Kids at the Fleadh Cheoil: ‘I just really enjoy playing music’
In this final weekend of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Sligo, thousands of young people will compete for All Ireland titles. Each recital lasts only minutes, but takes months to prepare
Barry Conaty, from Cavan, who is performing four times at fleadh on flute, tin whistle, piano and duet. Photograph: James Connolly
The music, laughter and craic will be hard to avoid in Sligo town this weekend as more than 250,000 people from all corners of the earth descend for the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Among them are thousands of young people who have one eye on the prize and one foot planted firmly on the ground.
While spontaneous music sessions can spring up at any time, in any place over the weekend, music, song and dance will also be pulsating, albeit in an organised fashion, in Sligo IT and Summerhill College. The venues will host more than 3,000 under-18s as they compete for a host of prestigious all-Ireland titles.
Amid sweat, tears and the occasional broken string, each competitor will eventually take the hot seat. It’s all over in a matter of minutes, but it takes months of hard work and dedication to get there.
Fifteen-year-old Barry Conaty from Cavan town will perform four times during the fleadh, on the flute, tin whistle, piano and in a duet. He began preparing in April, choosing two different tunes for each of the competitions.
The jigs and reels he selected not only have to suit his style of playing, but must also show off his rhythm, ornamentation and tone to the adjudicators. Those tunes helped him beat off stiff competition in both the county and provincial heats earlier this summer.
At Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann he’ll meet the top two winners from every province, and from Britain and North America.
“You have to practise every day,” says Conaty. “I’d do an hour or more every day and leading up to the competition it’s more, maybe twice a day. I know the tunes inside out at this stage, so I have to keep practising them and perfecting them.”
It’s not his first time at the all-Ireland fleadh, and even though Conaty was placed third in the piano last year, the scale of the audience, which often reaches into the hundreds, can still be overwhelming. “It’s nerve-wracking getting up in front of so many people, but it helps calm the nerves to get used to the room for a few minutes and not be out of breath before you play.”
Despite the pressure, he really enjoys the challenge. “I think it’s a good goal. You know you have to have your two tunes perfected by a certain time and it’s something to work towards . . . I just really enjoy playing music.”
For Sinéad Tobin and her sister Mandy O’Callaghan from Craanhill, Co Wexford, the fleadh is the end of a long road that began last October. For the past 10 months they’ve lead a group of 20 children aged eight to 12, of varying musical abilities, up to all-Ireland standard.
“A grupa cheoil is an arrangement of a selection of tunes (jigs, reels, slow airs, hornpipes, etc). You have to have between six and eight minutes of continuous music played on the stage,” explains Tobin.
Nice arrangements, good links between the tunes, perfect harmonies and pitch perfect tuning are what make a quality group.
The sisters left nothing to chance in a competition where the standard is high and the difference between first and second place can often be as small as half a mark. They always keep a sub in the group in case of emergency, while preparation involved meeting two to three times a week, along with members practising individually at home.
It’s 11-year-old Katie Cunningham’s second year with the Craanhill group. “I like being in the band. You learn a variety of tunes, and Sinéad makes learning fun. She just takes each tune bit by bit and she runs through all the variations or little bits that people might get stuck on, so that everybody is comfortable.”
It’s a strategy that paid off for the Wexford children as early as the county fleadh in May, when they presented as a group of well-polished musicians who had improved significantly since October. Being part of a grupa cheoil has had a huge impact on their musical ability.
“If you have two kids that are playing music and one of them is in a grupa cheoil and one isn’t, you’ll see the one in the group progressing 10 times faster because they have to learn the tune off by heart,” says Tobin.
“They have to listen and learn to play in a group; they have to know when they are coming in and going out. If they are playing harmonies they have to listen for themselves as well as the tune. It’s a huge advantage to their music.”
At all-Ireland level, it’s usual for many of the finalists to be involved in a number of competitions. Cunningham is no exception. Along with the grupa cheoil, she’s also dancing, playing piano accompaniment and participating in a trio.
She appears to take it all in her stride. “Everyone I’m sure will be a bit nervous, but we’re representing our branch and it’s a great achievement,” she says. “It’s not about winning, but we’ll play our best and if we get placed we get placed and if we don’t we had great fun and experience.”
Giving a good performance is the main focus for 17-year-old Colm Slattery, who will be competing in both the button accordion and the melodeon in the 15-18 age group. Slattery, from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, is well used to the spotlight and the pressures of the all-Ireland, having competed at the top level every year since 2009. He has more than 10 all-Ireland medals to his name, a mix of firsts and seconds, but still returns each year to prove his worth.
“It’s just to see if you can win it the following year really . . . It’s unbelievable to think that you’re the best at what you do in Ireland I suppose.”
Slattery admits he didn’t go overboard with practising, giving it about 40 minutes each day. “If you’re playing too much before the competition you’d get sick of your tunes. But you’d be in sessions every week so that’d keep you playing, and I’d often just sit down and play away tunes that I have in my head, just to stop going rusty.”
Stage fright won’t be an issue for him over the weekend, he says, as he has become used to performing in front of a crowd. “I just go in and give it a lash and whatever happens, happens. It’s all just the judges’ opinion on the day and what they think, what they like. Once the competitions are over I can still go out and play in a session. No one is going to look at you any different really.”
Playing in music sessions, meeting old friends and making new ones from all over the world are a big part of the attraction for the young people who play traditional music.
“I’d have probably dropped it long ago if I hadn’t made any friends out of it or gone to sessions. The social side is the best bit of it,” says Slattery. He is looking forward to competing as much as he is playing a few reels with old friends, and even fellow competitors, well into the early hours of the morning.