Trad’s slow-burning winter warmer

Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy has been drawing students from around the world for two decades. Now the winter school’s driving forces, who include Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, are handing on the baton

Through good times and bad, Ireland has never wanted for festivals. Traditional music is awash with gatherings: fleadhanna, summer schools, sessions and formal concerts see traditional musicians making their own of tunes and songs that in many instances have been with us for centuries, as well as playing an increasing proportion of new compositions. Attendance at folk-music concerts has jumped by 18 per cent in a year, according to the Arts Council and Temple Bar Cultural Trust – not bad in a recession.

In Co Donegal a slow-burning event has been drawing young music students and music lovers from around the country, as well as from as far away as Japan, the US, Canada and Britain, over the past two decades. Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy, or the Frankie Kennedy Winter School, has consistently punched above its weight with its live performances. Many musicians view it as their end-of-year retreat: a place to replenish their energy and refresh sometimes sagging repertoires. The result can be magical. One Christmas, for example, the fiddler Tommy Peoples give a twilight recital in Old Dunlewy Church, overlooking the Poisoned Glen and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was an intimate occasion with a striking lack of ego.

Frankie Kennedy was a Belfast flute player and founding member of Altan. The winter school was established in his name after his death, from cancer, in 1994. It has flourished thanks in no small part to the commitment of Kennedy's brother-in-law, Gearóid Ó Maonaigh; Kennedy's widow, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, of Altan; and, more recently, the festival's organiser, Conor Byrne.

A key feature of the winter school is its classes in eight instruments, including flute, fiddle, concertina and pipes, alongside children’s workshops and singing and dancing classes. A hothouse for young musicians, it has borne fruit in unanticipated ways.

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“The amount of young musicians now that are household names who started off at the first winter school” – the Friel Sisters, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, Liam O’Connor and Seán McKeon, among others – “is a huge tribute to everybody who was involved in the classes and the concerts,” says Ní Mhaonaigh.

The mix of classes, sessions and concerts is unique to traditional music. Classical, jazz and other genres rarely seem to combine the learning of music with its performance. (Sligo Jazz Project is a terrific exception.)

Howard Chu, who is from Los Angeles, first picked up a fiddle at the age of 25. He has travelled to Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy since 1999. “It was an amazing party,” Chu says about his first visit. “It was overwhelming, because I found myself in this place, meeting musicians who I’d been idolising for the past few years. I was amazed and awed. So for the next three years I returned and attended classes.”

Such was Chu’s connection with the music that two years ago he moved to Donegal, where he now plays sessions several times a week.

"It's certainly a change of life from Los Angeles," he says. "I love it, you know. I can remember so many magical concerts from the Frankie Kennedy Winter School. In 2000, the year of the massive snow storm, lots of musicians couldn't get to Donegal, and one of the impromptu concerts was with Paddy Glackin and Donal Lunny. The music that night was amazing. I still remember that so clearly."

This year’s school will be the last one, largely because of funding difficulties. Ní Mhaonaigh stresses the need to pass the torch on – and to free the organisers and board of their responsibilities, which have monopolised their Christmases for the past 20 years. Given the way the school has knitted itself into the fabric of life in Bunbeg and Gweedore, she believes that new blood and new thinking will invigorate the next stage of the school’s existence, under a new name and with a new organising committee.

“It was very intimate from the word go,” Ní Mhaonaigh says. “It was very important that everything was closely knit and that everyone could mix. Cór Chumann Gaoth Dobhair are going to take over the winter school as a winter school, but not in Frankie’s name, from next year. They’re already running fantastic workshops here. I’m very happy that it’s not the end of something, either. It’s time to make this decision. It’s important to bring in new blood and new ideas.”

Harry Bradley, a Belfast flute player, has long taught at the winter school. "Frankie opened up new vistas in flute playing, not only in repertoire but in the way he interpreted the music of Donegal. To be able to pass on some of those tunes to people from all over the world at the winter school . . . There has always been a really good feeling of community there. One of the strengths of traditional music is that level of access, that egalitarian thing where people can sit down together in an Irish pub, which is a great levelling environment anyway.

“You can get right up close to musicians who’ve spent hours and years honing a particular style. It means you can get up close and hear it in its most immediate form. That’s what drew me to the music: hearing the music up close, and being inspired by it.”

Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy runs from December 27th to January 1st. frankiekennedy.com