Speech at the launch of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2022
Mullingar, 31st July, 2022
Ar mo shon féin agus ar son mo bhean chéile, Saidhbhín, tá áthas an domhain orm, agus is mór an phribhléid í a bheith anseo arís agus muid ag cur Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2022 ar an tsaoil, agus an bhfuil áit níos fearr sin a dhéanamh ná an áit ina bhunaíodh Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann I 1951, An Muileann gCearr?
[On behalf of myself and my wife, Sabina, I am delighted, and it is a great privilege to be here again as we launch the All-Ireland Fleadh 2022, and is there any better place to do that than the place where the All-Ireland Fleadh was founded in 1951, Mullingar?]
Traoslaím le gach uile duine atá ag cabhrú leis an togra tábhachtach seo agus go háirithe le brainse Mhuileann gCearr de Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Coiste Gnó na Fleidhe, Comhairle Contae na hIarmhí agus gach duine atá ag cabhrú libh.
[I would like to pay tribute to everyone who is helping with this important project, especially the Mullingar Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the Fleadh Executive Committee, Westmeath County Council, and everyone who is helping.]
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is the world’s largest annual celebration of Irish music, language, song and dance. It attracts in the region of 500,000 visitors every year. And may I say what a joy it is to all of us to be able to celebrate the Fleadh once again in person, i gcomhluadar ár gcairde in atmaisféar an cheoil agus an traidisiúin.
Having had to hold virtual events for the past two years owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, we appreciate all the more putting the great experiences of our Irishness without borders that the Fleadh represents i lár an aonaigh.
While it is a joy to see so many well-known artists performing – Martin Hayes and the Common Ground Ensemble, Sharon Shannon, The Bridge Céilí Band, Daithí Gormley, Frankie Gavin and Catherine McHugh, Téada, IMAR, Seamus Begley, Sean Keane and Emmett Cahill, Anúna, Kilfenora Céilí Band, Damien Mullane, Moxie, Four Winds, Meitheal Orchestra, The Blackwater, Breaking Trad and The Full Set to name but a few – perhaps the most important events are the 150 competitions where people from all over the world compete at different levels through music, song, dance and Comhrá Gaeilge.
The Fleadh offers a diversity of experiences, including two ‘Gig Rigs’ in the town, lots of street performances and cultural events in various venues throughout the town including Scoil Éigse, a school that provides workshops, lectures and sessions during the week of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.
This Mullingar Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann has been named ‘The Homecoming’ because of the enormous Comhaltas history that attaches to Mullingar, the county town of Westmeath. Without a doubt, one of the most significant musical and cultural events to take place in Westmeath was the founding of Comhaltas in Mullingar in 1951. Westmeath people were front and central to this development and continue to be so.
It was not an easy time. Between 1955 and 1960 more than 40,000 people were leaving Ireland each year, mostly to England. Many brought the music with them, and it was, and would remain, their connection to home.
The first Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann was held in Mullingar in 1951, and in 1953 Athlone was the host town. These were small events but within a decade, by 1963, when Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann returned to Mullingar, the scene was transformed, and the gathering was huge.
Events such as the Fleadh were not without controversy, the anticipation of trouble. When the Bishop of Meath officially opened the Fleadh Cheoil on Whit Weekend in 1963, he had no idea of what he was unleashing!
He need not have worried. What was being unleashed was a wonderful initiative that would never be let go. Any event which brought such notable musicians as Barney McKenna, Finbarr Furey, Bobby Gardiner, Joe Burke and Martin Burns to play in free-for-all street sessions could not be constituted as anything other than a success.
From 1963 onwards, many towns have gone on to successfully host Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, some indeed on numerous occasions, and it is all these collective efforts that have grown the Fleadh to what it is today – one of Europe’s foremost cultural festivals.
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those in Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, past and present, for their hard work throughout the decades in not only keeping the flame alight, but bringing it to generation after generation at home and abroad.
Inniu is cóir dúinn ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar an gcaoi go bhfuil an Fleadh Cheoil ní h-amháin fós ar siúl i ndiaidh níos mó ná seachtó bliain, ach ag leathnú, agus is féidir libh a bheith mórálach as an tslí go bhfuil cáil ar a héachtaí tuillte ar fud an domhain.
[Today let us all celebrate how the Fleadh Cheoil has been running for over 70 years and how its achievements are known and appreciated the world over.]
The Fleadh this year will help us continue the celebration of our cultural heritage, and I know that it will be a focal point for music followers, the Irish diaspora, and those loyal followers and participants in Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann from year to year. That it continues to provide valuable performance opportunities for musicians and performers who have been starved of their natural environment during Covid – namely live performance – is such an important contribution.
The arts and culture sector has been impacted so severely as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. As we regain the opportunity to engage in and relish many of the vital social and cultural aspects of our lives, let us take time to consider the importance of artists, musicians and cultural practitioners to our lives as a source of enrichment, and a celebration of shared citizenship.
As a nation with a particularly rich arts and culture tradition, we in Ireland look to live music, and indeed the wider arts, for personal and social fulfilment, as a source of age-old wisdom and understanding, and as a means of resonating with each other and the world itself.
A fact that has impressed me more and more over the years is the generosity with which musicians at the Fleadh welcome new practitioners to sessions, and the impressive musicality of musicians giving the sources of their pieces. It is impressive as it is unique in modern culture.
Let us take this opportunity to recall, too, those music-makers we sadly lost during the pandemic, including Dennis Cahill, Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains and the accordion player Tony McMahon, to name just three.
We remember, too, Ashling Murphy the young Irish primary school teacher and traditional Irish musician who was taken from us earlier this year so tragically.
Volunteerism and generosity of spirit are the cornerstones of Comhaltas, and such values are manifest at the Fleadh. Its network of branches and events are underpinned by a core of upwards on 50,000 volunteers. Each of these individuals plays a part in ensuring the vibrancy of the traditional living arts and sharing its appreciation with the upcoming generation of performers.
The Fleadh, the Comhaltas branch network worldwide, and the various Comhaltas events and activities throughout Ireland and abroad continue to connect us to our larger Irish diaspora. Among the many artists who will visit Mullingar are the descendants of Irish emigrants who are now numbered among the virtuoso musicians of the global traditional music community. The music, song, dance and Irish language, which were such cohesive forces within Irish communities abroad, continue to strengthen our diaspora today while contributing to that deep well of tradition here in Ireland itself.
In bringing our heritage to the furthest corners of the world, the diaspora has in turn reflected back to us aspects of this heritage, including our music, song and dance, with re-energising variations and new interpretations.
Also and most welcome among the participants and visitors at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2022 are those who have neither ancestral nor geographic links to Ireland, but who may have developed a kinship with the Irish through culture and our folk traditions with a curiosity that we all welcome.
We extend a special Fíorchaoin Fáilte to you. We acknowledge in a special way the inspiration that your musicianship and your insights bring to us, and importantly the effort to reflect our traditions back to us in ways that are truly imaginative.
Music matters so much to us as a nation. It is an artistic medium on which we place a high cultural value. It features so centrally in our history and culture, offers such a deep source of emotional sustenance, resonating profoundly with so many of us from all walks of life, of all ages, at home and abroad.
Despite pressures, including globalising forces that push a drive to homogeneity in taste and content for monopolised market advantage, and a dramatically changed industry that carries too much of these tendencies, Irish music has survived, refused to be quenched, travelled, has been enhanced and come back again.
Music is one of the most vital forms of expression, arguably the most powerful, enabling us to delve into our history, to tell our stories, to reflect on every aspect of life – love, death, the everyday pursuit of happiness, and also to come together in moments of celebration, whether within families, among friends or on significant occasions.
From its ability to affect our emotions and memories to the way it has no borders, unites people, music is perhaps the universal lingua franca, communicating emotions and memories that words often cannot.
Ó thús ama, mar Ghaeil, tá stádas an chumadóra cheoil agus an déantóir cheoil oirmhinnithe againn mar cheann ársa, urramach. Faoi Ré na hArd agus Meánaoise Déanaí, bhíodh na hannála Éireannacha ag lua ceoltóirí dúchasacha. Go deimhin, in Annála na gCeithre Máistrí, rinneadh taifead I 921RC (Roimh Chríost), de bhás Chú Chongalta, sagart Lann-Léire, an ‘tethra’ nó óráidí na hÉireann ó thaobh gutha, foirme pearsanta, agus eolais de.
[We Irish have from the earliest times revered the status of the composer and music-maker as an ancient and honorific one. By the High and Late Medieval Era, the Irish annals were listing native musicians. Indeed, in the Annals of the Four Masters, the death in 921BC of Cú Congalta, priest of Lann-Léire, the ‘tethra’ or orator of Ireland for voice, personal form and knowledge, is recorded.]
Then too in our archives are records of the death in 1011 of Connmhach Ua Tomhrair, priest and chief singer of Cluain-mic-Nois, while in 1168 the death of Amhlaeibh Mac Innaighneorach, chief ollamh in harp-playing, is recorded.
In traditional and folk music in particular, we have an extraordinary body of unique and brilliant Irish art and artistry: powerful songs and moving melodies, laments that draw on the deepest emotions, and playful tunes that encourage a smile and dance – and perhaps even to throw caution to the wind.
It is not in mere monetary or economic terms that we have valued the work of our musicians or composers. The beauty, the joy – and the irrefutable cultural importance – of what our musicians collectively give to us is, I believe, immeasurable. It is of the spirit.
In Covid times, more than almost any others in Irish society, performing artists were among the most impacted from the pandemic and the restrictions imposed. The truth is that it has been a dreadful time for our musicians who have been stifled, cut off from their audiences, unable to fulfil their creative aspirations, or to earn a living by playing their music live for the people on the stage to a rapt audience.
Let us this afternoon, and throughout the Fleadh, see this special occasion as a moment for us all to pause, and to think of musicians and performers all over Ireland, and to express our gratitude for what they do for us all year, every year. Let us show our appreciation of how much they contribute to Ireland, and to the positive perception of Ireland they create throughout the world as a nation of music-lovers and music-makers.
It is notable that Irish traditional music has remained vibrant, has evolved through the 20th and into the 21st century, drawing from its migrant experiences, reflecting the cultural setting of Irish destinations and, despite globalising cultural forces, retained the distinctive fundamentals of its genre while allowing the enrichment of contact with other cultures.
We must never forget how indebted we are to the people who have gone before us, who worked unstintingly to promote and keep traditional Irish music alive across the country. The appreciation of music-makers and performers is very much still with us, and in all the genres.
Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, I am forever proud of the rich, emerging Irish music scene that such a background made possible which contains artists across all genres – including folk, country, pop, rock, and hip-hop – who continue to make their own indelible mark, sometimes successfully blending Irish traditional music with other genres for audiences around the world.
Agus muid bailithe ag Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann sa Mhuileann gCearr, lig dúinn ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar cheol traidisiúnta na hÉireann i ngach cruth a thagann sé, agus lig dúinn athcheangail a dhéanamh leis an gceol, agus an tábhacht atá ag baint le taispeántas beo agus muid ag ceiliúradh ár gcairdeas le chéile.
[At the All-Ireland Fleadh in Mullingar, let us celebrate Irish traditional music in all its forms, and let us reconnect with the music, and the importance of live performance, as we celebrate our friendship together].