Irish traditional music was once in decline, but grass-roots efforts and a folk revival have made the Fleadh Cheoil the "cultural magnet" it is today

Music around every corner and impromptu seisiúns into the early hours of the morning are a guarantee when the Fleadh Cheoil comes to town. It's a meeting of young and old, where everybody shares a tune, old friends meet and new friends are made. On occasion, it might even cause controversy, like the last time the Fleadh came to Mullingar in June 1963.

The craic agus ceol is always mighty and at the centre of it all is the competition. Musicians, singers and dancers of all ages will have been practicing for months for a few moments on stage that will last only minutes and will determine whether they can call themselves champions.

It’s a chance for musicians to test their nerves under pressure. But more important than the competition is the "coming together of communities" of musicians, singers and dancers, who start off at a branch level within their county or region outside of Ireland and then bring "the pride of their home place into this arena," says Dr Aileen Dillane, ethnomusicologist and lecturer at the Irish World Academy Of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.

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From RTÉ Archives, crowds and musicians in Sligo for the 1989 All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil

"The 'All-Ireland' Fleadh is a bit of a misnomer really," she says. The week-long competition brings competitors and people from at least four continents, according to the website. But there is a reason for the name.

"Calling it the ‘All-Ireland’ keeps Ireland at the centre of this world, and for competitors within Ireland there is no higher accolade than to win the competition. For musicians and performers from the diaspora, in particular the USA and the UK, these first, second, third, fourth generation Irish people treat the trip to Ireland almost as a pilgrimage in many cases - a coming 'home'.

"But of course, there are also many musicians without national or ethnic ties to Ireland that participate in Irish music and dance culture for the love of it. President Michael D Higgins calls such people members of the 'affinity diaspora'. In all of these cases, participants are representing their interpretation of Irish culture, looking back to the past and ploughing new furrows into the future.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Ryan Tubridy Show, Riverdance's Morgan Bullock, the first black woman to perform in the touring show speaks to Brendan Courtney

"Irish culture is rich and ever-changing and the Fleadh as an institution is right at the centre, both in terms of preserving tradition and also providing non-competitive contexts where 'Irish' culture can be explored."

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann first took place in 1951 in Mullingar, established by the non-profit Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the country's largest traditional cultural organisation. When the festival began more than 70 years ago, it was against the backdrop of a decline in popularity of traditional Irish music, a picture we would hardly recognise today.

Just a few hundred people attended in the early years, but with more than half a million people attending now and with competitors and spectators arriving from far and wide, it's now the world's largest annual celebration of Irish music, language, song and dance. It's also a guaranteed economic boom for local businesses in the host town.

"Feeling like one belongs to something bigger is a huge draw."

Although the event has grown and developed enormously over the decades, the essence of the Fleadh hasn't changed and hosting the festival leaves a legacy in every town, says Kieran Hanrahan, lecturer in Music at the Conservatory of Music and Drama in TU Dublin and presenter of RTÉ Radio 1's weekly Céilí House. "I used to compete in the early to mid 70s myself, it was always part of our musical upbringing," says the former All-Ireland banjo champion. "There’s an energy about it. You could get three generations playing music."

Yes, there are competitions to discover who are All-Ireland champions and who are not, but "it is really about a coming-together of traditional musicians from across thew world," says Hanrahan. "Going back the years, so many people come from England, the States, Japan, or Germany, or Holland, but they would have this annual meeting and it was a reassurance and a comfort blanket almost for people playing traditional music, that they’d meet up this one time the year. No matter whenever else they met, they’d certainly meet at the Fleadh."

Traditional Irish music and dance have long been a part of our national and cultural identity, but perhaps it was with the Folk Revival in culturally similar countries like the USA and the UK that "people began to see Irish music and dance culture as truly signifying the nation in particular ways amongst the people themselves and not just through the intelligentsia," says Dillane. It was during this period of time — through the 1950s and 1960s — that Comhaltas was established to promote and preserve Irish traditional music.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Paul Brady talks about the new documentary looking at the trad and folk scene in 1950's Ireland

"At the local level, Irish traditional music and dance represents a particular type of Irishness to many people, but with our diverse population and cultural practices there are many other cultural forms representing 'Irishness' now because as a nation we are constantly changing and in flux," she says. "This ability to adapt and embrace new structures and sounds is testament to the vibrancy of an Irish culture that is dynamic and inclusive. There is no threat to Irish Traditional Music in this sense. Quite the contrary. There is room for us all."

Dillane says that it is the local branches and volunteer, grass-roots communities that exist within Comhaltas that keep the passion going. "Such cross-age activities ensure that the tradition is passed on and remains alive in communities, or new communities when it is introduced in places where it never existed before, for example, in Japan."

Fleadh Cheoil in Thurles 1965 Credit: RTÉ

"Feeling like one belongs to something bigger is a huge draw." Irish music is a global music and it has been for a long time, she says. "But it would be hard to see the same level of popularity without the infrastructure of Comhaltas and the Fleadh competitions."

"The Fleadh is a kind of cultural magnet, bringing the very best but also those that just want to play for pleasure. So as long as that format persists, the music and its associated culture should thrive too."

The keeping alive of traditional music will inevitably fall to those who come after, so it remains crucial that young people continue to take part.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Ray D'Arcy Show, Liam O'Connor, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive chats with Ray alongside Musician Louise Mulcahy

The growth in interest from young people has been "massive", says Hanrahan. "You'd expect a gathering at the Fleadh, but when you’re out on the road with Céilí House - no matter what county - they used to talk about; Clare is the home of music, or Sliabh Luachra is the home of music, or Donegal, or Sligo — there’s about six counties that were the home of music. But every county now is the home of music."

"I’ve seen that expansion of it." Hanrahan says the National Folk Orchestra is the most visible manifestation of young people’s continued engagement with traditional music, with around 60 musicians aged 18 to 27, representing most counties in Ireland.

"They just get together to play music. It’s just amazing. But when you see that youth and that vibrancy, you’d say, if the forefathers of Comhaltas saw the outcome of their early work, they’d be very, very pleased."

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The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is "coming home" to Mullingar from July 31 to August 8 2022. RTÉ Radio 1's Céilí House will be broadcasting live from the Fleadh on Saturday August 6 with some of the newly crowned all-irelands champions.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ