The hunting of the music
The Siege of Ennis took place last weekend in the green County of Clare. It wasn’t so much the town itself that was besieged by the 100,000-strong crowd, as its hotels and hostelries, its cafes and tea counters, where the tents of the host could be seen everywhere, even in the Bishop’s Fields.
For this was the 1977 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, the massive all-Ireland traditional music festival which marks the annual high point of the activities of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (roughly translated as the Irish Musicians Association) which since its formation 26 years ago has been an increasingly powerful movement in encouraging active interest in Irish traditional music.
The effectiveness of that work was evident at this, the largest yet of any of the all-Ireland Fleadhs. There were 2,100 musicians of all ages competing in 143 different competitions, having qualified in preliminary Fleadhs throughout Ireland as well as those organised by Comhaltas branches in Britain, Canada and the U.S. There were also entries from Australia.
Organisers and adjudicators agreed after the event that the standard of playing and singing – and the general interest in the competitions – has reached its highest level ever.
One of the Fleadh organisers pointed out that the standard among young musicians was now higher than among their adult counterparts, and getting better all the time. Certainly, I came away with the impression that a generation of fledgling Irish ‘super-musicians’ is with us, and with the almost frightening vision of a glut in the market for traditional music, as youthful groups of Chieftains or Bothy Band stature vie with each other.
I also left Ennis wishing intensely that Scotland could have a national movement of such apparent power to engender more interest in its music. Mr Labhrás Ó Murchú, national director of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, described the Fleadh as ‘a celebration of Irishness’. Certainly nowhere else can one envisage a church door collection throughout one county (Clare), on only one Sunday, raising £2,000 to support a traditional music festival.
The music – powerfully good music – was there without a doubt: getting to hear it was another matter. Apart from the organised programme of competitions, ceilidhs and concerts, it is the spontaneous sessions which are the life and soul of a Fleadh, but as crowds heaved and scrambled to gain admission to hotels and public-houses and swarmed through the streets to descend upon the slightest peep of a tin whistle or concertina, one got the impression that the spontaneous session had become a craved commodity.
At night in O’Connell Square, where the boozing, yelling, singing throngs darkened like starlings around the bemused statue of the national hero, the sound of war pipes, accordions and fiddles filtered through the constant scrunching of broken bottles and empty cans. In the dark, winding streets radiating noisily away from the Square, fitful little sessions would suddenly mushroom shyly, delicate duets and trios of instruments in serious danger of being flattened by the descending cassette recorder-brandishing crowds.
The town’s catering facilities (the last time a Fleadh was held here was in 1956) were insufficient for the incoming crowds and many packed out public-houses had to lock their doors. Several public-houses didn’t bother opening later in the weekend. Their proprietors had apparently lost their nerve.
The Irish Times expressed the opinion that serious thought must now be given to the Fleadh returning to Listowel in Kerry, a previous favourite venue and one better able to cope with the crowds. A Comhaltas spokesman I talked to, however, was reluctant to agree: ‘We wouldn’t be guided by that kind of comment’, he said.
On the Saturday night we quit the mob and made our way 20 miles down to the coastal town of Miltown Malbay, one of several Clare towns with a reputation for good music, and heard some of the sweetest sounds of the weekend in the little back rooms of pubs: flutes taking flight in dance tunes, uilleann pipes warbling and straining at the crying of some old air, big Guinness-fisted men rhythmically clasping the knees of shut-eye singers exhorting them and easing out the songs.
Midday Sunday in Ennis heard the bell of the pro-cathedral sound sonorously over the hybrid crowd of Mass-goers and Fleadh-goers, earnestly seeking out salvation and/or yet more music. In the afternoon the Gardai stood about, one eye on the crowds and both ears on the Armagh v. Roscommon All-Ireland football semi-final on their radios. I saw one earnestly showing a Scandinavian lad how to pick winkles.
At the men’s singing (English) competition on the Sunday afternoon there were ructions when a judge unsuccessfully tried to have only two verses sung of each competitor’s two songs. The judges had been working from 11 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. during the previous day’s singing competition, she said.
The weary plea fell on unsympathetic ears and audience and competitors alike yelled protests. ‘This is the All-Ireland Fleadh!’ someone shouted and that was justification enough. The songs were sung in their entirety.
The Weekend Scotsman : 3 September 1977
There is a fascinating discussion on the Session website initiated by Aberdeen flute player Kenny Hadden that includes his and other Scottish musicians’ experiences at the fleadh described above.
Stuart Eydmann adds:
There was quite a contingent of Scots, mainly from Glasgow, at that particular event. I traveled there with fellow fiddler Chris Miller and we ran into my rareTunes co-founder fiddler Derek Hoy and his wife Christine. Others I recall were singer Mick West, button accordionist Billy McGuire, bodhran maker Dave Gormlie and fiddler Jimmy McGuire. Most of us were in our early to mid 20s.
Chris and I arrived a day or so early, just before the onslaught, and after helping the owner of the pub we visited to prepare his premises we were guaranteed favourable access after the hoards arrived. Nevertheless, the crush in the town became unbearable. I have no recollection of attending any competitions – I think they were all full – but do remember the huge gatherings in the garden of the Old Ground Hotel, the large groups of musicians surrounded by enthusiasts wielding cassette recorders. I’m sure there was also a large delegation from Donegal that left its musical mark on the informal proceedings there.
At the hotel we met up by arrangement with Jimmy McGuire’s friend Mairead Murphy from Cork and we all escaped to a pub in Lahinch where there was a lovely session. Another night we went to Corofin with all-Ireland fiddler and mentor Jimmy McHugh of Glasgow and some of his old musician friends from the Northern counties. After a lock-in the music went on all night.
The cultural impact of this and other fleadhs is considered by Geraldine Cotter in her book Transforming Tradition. Irish Traditional Music in Ennis, County Clare 1950-1980 (Ennis, 2016). Her suggestion that ‘Visiting Ennis during the fleadh afforded young musicians the opportunity to meet well-known and established traditional musicians in a relaxed setting’ (p. 169) captures the experience of the Scottish visitors precisely.