Subtle capering on a simple thought,
the vindicated music soaring out
William Butler Yeats will gaze down at many of the fleadh travellers arriving into Sligo over the next few days: you can’t miss him, freshly painted and enormous, looming from the gable wall of a house close to the railway station and the dual-carriageway that intersects the town and carries traffic north towards Donegal.
He’s surreal, impressive in a faintly disturbing way, a kind of still life of frozen literary time. He should stay fine and fresh for next year’s celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Sligo looks brighter these days in anticipation of the 250,000 people expected to visit over the course of the 64th Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann – a recent flutter of flowers and potted plants lend a touch of colour to austere, stone-grey streets. For the next week those streets and the town’s pubs will ring with the sound of reel and jig, hornpipe and slow air; fiddle, flute, whistle and pipes will add another layer of colour to all, the musical tradition of Ireland immeasurably stronger than it was when the first fleadh cheoil was held in Mullingar during the Whit weekend in June 1951.
This year's festival is a much more elaborate and expensive affair than the first straggling efforts to bring together "the cream of traditional musicians from the four corners of Ireland". It's a long way from the Ennis fleadh of the early 1960s captured so brilliantly in Pearse Hutchinson's poem Fleadh Cheoil, with its image of men back from "the trim scaffoldings and grim digs of England", men in dowdy Sunday suits, flashy ties and frumpish hats gathering "to play an ancient music, make it new".
The Sligo fleadh made news for the wrong reasons this week when the organisers handed back the sponsorship money they had accepted from the multinational oil company Shell.
Their move will certainly avert embarrassing public protests at tomorrow’s official opening event with President Higgins and the potential withdrawal of a number of musicians and speakers scheduled to take part in events during the week.
But the glossy full-page advertisement for Corrib gas remains in the official event guide and the same publication asks the reader to please support the corporate sponsors of the fleadh. Shell’s logo remains vivid in orange and red on official fleadh posters and publicity material. We were never told how much money Shell gave in the first instance and one wonders about the financial implications of the fleadh flying on a Shell-less wing. If the event can go ahead as planned without Shell’s money, why did the organisers seek the sponsorship in the first place?
The fact that they thought it was acceptable to involve Shell as a sponsor of an event that is widely seen as essential to Irish cultural and musical identity and expression raises fundamental questions about the commercialisation of music and the role of sponsorship and private funding of arts and cultural events.
I know that the organisers of the Sligo fleadh felt they had to put on a programme as extensive and impressive as that of Derry in 2013 and Cavan in 2012 and had no choice but to seek support from all companies and businesses working in the region. But they must have known that Shell would stick in the craw of many fleadh musicians, participants and visitors: the late Dermot Healy who was scheduled to read at the fleadh next Monday was a quiet supporter of the Rossport activists’ cause and Gregory Daly, a towering figure in Sligo music, had decided to withdraw from his events in protest at the initial decision to accept money from Shell.
I was asked to read at the Sligo fleadh long before sponsorship became an issue of controversy, a lunchtime concert with the great Kerry fiddle player Gerry Harrington – one of a series of welcome combinations of literature and music which the Sligo fleadh organisers have programmed.
Even before the Shell money was returned I had decided to honour that commitment but to use the occasion to speak a little about a wider world of politics, economics and environmental destruction where music and poetry are often silenced – the case of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria a potent example with a direct link to Shell.
Lament for Ken Saro-Wiwa
I’ll donate my fee to Greenpeace and hope that some musician will compose a lament for Saro-Wiwa to be played on uilleann pipes on Wine Street or O’Connell Street in the old garrison town.
At least the Shell controversy should spare us the prospect of a fracking fleadh down the line, as shale gas companies in Leitrim and Fermanagh inevitably move to buy community support and acquiescence through the sponsorship of music, sports and cultural events.
Let us celebrate the spirit of the music at the Sligo fleadh, but let’s not be blind to the forces that sometimes power it.
Poet and broadcaster Vincent Woods will read at the Model, Sligo with music by Gerry Harrington on August 14th
Noel Whelan is on leave