Thursday, 1 April 2010

Virginia in County Cavan lets the traditional music roll!

Opening of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2008 in T...Image via Wikipedia

Virginia, Co. Cavan -- For seven years now the NYAH festival in Co. Cavan has sought to involve the community in this Ulster county and widen the awareness of the rich musical heritage all around it.

NYAH is one of those wonderful expressions (pronounced neeyah) used to describe music from the heart that is neither forced nor phony, so the festival tends to recognize those who have made the deepest contributions not only in the Breffni County but all around Ireland.

Its influence and success as cultural and tourism driver has grown in that span to such a level that it has encouraged Cavan town to take on one of the largest challenges in the traditional Irish music world, Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann (All-Ireland Festival) later on in August.

Last year, I visited the NYAH festival for the first time and found its magnetic pull once again bringing me northward upon arrival in Dublin last week.
The festival ( spreads over three weeks around St. Patrick’s Day and incorporates many workshops, concerts and dedicated sessions up and down the county as organized by its director Martin Donohoe, a larger than life character in every sense of the word.

The Friday after St. Patrick’s Day when I arrived in Ireland there was a special night in the hometown of the legendary harmonica musician, Eamonn or Eddie Clarke who came from Virginia. The concert paid tribute to the harmonica, with the appearance of some of its leading exponents like Noel Battle, Mick Kinsella, Sean Walshe, Pat Masters and young Aoife Geoghegan and even Cathal Johnston, who is doing a dissertation on the instrument in Irish music.

A new CD package called Eddie Clarke: Unheard got a Cavan launch and was produced by Mullahoran native Anton MacGabhann from many live recordings featuring the man who is said to have popularized the use of the mouth organ into traditional Irish music.

Featuring four CDs, it is an extraordinary archive and legacy of his music spanning three decades that will help raise the profile of this talented and reticent individual whose contributions to Irish music were larger than he could have ever appreciated.

Clarke was born in Virginia in 1945, and his harmonica skills were recognized around Dublin in the 1960s where he was a teacher. His notoriety grew after being chosen as part of a select group of musicians to participate in the seminal Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife in 1976, where Irish music’s elite on both sides of the Atlantic were brought together for a week.

He recorded LPs with Maeve Donnelly, Sean Corcoran and Mairead ni Dhomnaill, Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh, and a duet recording with Inagh-Co. Clare fiddler Joe Ryan with whom he often played in sessions.

The CD set is available at and information from his brother Andrew at

The bounty from the Breffni County couldn’t be contained inside Cavan’s boundaries this month, and they were invited to be part of Conor Byrne’s County Sessions craic at the centrally located Button Factory Hall in the Temple Bar sector of Dublin on Tuesday, March 23.

An excellent series cleverly conceived by Byrne, the Dublin flute player and nephew of Christy Moore and Luka Bloom, it shines a deserving spotlight on the talent in the counties that has nothing to do with culchies and jackeens.

The timing couldn’t be better to help promote the work of the NYAH festival and the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan, an opportunity that was maximized by its events chairman Donohoe and public relations officer Martin Gaffney, who also managed to bring along the county manager Jack Keyes, who is the co-chair of the Cavan Fleadh efforts.

There was some great talent on display all night in the marvelous venue for music that ranged from young to older musicians. Representing the young crew were Kavan and Savannah Donohoe, Garreth and Seamus Tierney, Katie Flynn and Louise O’Kane.

The older gents ranged from the ageless Seamus Fay, the lilter par excellence who was decreed the honorary president of the Fleadh, Anton MacGabhann, Martin Gaffney, Martin Donohoe, Mickey McDonnell (on loan from Fermanagh) and Trevor Bury. Standing out on vocals was Aoife Murray, whose “Fare Thee Well Lovely Mary” was spine-tingling.

It has been 56 years since Cavan hosted a Fleadh Cheoil in 1954 back in the nascent days of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, when the fleadh structure of competitions and music sessions were credited with the restoration of traditional music in its rightful place in Irish society and heritage.

It has mushroomed into one of the largest festivals and economic boons held in any Irish town nowadays, with estimates of over 200,000 visiting a fleadh town for the craic.

Cavan is doing its best not to squander the opportunity when it hosts the CCE summer school known as Scoil Eigse that attracts 800 students and many of Ireland’s top musicians as tutors and the full slate of weekend competitions, ceilithe and sessions.
Fitting in all those people is always a daunting task as well as transporting them around the various schools and venues, but the Cavan Town people are counting on full-scale involvement throughout the community to make it work.

Of course, some good weather to maximize that outdoor atmosphere can help to mark a great fleadh. Its Ulster Province location and green fleadh awareness are also very healthy markers for a contemporary fleadh that revolves around keeping traditions alive and moving forward at the same time.
Ireland’s economy is in need of a huge boost and cultural tourism is a real asset these days.

The Fleadh comes from the heart of the tradition that attracts people from all over for the grass roots nature of it.

Even the Cavan Association of New York has lined up full square in support of the event because they see the magnificent benefits that could derive from a very successful fleadh. And when the chips are down, we could all use a little more of the NYAH to keep our spirits and our culture flourishing.

For more information on all the events surrounding the fleadh taking place August 16-22 in Cavan visit or for other CCE activities.

CCE Ready for Jersey Convention

Speaking of big events for Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the big weekend of Irish traditional music and dance in North America is rolling into the very familiar territory at the Parsippany Hilton over the weekend of April 8-11 in New Jersey.

It is also known as the convention, signifying the business aspects for the over 45 branches in the North American province in the U.S. and Canada who convene in meetings all-day Friday to allow the full program of music and dance workshops, ceilithe and sessions to continue unabated over the four-day indoor fleadh.

This year a special spotlight will be placed on the fabulous young talent particularly in the Rockland County and Northern New Jersey area experiencing another golden age of teachers and students. The teenage sensation GIRSA will be the primary entertainment at the Saturday banquet which is expected to be attended by 700 people.

Over the weekend there are four ceilithe on tap starting with Pete Kelly on Thursday night, Green Gates Ceili Band on Friday, Pride of New York on Saturday and Sunday with the Pride of Moyvane. Set dance workshops with Padraig and Roisin McEneany from Ireland take place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and ceili with Maura Mulligan and sean nos dance with Shannon Dunne take place on Saturday morning.

In addition there are music workshops on Saturday only with Martin Donohoe, Eileen Gannon, John Daly, Joanie Madden, John Nolan, Mgr. Charlie Coen, Issac Alderson, Ivan Goff, Jesse Winch, John Walsh, Brian Glynn, Brendan Dolan, Mattie Connolly, Siobhan O’Donoghue and Irish language workshops with Maura Mulligan and Micheal O’Maille and recitation with P.J. Gannon.

On Saturday Evening, the banquet and ceili mor (tickets $85). Recognition will be given to those area pubs who have hosted traditional Irish music sessions for a number of years.

There are weekend packages available, but most events will have admission at the door except for the banquet which must be booked in advance. Visit or call 973-977-8863 or 201-722-0059.

The convention is being sponsored in large part by the Irish government’s Department of Foreign Affairs Emigrants Abroad Program, Tourism Ireland and the development program of CCE Ireland.
(In full disclosure, your correspondent serves as the public relations officer for CCE in North America as a 25-year member of Comhaltas).

Pictured above: Cavan night at the Button Factory in Dublin -- Mickey McConnell, Seamus Fay, Martin Gaffney, Anton MacGabhann, Martin Donohoe and Trevor Bury. (Photo by Kavan Donohue)
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