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Speech at the opening of the 2019 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann

Drogheda Sunday 11th August 2019

A Dhaoine Uaisle,


A Chairde Gael,


Cuireann sé áthas an domhain orm a bheith anseo i nDroichead Átha arís chun oscailt Fhleadh Cheoil na hÉireann a cheiliúradh, agus í ocht bliain agus trí scór d’aois. Is ócáid thábhachtach í an Fhleadh Cheoil ar fhéilire cultúrtha na hÉireann, nuair a thagann muid le chéile agus cuireann muid fáilte roimh cuairteoirí ó gach cearn den domhan.  Cuairteoírí dúinn atá tagtha anseo leis an ceol, an amhránaíocht, an damhsa agus an teanga Ghaelach a cheiliúradh.


[It is a great pleasure to be here in Drogheda once more to celebrate the opening of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, now in its 68th year. The Fleadh Cheoil is a significant and special celebratory event in Ireland’s cultural calendar, a time when we come together and welcome so many visitors from around the world who have come to celebrate our Irish music, song, dance and language.]


Fleadhanna Ceoil may have started out as 1-day events, but they quickly expanded, so that the current Fleadh has been extended to some 10 days.  It was in the 1960s, that folk music reached a peak in popularity, not unrelated to the 250,000 Irish people who emigrated between 1955 and 1960.  The genre is one of endless reinvention, and the resurgence in recent times in 1960s Ireland is part of that continuous development and expression.  The growth of the Fleadhanna Ceoil are clearly testament to that folk music renaissance and one of the happy consequences of the growth in local Comhaltas music classes. These classes in their early days were the foundation, na bun clocha, for the revival of Irish traditional music and, in recent times, they are bringing it an ever-expanding audience, with pupils from all backgrounds and circumstances encouraged to go on to participate in the Fleadhannna.


The happy result is, of course, that the increase in the numbers of young people playing traditional Irish music has grown in tandem with the increased popularity of the Fleadhanna.




Last year Drogheda hosted half a million people at the Fleadh, the numbers confounding all expectations. The Fleadh is, thus, truly an event where communities meet and interact, an occasion and a space which strengthens understandings of our native Irish traditional culture and enhances local and national pride in who we are as a nation, not only on an all-island basis but globally wherever Irish people have set down and where and how the best and most imaginative aspects of our Irishness are celebrated.


Coming nearer home, the Drogheda branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann was founded 50 years ago in William Street, just a stone’s throw from where we are today. The founding members were three fiddle players:  Roger Ryan from Clare, Tom Kavanagh from Mayo, and Brother Forrestal from Wexford who was a teacher here in the local CBS. If it were not for the enthusiasm and foresight of these lovers of music in their generation, we would not be standing here today welcoming Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann to Drogheda for the second year in succession.


An event like this, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, of course requires enormous planning and commitment, and its success is based on the collaborations and interactions of communities, businesses, sponsors and, most of all, leadership from the Fleadh Executive Committee and Louth County Council. The support and financial input from Fáilte Ireland, the Credit Union, and local businesses, is what makes it possible, and the success it has proven to be.


The volunteering that underpins the success of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, as it approaches its 70th year in existence, is at the heart of the Fleadh. Volunteers give willingly of what is their most precious resource. They offer their time, skills and experience, contributing to an event that makes a difference for all the public. This is an Ireland towards which one can aspire: an inclusive Ireland of which not only our founders but future generations can be proud, communities working together, informed by a profound spirit of generous humanity and collective solidarity, focused on the experiential rather than on insatiable consumption.


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 in Drogheda and the surrounding area. We remember especially today John Watts, Leas-Cathaoirleach of Drogheda Comhaltas, who sadly passed away recently. John was one of the main people involved in bringing Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann to Drogheda, having worked tirelessly over the years to bring the Fleadh to his adopted town. He was so proud to see his dream come to fruition here last year.


Beidh ceiliúradh ar an ceol, amhránaíocht, damhsa, scéalaíocht agus teanga dhúchais Ghaelach anseo sna laethanta amach romhainn, ag inbhear na Bóinne i nDroichead Átha, agus ag croí-lár cúig míle bliain stairiúil i nGleann na Bóinne agus Brú na Bóinne. Cuireann Fleadh 2019 le leanúnachas an traidisiúin Airgíalla, a mbíodh cláirseoirí, ceoltóirí agus scoláirí Ghealach mar cuid dó.


[Over the next 10 days, our native Irish traditional music, song, dance, storytelling and language will be celebrated here, at the mouth of the majestic River Boyne in Drogheda and in the heart of the 5,000 years of history at Boyne Valley and Brú na Bóinne. Fleadh 2019 will become part of the continuation of the Oriel Tradition, which included harpers, musicians, poets and Gaelic scholars.]


Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann is both a national and an international cultural movement, promoting traditional Irish music and culture in all its forms, providing opportunities for all ages to enjoy and participate in the traditions that have been passed down through the generations, while continually extending its connections with the Irish Diaspora.


An organisation which started in Mullingar in 1951, it has branches and affiliates throughout the world. The established overseas Comhaltas networks in the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia are now joined by those in Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Russia and, nearer to home, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland.


You will be given the opportunity of experiencing the fruits of this internationalism. I have been informed that a Céilí Band from Japan, set dancers from the former Czechoslovakia, a harmonica player from the Netherlands, and a flute player from Singapore competed with the annual qualifiers from North America, Britain and Ireland in the various 180-plus Fleadh competitions. Fleadh 2019 will also continue to bridge communities, following on from the historic Fleadh 2013 in Doire Colmchille, where different traditions found common ground through melodies and cultural engagement.


It is interesting to consider, on such an auspicious occasion as this, why it is that we Irish place such a high cultural value on music. Related to this, why is it that music features so centrally in our history and culture? Why does it continue in the present day to be such a deep source of emotional sustenance, resonating profoundly with so many of us from all walks of life, of all ages?


The answers to such questions are of course complex, requiring detailed analysis and more time than I have today to expound, but I suggest, if I may, that music has been, and continues to be, a particularly important form of expression and communication for Irish people. It is through music that we are enabled to celebrate and to mourn, to dance and to sing, to come together, but also to be defiantly proud of our distinctive and unique culture, to let ourselves for a while escape the mundane and achieve a renewal by what may have the appearance of being ephemeral, but is in fact deeply resonant.


Traditional Irish music is played using a variety of instruments, many of which are indigenous, including the bodhran, the fiddle, the harp, the tin whistle and the uilleann pipes. Irish musical history is indeed a rich and proud one, having remained vibrant through the 20th and into the 21st century, drawing from its migrant experiences and, despite globalising cultural forces, retained the distinctive fundamentals of its genre. This is in spite of emigration and a well-developed interaction with musical influences from Britain and America. Irish traditional music has secured and enhanced its elements while influencing many forms of music, such as country and roots music, which in turn have had influence on modern rock and popular music.


The status of the composer and music-maker is 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 singer/orator of Ireland for voice, personal form and knowledge is recorded. There are also 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.


The appreciation of music-makers and performers is very much still with us, and in all the genres. In more modern times, influential folk groups such as The Dubliners, and singer-songwriters like Christy Moore and the late Luke Kelly, who sang of life stories and the history of the Irish people, retain a hallowed place in our culture.


Other internationally renowned Irish folk performers such as Mary Black, Lisa Hannigan, Eleanor McEvoy, Sharon Shannon, Paul Brady, Damien Rice, Dolores Keane, Andy White, Declan O’Rourke and Damien Dempsey, and The Corrs to name but a few, have made their own indelible mark. Artists such as Clannad and Enya, would become, perhaps, the leaders in blending traditional Irish music and Celtic New Age, while Van Morrison, over an astonishing five-decade career, would fuse soul, R&B, rock, folk and Celtic genres to wonderful effect. Other contemporary artists, such as The Cranberries, the Pogues, Sinéad O’Connor, Hothouse Flowers, Mundy, The Frames and Villagers continue in that vein, mixing a successful blend of Irish traditional music with rock for audiences around the world.


Music is one of the most valuable connections we have to a wider world, a world without borders.  It is a wire through which we resonate with the world in all its aspects and its peoples.  During this year’s St Patrick’s Day, Cómhaltas artists performed in Brazil, South Africa, Egypt and Lebanon. I understand that Fleadh 2019 will extend the international dimension, and Drogheda will welcome the first uilleann piper from Brazil to participate at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, a testimony to the worldwide interest in the unique Irish uilleann piping tradition which now has UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.


At the heart of the success Comhaltas and the Fleadh have experienced in recent times is the emphasis placed on ensuring that our young people have access to, and acquire, performance skills in the wide repository of Irish traditional music, song and dance.


Amongst next weekend’s 6,000 competitors, and the 25,000 who competed at 43 County and Provincial level Fleadhanna Ceoil worldwide, are the inspirational virtuoso artists and the custodians of the traditions of the future. They are also creative artists. No two performances are ever the same, for that is the privilege of performance: each is a moment in time and provides contribution to these intangible oral traditions of which Ireland can be so proud.


Of equal importance are the lifelong friendships that are formed during Scoil Éigse’s master classes and between artists who may compete against each other but continue to play together in the informal sessions that are part of the Fleadh, in addition to the Comhaltas weekly music classes that laid the foundation to the vibrancy of the music today.


As young people are increasingly experiencing the world through digital and virtual means, it is reassuring to witness the palpable fulfilment and sense of collegiality these young musicians receive from ‘sharing a tune’ and playing in a session with musicians of all generations. No amount of online social networking can replace such a sense of connection, the intensity of feeling and emotion that comes from playing music, and indeed taking part in wider arts and cultural events.


From its foundation in 1951, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has recognised that a focus on providing a comprehensive teaching and transmission programme was central to the effective preservation, development and promotion of our Irish cultural traditions.


As orally transmitted art forms, all performances, informal or formal, are essential to their survival and to their appropriate placement within a context of community.


This fundamental link between the cultural traditions and community, as cultural assets that belong to the community – expressing the personality and identity of that community over time – is consolidated by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s focus, its emphasis on education.


Today that educational programme comprises Fleadhanna Ceoil, Comhaltas Teastas i dTeagasc Ceolta Tíre, Scrúdú Ceolta Tíre, Scoil Éigse, Concert Tours and other performance opportunities for young artists. At the heart of this programme is the regular community-based Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch music, singing and dancing classes and ongoing promotion of an Ghaeilge mar theanga bheo.


Young musicians and their mentors are the keepers and makers of Irish culture. Their accessibility and volunteerism give them an irreplaceable role in community life, and indeed in cultural tourism which contributes so significantly to our economy. The Comhaltas method of teaching music nurtures a sense of value in place and identity in addition to the music itself, with an emphasis on the importance of participation and enjoyment.


FleadhTV, RTÉ’s Fleadh Cheoil series, the 32 hours of live media broadcast from Drogheda, in addition to over 1 million digital viewers, have consolidated Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann as the premier annual Irish cultural Festival on a national and international platform. The €40 million generated by the Fleadh for the local economy is supplemented by the Fleadh’s inputs into Ireland’s cultural tourism sector.


Luíonn an Ghaeilge go cluthar sa spás cultúrtha seo. Beidh an Ghaeilge mar ghnáth-theanga labhartha beo, le chloisteáil ag ócáidí poiblí an Fhleadh agus i gcomhráite phríobháideacha le linn na ndeich lá romhainn. Tugann Foras na Gaeilge tacaíocht do

Sheachtain na Gaeilge a chuireann gníomhaíochtaí éagsúla ar fáil do gach duine idir óg agus aosta. Agus déanfaidh siad cinnte arís i rith imeachtaithe Seachtain na Gaeilge agus Seachtain na hÉigse go gcuirfidh beocht i n-oidhreacht teangan Ghaeltacht Ó Méith Mara a bhí ann céad bliain ó shin i dtuaisceart na Lú.


[Our native Irish language sits comfortably in this cultural space. Throughout the next 10 days, Irish as a living language will be heard publicly during Fleadh events and in private conversations. Foras na Gaeilge supports Seachtain na Gaeilge which provides multi-faceted activities for all ages, and will again ensure that the linguistic heritage of the Omeath Gaeltacht in North Louth, which existed over 100 years ago, will be brought to life during the Seachtain na Gaeilge and Seachtain na hÉigse events.]


I was especially delighted, given the circumstances we are in, to hear of the great effort that has gone into ensuring that this year’s event will be another Green Fleadh. Continuing on from the greening of previous Fleadhs, the committee in Drogheda undertook a number of sustainability measures, including a Green Fleadh local business programme, a reusable Fleadh beer glass, bike hire, shuttle bus provision, public transport and walking promotion, as well as providing recycling facilities and talks.


Climate change is the great existential challenge of our time, a challenge that requires brave and wise decisions from world leaders, but it is important that we do not lose sight of the many small ways in which we as citizens can make a significant contribution to our shared planet’s global welfare.


May I thank and congratulate the local volunteers, branches of Comhaltas, business communities and the Local Authorities who have come together to put in place these measures that will enable the reduction of waste and carbon emissions, the minimising of water and energy use, and the sustainable sourcing of goods throughout this year’s Fleadh. This is a wonderful initiative, reminding us that, while the Fleadh is rooted in our ancient traditions, culture and memories, it can flourish in a modern and ever-changing Ireland, one that faces its global responsibilities.


Cruthaíonn Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann spás ar leith, ina thárlaíonn an chur láthair foirmeálta agus neamhfhoirmeálta, ina bhfuil plé agus díospóireacht agus áiteanna chruthaitheacha a chothaíonn ár n-ealaíona traidisiúnta. Le Fleadh 2019 tagann aistear fada na ndíograiseoirí áitiúila agus na ngníomhaithe cultúrtha le Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann a thabhairt do Dhroichead Átha chun críoch. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh cuairteoirí agus rannpháirtithe sult as an ceol, an damhsa, na hamhráin, agus na saothar ealaíne eile atá anseo an seachtain ar fad, agus guím gach rath agus beannacht ar Fhleadh 2019.


[Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann provides a unique space for formal and informal performance, for discussion and dialogue, for supportive creative spaces which nurture our traditional artforms. Fleadh 2019 brings the journey by local enthusiasts and cultural activists to take the All-Ireland Fleadh to Drogheda to a celebratory end. I hope visitors and participants will enjoy the Irish music, song, dance and other cultural arts on offer over the week, and I wish Fleadh 2019 every success.]


Go raibh míle maith agaibh.