Musical youth: Why the future of Irish music is in safe hands
As traditional music becomes cool again, the wealth of young talent on display every year at the Fleadh shows that our musical heritage is in safe hands. By Graham Clifford
What goes into the preparation of the festival every year between the competitions, concerts and sessions?
No one knows exactly when or why it happened, but in recent decades traditional Irish music and song has become cool again among the nation's youth.
"You can see it at every session around the country, more and more young musicians well able to play a few tunes and keep the music alive," said Kieran Hanrahan, RTÉ presenter and founding member of Stockton's Wing.
For vocalist and flautist Niamh Farrell (23) from Sligo, the allure of traditional music and song was overwhelming.
From the foothills of the Knocknarea mountain, Niamh's family are steeped in the music of her forefathers. Her father is a guitarist and her late grandfather was a well-known fiddle player in the local area.
"We always had traditional music around the house growing up. And we'd go to summer schools, like the South Sligo Summer School of Traditional Irish Music in Tubbercurry … over time I grew to love the music and appreciate it," says Niamh (right).
Fast making a name for herself as a hugely talented sean nós singer, she fronts the JPTrio and Niamh Farrell band, which also perform world, gospel and jazz numbers, and it was while on stage at the Doolin Folk festival in 2013 that Niamh received her biggest break yet.
Traditional music aficionado Donal Scannell liked what he heard and sent an EP to English indie-rock singer David Gray. The nurse, who now works in Dublin's Mater Hospital, found herself on a ten-month world tour with Gray.
"We toured the USA, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland and Europe - it really was the most amazing experience. The highlight I think was performing in the Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville," says Niamh.
A love of Irish traditional tunes and songs formed the foundation to Niamh's repertoire, which enabled her to explore other musical genres.
"I like trying out other styles, like funk and gospel, but there's something about the rhythm, melody and ornamentation of traditional Irish singing that is so special and unique," said Niamh.
She too believes that younger generations are flocking to the trad scene.
"When I was in school some might have seen traditional Irish music as uncool, but that's really changed. It might be like fashion: what once was out is now in. There's also a great cross-generational aspect to the traditional scene, where you can have 12-year-olds singing or playing music with their grandparents," she told me.
As well as fulfilling his broadcasting duties, Kieran Hanrahan is also the new Director of Scoil Éigse - Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann's annual international summer school in which students of all ages partake in instrumental music, singing, dancing and Irish language classes.
This summer Scoil Éigse will take place in Sligo from August 9 to 14, preceding the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, and it's expected at least 800 students will pass through the doors with 65 tutors, drawn from right across the country, giving classes.
"There are different levels depending on ability. Some of the students will be taking part in the Fleadh competitions on the following weekend and will attend the school to put the finishing touches to their entries," explains Kieran.
Classes are available for those who play the fiddle, flute, whistle, button-accordion, concertina, banjo, harp, uilleann pipes and piano accompaniment, while traditional singing and amhránaíocht classes are also catered for as well as dancing and conversational Irish.
With no age limits, Scoil Éigse is open to young and old.
"Schools like this, and others such as the Willie Clancy summer school in Miltown Malbay, provide a wonderful location for likeminded young people to come together to learn and explore. When they visit these schools they probably enter into a different peer group than they'd normally be used to, but that's changing too. There's a greater appreciation of traditional music and song across Irish society I think," said Kieran Hanrahan.
"Here they find excellent teachers and they're fortunate to have good instruments. Once the framework is in place, the young people flourish. And Comhaltas deserves great credit for keeping the music going across the country for decades and providing such facilities."
Whether it be in Scoil Éigse or on the streets of Sligo this summer, visitors can expect to see 'the young, the old, the brave and the bold' all belting out the tunes as one. And with a new generation embracing our traditional music, the future of this cultural form of expression appears to be in the best of hands.