Fleadh Cheoil: The local gig that became a global hit
From its humble 'pints and fiddles' origins, Fleadh Cheoil has been transformed into a massive tourist attraction. Graham Clifford looks behind the scenes at the event's formidable organisation skills
On Whit Sunday 1951 in St Mary's Hall in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, feet tapped and hands clapped as Ireland's first national Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann got into full swing. A few hundred patrons came to the Midlands town to hear the cream of the Irish trad scene perform.
And while some things change over time, others stay exactly the same.
In Sligo next month, for the 65th Fleadh Cheoil, the country's leading traditional musicians and singers will once again arrive to co-produce a melodic wave - but its estimated crowds of around 350,000 will spill into Sligo for the week-long event.
What started as a modest local concert has now become the biggest traditional Irish music festival in the world.
"Logistically, it's obviously very challenging," explains Fleadh Co-ordinator Peter McCarrick. "It's a nomadic event in that the host venue changes on average every two years. That means there is no permanent back-office structure as you would have with a typical annual festival. So we have to create a structure and depend on local volunteers, Comhaltas members, community groups and business people to help in organising the event."
And each year those volunteers roll up their sleeves. Around 1,500 locals helped run the Fleadh in Sligo last summer - providing visitor information, stewarding, litter-picking, campsite assistance, selling tickets and organising car parks... Support from local agencies such as Sligo County Council, HSE, An Garda Síochána, Civil Defence and Sligo LEADER has also been critical to the delivery of the Fleadh in Sligo.
Over the last 64 years, 24 different towns have played host to the Fleadh Cheoil, with Listowel holding 14 of the festivals, the most of any town.
"As the years go by, the requirements of a host town grow. Where once it was just a case of people showing up, enjoying a pint and listening to traditional music on the street, now we have to think of health and safety issues, traffic considerations and also make sure that the festival is accessible, fun and interesting for all the family," explains Peter.
Along Sligo's old winding streets and in the city's pubs, theatres and educational facilities, visitors will be treated to a feast of traditional music at this year's event - featuring local artists and some from much further afield.
Box-players leaning against walls, fiddlers of different generations playing by the Garavogue river and singers enchanting visitors to local hostelries. The land of heart's desire will sway to the sound of haunting melodies and beat to the sound of the bodhrán.
In many ways the festival is an organic entity with musicians playing wherever and whenever they can, but structured organisation is required too, as Peter explains: "There's an executive committee of about 25 people in each host town. Some will be responsible for sorting out the line-up for the events, others on venue selection, accommodation, merchandising, fundraising, and marketing - everything involved in running a huge festival of this kind."
Planning and staging a Fleadh are mammoth tasks for host towns such as Sligo - but the rewards are substantial.
Analysis of the Cavan Fleadh of 2010 revealed the event brought in €35 million for the town.
"We're five years on from that Fleadh and the event is even bigger now so the Sligo Fleadh of 2015 should bring in between €40m and €50m for the local economy," says Peter.
It's a huge cash injection for a region that suffered more than most during the economic downturn.
Organisers will spend almost €1 million on the Fleadh - with the cost of running competitions during the week being one of the bigger outlays. With more than 6,000 competitors hoping to land a Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann title, and upwards of 30,000 spectators wanting to watch the competitions themselves, a significant investment is required to ensure that they run smoothly.
Modern-day fleadhs are also major media events and press accreditation has already been sought by more than 100 members of the media from across Ireland and abroad.
Fleadh TV will broadcast live performances by, and interviews with, artists on TG4 during the week, while RTE will record hours of programming from Sligo's festival this year. In 2014 the Sligo Fleadh even made it into the National Geographic magazine.
"It's amazing exposure for us as a town, really. Broadcasters will use our beautiful scenery as background. The programming can run for months after the actual Fleadh itself. We want to show everyone what Sligo has to offer and this is the perfect way to do that," says Peter.
Indeed, because of the Fleadh, it's estimated that Irish print media exposure for Sligo last year amounted to advertising value in excess of €1 million.
The logistics behind this amazing event will test all those involved but the benefits are many and Sligo is now well positioned to host other large scale events.
And by the time the last note is played at this year's Fleadh, the people of Ennis, Co. Clare, will be gearing up to carry the flame in 2016. This river of traditional music and cultural expression continues to flow and gets bigger each year.