On Friday the 20th of May, I travelled together with two friends of mine to Scartaglen (Co. Kerry ) to celebrate World Fiddle Day! My friend Christoph (fiddle) had joined me in last year’s World Fiddle Day celebration in Scartaglen and was more than eager to come with me again! His partner Susanne, who plays the guitar, decided to join us as well in the celebrations!
Although World Fiddle Day is – as the name suggests – a world-wide celebration, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to celebrate it in Scartaglen. During the year, leading up to this event, PJ Teahan and his friends organise the ‘Handed Down’ sessions approximately every month. The Handed Down sessions are a combination of lectures and performances by top class musicians who have a strong connection to the musical heritage of, in particular, Sliabh Luachra.
Even though Scartaglen is quite a distance away from Holland, I attended several of these events. One of the last ones I attended featured a lecture by Matt Cranitch on button-accordeon legend Jackie Daly, of which you can read a write-up here.
The trip on Friday went very smoothly even though we had to get up a bit early to reach our 9:20 AM flight. It is about 1h40m of flying and taking the time difference into account, you’ll be fresh at the airport in Cork at 10am. We hopped in the car and arrived safely in Castleisland a little past noon.
It just so happened that the owner of the B&B had a spare fiddle in the house ( I didn’t bring my own fiddle ) and of course I couldn’t resist giving the fiddle a bit of a run. It was a very nice fiddle so Christoph and I played some tunes together for a while – all in the living room of the B&B. The owner actually encouraged us to pick up the fiddle anytime we want; she was sure the guests wouldn’t mind ( but we didn’t put that theory to the test ).
Friday evening – presentation on Maida Mcquinn
Part of the World Fiddle Day schedule was a presentation by Matt Cranitch on Maida Mcquinn who had personally had fiddle lessons from Padraig O’Keeffe – the Sliabh Luachra fiddle master – when she was young. This presentation was given in O’Riada’s bar in Ballymacelligot, just a couple of minutes away from Castleisland.
Matt Cranitch gave an interesting exposition of Maida’s life, who was actually born in Ballymacelligot and emigrated to Chicago when she was young. There she came into contact with another well-known musician, Terry ‘Cuz’ Teahan.
In October, during her visit to the Padraig O’Keeffe festival, John Reidy from the Main Valley Post conducted an interview with her and created a short documentary. This documentary was played after Matt’s introduction. It is a very personal portrait where she recounts her memories of Padraig O’Keeffe and Cuz Teahan. The documentary can be seen by following this link.
After the presentation, we stayed to listen to the session which started right there in O Riada’s bar. Among the players in the session were family of Maida as well as many other musicians like Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Paul de Grae, Paudie O’Connor and many more. Indeed, the music was so lively that people couldn’t resist and just had to get up and dance!
A particularly special moment came later in the evening when two young girls – Caoimhe Flannery (15yo, fiddle) and Eimhear Flannery (12yo, tin whistle) – were each asked to play a tune by themselves. Both girls have already won several prices in traditional music competitions and we could tell by both the music and the silence… The moment Eimhear started to play the tin whistle, the entire bar and indeed the restaurant became as quiet as a mouse to hear the music. After that, her sister played a gorgeous reel that was played with great passion and had some lovely variations. It was absolutely fantastic to hear these girls play!
At about 23:30 we realised that it we had been up for quite some time and that it was time to go to bed. After all, World Fiddle Day hadn’t even started!!
Saturday – World Fiddle Day opening
World Fiddle Day celebrations officially commenced in Scartaglen on the Saturday at noon. The kick off was in Lyons Bar which has an historic connection to Padraig OKeeffe. Padraig would often frequent this bar and played his fiddle and share his witty humour with the fellow patrons.
The opening of World Fiddle Day was done by the unveiling of some rare colour photographs of Padraig O’Keeffe that had recently been discovered by pure chance. These colour photographs were taken by Jim Griffith of Tucson, Arizona in August 1957, when he visited Lyons Bar with Seamus Ennis to meet Padraig. It is by coincidence that these photographs returned to Clare where Jackie Daly recognised Padraig on them. You can read some more about the unveiling of the photographs and the history behind them at the Main Valley Post.
The unveiling of the photographs, hanging prominently on the wall of Lyons Bar, World Fiddle Day was officially opened and a big session started in the pub itself. The session was made up predominantly of fiddle players but also featured the button-accordeon playing of Jackie Daly and Aidan Coffey.
At 2 PM, a small exhibition of historic memorabilia and posters relating to the old Scartaglen Fleadh Ceoil was opened in the Heritage centre. It was opened by Bryan O’Leary (box) and Niamh McSweeney (concertina) who are the grandschildren of Johnny O’Leary and Mikey Duggan – two well-known Sliabh Luachra musicians who played an integral part in the musical history.
In the afternoon one had the choice of going to a recital by American fiddler Skip Gorman and singer Connie Dover or head into town to enjoy some of the spontaneous sessions throughout the 3 bars in Scartaglen. I chose to go to have a listen at the various sessions where many fiddle players could be heard.
Each year, a photograph of all fiddlers who travelled to Scartaglen is made by the statue of Padraig O’Keeffe… as one can imagine in Ireland, timing had to be just right to have all the fiddlers pose at the statue in between two rain showers! While we were all at the statue, we collectively played two sets of tunes; the first, a set of slides and the second set the Ballydesmond polka’s. Hearing the music come from so many fiddlers at once was a great experience! And we all succeeded in staying dry during our photoshoot!
Jullia Clifford tribute
Next up on the program was a tribute to the Sliabh Luachra fiddle-icon Julia Clifford, which was presented by Máire O’Keeffe. Special guest of honor at this tribute was her son Billy Clifford who is a distinguished flute player himself. After having recounted some stories of his mother and her fiddle playing, all fiddle players joined in playing a great selection of tunes associated with Julia’s playing.
The evening program was split in two: in the first part Peter Browne from the RTE music radio program ‘The Rolling Wave‘ gave a presentation on Padraig O’Keeffe in combination with archive recordings. It was great to be able to hear Padraig’s voice on one of these recordings: deep and dark, unlike anything I had expected. Apart from Padraig O’Keeffe himself, archive footage contained interviews and clips from people who knew him like Paddy Cronin.
After the talk, we went straight into the highlight of the evening, which was an all-fiddle concert! No less than 16 fiddle players in various combinations (duet, trio, quartet) played a variety of tunes for the audience. There was a fantastic turnout for this event as there was no seat left in the theatre! I really do think that this is one of the best type of concerts for World Fiddle Day: all fiddles and no accompaniment so that the beauty of the fiddles can be appreciated to its fullest extend!
The night ended with all fiddle-players playing a set of reels together on stage to end the evening with a blast!
It is probably no surprise that all the fiddle-players and the audience quickly dispersed to the neighbouring bars to continue the music into the wee hours of dawn! For us, the events of the day had taken its toll and we quietly headed back to our B&B for some good night sleep.
The next morning at breakfast, we noticed that some of the fiddle players who performed during the concert were staying in our B&B. No surprise then that after breakfast, fiddle music could be heard coming from several rooms: yes, life is good in Ireland!
After having said goodbye to some friends in the Sunday session, we went back to Cork Airport to go back home.
All in all we had a superb weekend in Scartaglen and our thanks go to all people who made this event possible! We are looking forward to next years celebration!