobhair, billed as ‘Babhta Ceoil: The Mooneys versus The Begleys,’ after the well-known music families from Donegal and Kerry respectively, with the contest referee being friendly Raidió na Gaeltachta presenter, Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí. Festive craic continues Monday afternoon with a ‘seisiun mór’ at Teach Hiúdaí Beag featuring Ranafast-born singer Connie Mhary Mhicí Ó Gallchóir, and others.

There’s still time to book tickets so hurry to enjoy a lively, traditional Irish New Year’s welcome.


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