So much more than a Fleadh
From sean nós imams to Orange bands, you never know what you'll come across on Sligo's streets, says John Creedon
I'm back in training for my annual marathon. At my age I can only manage one per year. Ten hours in, I'll hit 'the wall', but a spectator on the footpath will shout 'Hup, ya boya!' and I'm off again. On completion, I will again collapse into the nearest available seat, prop my swollen ankles up on a stool and slowly re-hydrate. Three pints of stout usually does it. Then someone else on the footpath will roar an encouraging ' Woohoo!' and I'm back on my feet again and peering from the back of the crowd at the subject of the 'Hups and woohoos!'. It's another impromptu session that has just broken out on the footpath. Y'see, my annual marathon is Fleadh Cheoil na héireann.
I usually get into town on the Friday afternoon, drop the bags and check in with TV producers Tony and Joe McCarthy, who have already been filming for four days. Co-presenter Aoibhinn Ní Shúileabháin joins us and we run through the weekend's schedule. Then it's down to our radio outside broadcast unit. Last year, we were based in Sligo's Italian quarter, at the restaurant A Casa Mia. The crew are running through rehearsals for our live show on RTE Radio 1 later that evening. We had Waterboy Steve Wickham and his new band No Crows, Eleanor Shanley and De Dannan, Folk band Oh Hannah and more.
Producers Aidan Butler and Liz Larighy step outside to finalise tonight's running order, as it seems we have too many musicians and too little time. Above the cacophony of flutes and fiddles, buskers and bodhráns, our ears detect the voice of a sean nós singer, with a very particular 'Neaaa', emanating from the nearby Harmony Hill. What a street name for a sean nós busker! As it turns out, the voice is that of an Iraqi imam Sheikh Muhammad Husseini. And although I've often sensed an audible similarity between sean nós sung from the high stool and the calling to prayer from the tallest minaret in a mosque, I have to say I was surprised to hear an Iraqi Muslim sing Caoineadh na dtrí Mhuire with a Conemara lilt. The reverend told me he had been studying Irish language and traditional singing in London for the past few years and had entered the sean nós competition at this year's Fleadh. Before he could warble another 'Óchón-0', he found himself waiting in the wings at a very packed Italian restaurant as a guest on both the radio and tv shows.
Y'see, that's the thing about Fleadh Cheoil. It's a gathering of the clans gone viral. From the time of the ancient 'Cruinniú' to Daniel O'Connell's mass meetings, to All-Ireland Final day, the Irish have loved to gather in huge numbers. But increasingly, the numbers attending the Fleadh are swollen by the diaspora and non-Irish.
Sure enough, there are GAA jerseys evident from all 32 counties and myriad lesser-known tribal rivalries surface. A bunch of lads in County Down jerseys are teased by a Dub who hollers "Up Down like a lift!" from a hotel window. A Comhaltas group from Roscommon are on the receiving end of Sliabh Luachra wisdom "Yerra, the reel is lovely, but you'll never bate de polka".
Again, a huge contingent has come from north of the border. I spot a couple of coaches with 'Londonderry' emblazoned across the sides as they pull up outside the Northern Bank. About 50 men in crisp royal blue and orange uniforms disembark and unload a giant Lambeg drum from the back.
"Well, I never," says an elderly man beside me.
"I know," sez I . "Tiz an an away match for 'em, I s'pose."
"Tiz," sez he, "and they're good. I heard they're already booked out for the 12th of July."
Sure enough, they're here by invitation, to march in the Fleadh Cheoil parade. The rest of the parade, made up of giant puppets, floats, children and music groups, slowly wind their way through crowds spilling onto the street. From under his peaked white hat, the band leader looks completely perplexed at this relaxed approach to a parade. Understandable really, given that the Orange Order was founded on strict principles of sobriety, order and hard work. There would be plenty of jigs, reels and polkas in Sligo today, but the poor old march would hardly get a look in.
There was plenty of good-humoured banter as the ordered lines of marching men broke ranks and were subsumed into the spontanaeity of the Gaelic spirit and a shared love of the music. I could only smile as the two cultural tides met on Hyde Bridge where the Garavogue river unites Sligo. Ah yes, bridges.
There's American legend Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies sitting in with a bunch of youngsters from Canada. Spanish banjo player Markel Mendes has also made it this year. Tim Scanlon, a Melbourne-based one-man band is giving it wellie outside Hargadon's Select Bar & Lounge, while further up the street we're filming a piece with Galician musicians and dancers.
At the end of another long day of filming, our troops regroup at the Sligo Park Hotel and both crews have tales of the huge numbers attending workshops and masterclasses at the Éigse. Aoibhinn has been up at the competitions and she's blown away by the rocketing standard of musicianship among the youngsters.
"Don't mind the youngsters," says I, "Did you by any chance come across an Islamic sean nós singer in the competition hall?"
"Oh, I did," says Aoibhinn. "He competed in the senior section."
"Well, he didn't win ... but the judges gave him a special commendation."
With a chorus of 'Hups and woohoos', the entire crew and everyone at the bar raises a glass to the sheikh.
John Creedon co-presents this year's RTE coverage of Fleadh Cheoil