Gradam Ceoil Awards reveal a tradition in good health

The annual traditional music awards recognise individual talent in traditional music while also acknowledging that today’s stars are part of a greater coalition


There’s a certain coming of age evident in this year’s TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards: a recognition of the complexity of contributions that knit the tradition together.

Athough the solo player has always occupied a central place in traditional music, there’s an implicit recognition that all musicians and singers are hoisted on the shoulders of their forebears, and that, at its heart, this is music of the people by the people for the people. Five of the seven awards this year go to musicians, composers and organisations that embody that sense of coalition: each trying to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Kevin Burke is the recipient of this year’s Traditional Musician of the Year Award. Burke, a fiddler with an unmistakable Sligo swing to his bow, was a founder member of the Bothy Band and for almost five decades has been kicking over the traces to reveal the music.

“When I first received the news I was both surprised and overwhelmed,” Burke says. “My thoughts then went right back to boyhood and all the generous and spirited people I learned from, many of whom are gone now. That was a time when awards such as this didn’t exist. What would they make of it? A skinny kid from London receiving such an honour for playing Irish fiddle music.”

Orlaith McAuliffe, the TG4 Young Traditional Musician of the Year, is a London-born (to Kerry parents) flute and whistle player who lists among her broad church of influences Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford, Louise Mulcahy, Catherine McEvoy and Séamus Tansey. But it’s in the marriage of flute and whistle styles that McAuliffe has established herself as a true original, both as a player and a composer.

Did growing up in London give her the benefit of an outsider perspective?

“I think I’ve had much more of an opportunity to take what I like from all the different regional styles,” she says. “I’ve been told that I have a kind of Sligo-Roscommon flute style, but I’m trying to learn more polkas and slides now. I actually really like the Kerry style, but I wasn’t as exposed to it when I was younger.”

She is an accomplished composer, and she finds that her musical creativity reaches its peak when she is at her busiest with her medical studies.

“My own compositions tend to come to me when I’m doing something else, like when I’m trying to study. I think my brain likes to unwind from studying by going straight into music. The tunes pretty much come to me fully formed, so I don’t find that I need to do much to them once I have them in my head. I really enjoy composing slower pieces and reels; it’s a good outlet for me,” McAuliffe says.

Musical imprints

Seán McElwaine is the winner of the Collaboration Award for his PhD research into the music of his locality in the foothills of Sliabh Beagh. Having unearthed manuscripts collected by James Whiteside in the 19th century, McElwaine sought “to retrace the musical imprints of the Sliabh Beagh region of Monaghan and Fermanagh, seeking to reunite material recovered from unpublished music manuscripts and archival recordings with some of the region’s current traditional musicians”.

“Tony MacMahon spoke about all music being local,” he says. “That local and regional flavour is very important to people who come from the strong musical regions, but there’s also a lot of musical activity that takes place outside of those areas. And that’s what was very important to me: to get a greater sense of my own local musical identity.”

Local cultural archivist Eamonn Murray was central to his research. As far back as 1935 Murray noted that “each passing year sees another and yet another of the old folk to the grave, and in nine instances out of 10, they bring with them to the chill confines of the clay a tune and maybe more than one, of which they had sole custody”.

Local tradition

The recording and release of the CD of these tunes, played by contemporary musicians, is vital to secure the future of this local tradition, McElwaine says. “Music is great when it’s written down, but it’s so much better when it’s played. There’s a great nucleus of musicians playing around that Border area of Monaghan, Fermanagh and Tyrone, so it’s lovely to be able to put that music back in to circulation and reconnect the two traditions.”

This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner is the redoubtable Arty McGlynn, a guitarist, producer and all-round musical genius. McGlynn has a rich history, having played with a Dixieland band and then a showband for many years, followed by rightful acclaim for his seminal 1979 solo recording McGlynn’s Fancy, not to mention his work with Van Morrison. McGlynn quickly found himself in considerable demand when he dipped his toe in to traditional music. Trading Basin Street Blues for Carolan’s Draught, he has worked with everyone from Paul Brady to Liam Ó Floinn and Paddy Keenan.

“My father always told me, ‘Never overstay your céilí,’ ” he says. “I think it’s better to keep moving if you can, without letting anybody down. If you get on well with somebody in a band, it’s better to suggest that you might leave rather than them having to say, ‘Well, Arty, would you mind going?’ Sometimes you just know: I’m here long enough.”

McGlynn’s advice to any young guitarists seeking to make a life in music is unequivocal. “You have to love music. You have to want to play music, and you have to listen to as many different types of music as possible. This country’s full of great guitar players. I’ve played with so many great musicians, and what I’ve found with most musicians is that the higher up the ladder you go, the nicer the people are: very civil, well-mannered people. And that tells its own story.”

  • The TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards will be presented at the Cork Opera House on February 21st at 8pm, broadcasting live at 9.30pm. Tickets from 021-4270022. and


  • Kevin Burke: Traditional Musician of the Year. A fiddler of virtuosic talent and one of the most influential artists in Irish music.
  • Orlaith McAuliffe: Young Musician of the Year. This flute and whistle player is already a much-talked-about performer for her accomplished, energetic, technically faultless and whole-hearted playing.
  • Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It (Seán McElwaine): Musical Collaboration. Shines a new light on the music of the Sliabh Beagh region of Monaghan and Fermanagh.
  • Arty McGlynn: Lifetime Achievement Award. Guitarist who has made a phenomenal contribution to traditional music in Ireland over the past 40 years. His unique accompanying style can be heard in many of the most renowned recordings right through that period.
  • Pól Ó Ceannabháin: Singer of the Year. Has built on the inheritance of the rich sean-nós tradition of his family and locality and enhanced it with his own personal melodic style.
  • 1916 Gael Linn: Special Gradam. Contributed in a special and innovative way to setting the tone for the 50th anniversary commemorations of 1916. Above, chief executive Antoine Ó Coileáin.
  • Cáirde na Cruite (Special Contribution): Spearheaded the revival of interest in the harp, our national symbol and an instrument with a long and proud place in the history of Irish music.
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