An Irishwoman's Diary


SINGERS, musicians, dancers and storytellers are converging on the Cork city suburb of Douglas for the 111th Oireachtas festival, which begins today. The various Gaelic dialects - from Donegal, Galway and Mayo, Kerry, Ring in Co Waterford and Rath Chairn in Co Meath - will mingle harmoniously at the newly-refurbished Rochestown Park Hotel, the main venue for the various events, writes Catherine Foley

Devotees of the long-standing traditional arts festival always greet each other like long-lost friends. The Oireachtas is a great annual coming together, a splurge of talent, creativity and exuberance. It represents a wide network of extended family members, who are connected by language and a love of all things Gaelic.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the seven-day event, which features 32 competitions for performing arts as well as literary contests. Tickets to the finals of the sean-nós singing and dancing competitions, which have enjoyed a surge in popularity in the past couple of years, are likely to be as scarce as hens' teeth.

The buzz will begin slowly, as young and old come to take part in the early heats of the competitions both on and off-stage. The flurry of activity will reach a crescendo towards the weekend, especially when "Steip", the sean-nós dancing finals, take place in the Opera House on Saturday afternoon. This event will be broadcast live on TG4.

With the resurgence of interest in this highly distinctive and stylised dancing, which springs from traditional communities - in some ways like the traditional Flamenco dancing of Spain - dancers are feted like stars, each with his or her own following. Their swerves and swoops draw heaves and sighs of appreciation from the audience. There are cheers and roars of encouragement — Maith thú! Nár laige Dia thú, a chailín! Fair play duit! Go hiontach, a bhuachaill! — in the auditorium when the dancers belt the timber floor with fever-pitch steps and the sparks fly. To some people this festival is a spiritual rekindling of the spirit of what it is to be Irish.

The excitement and tension becomes even more heightened when the Corn Uí Riada contest gets under way and 19 singers, male and female, of different ages, battle for the title. Past winners include Áine Uí Cheallaigh, Lillis Ó Laoire and Máirtín Tom Sheánín Mac Donnchadha. Last year's winner was Mícheál Ó Confhaola from Muiceanach-idir-dhá-sháile in Casla, Conamara, Co Galway.

This particular competition has been held in honour of the composer and founder of the legendary male choir Cór Chúil Aodha, Seán Ó Riada, for the past 36 years. His son, Peadar Ó Riada, is chairperson of the local organising committee at this year's Oireachtas. As he is also the current director of Cór Chúil Aodha, this Halloween's festival is likely to be rich with meaning and significance.

The first Oireachtas na Gaeilge festival was held in 1897 in the Round Room of Dublin's Rotunda, one of the largest halls in the city at that time. It was just a half-day festival, but the attendance still exceeded a thousand people - a totally unexpected level of interest. In contrast to today's festival, there was little emphasis on the performing arts.

The competitions included two for poetry, five for prose essays, one for poetry compilations; a competition for unpublished songs or stories in Irish; a competition for new song compositions and a recitation competition.

One hundred and two entrants took part, with 90 of these entering the literary competitions. Prizes were awarded during the concert. The festival was cancelled for a number of years in the 1930s, but despite such occasional hiccups, it has continued to flourish.

Seán Ó Riada is a key figure in the renaissance of traditional Irish music since the 1960s. The national acclaim for his score Mise Éire, George Morrison's documentary film about the turbulent events leading up to the foundation of the State, allowed him to start a series of programmes on Irish radio called Our Musical Heritage. It was also around this time, in 1960, that he decided to move with his family from Dublin to Cúil Aodha, an Irish-speaking area of West Cork.

He bought a home on the banks of the Sulan river, a stone's throw from his mother's birthplace, which is where his son Peadar lives with his family today. Seán went on to establish the choir and turn towards church choral music. When he died in 1971, thousands poured into the little community to pay their respects. As leader of the Cúil Aodha choir since 1971, Peadar has seen several generations pass through its ranks. Cóir Chúil Aodha will be playing at Aifreann an Oireachtais this year in Cork and the Mass will be broadcast live on RTÉ Radio 1 and on Raidió na Gaeltachta.

RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta has been covering the bigger Oireachtas events live for many years and these broadcasts are in considerable demand from internet audiences around the globe. The Corn Uí Riada and the sean-nós stage competitions are the most keenly followed; every breath and cough is listened to. In the past few years, TG4 has brought Oireachtas na Gaeilge to the viewing public with live broadcasts of sean-nós dancing as well as many other programmes broadcast from the festivals.

Steip on TG4 has consistently attracted the station's highest annual audience figures. This year, for the first time, the station will broadcast live segments of the Corn Uí Riada competition.