Monday 26 September 2016

Where the streets have no cars

Published 24/07/2015 | 02:30

Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil
Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil
Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil
Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil
Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil
Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil
Sligo’s unique hospitality and accessibility combine to make it the perfect venue for the Fleadh Cheoil

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann has changed utterly in recent years. Once considered a boisterous weekend affair, it's now a completely different proposition, one where the music takes centre stage.

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"The fleadhs in the past were where people went to sessions in the pubs and drank a good deal. Going back 20 years ago, that's probably how fleadhs would have been viewed," chairman Bartley Gavin said.

"It's completely different now. It's families and a mix of age groups. You have the coolest young teenagers completely taken with the music, and rural elderly people equally enthusiastic.

"What has also changed dramatically and substantially is the number of towns able to host, because it has gotten so big. To get the atmosphere, you almost need the Fleadh to be bigger than the town."

More than 350,000 people are expected to attend the week-long event, with more than 1,500 local volunteers doing everything from picking up litter to acting as tourist guides.

More than €40m will be injected into the local economy, with around 30pc of visitors arriving from overseas, mostly from the US, UK and Germany.

The Fleadh was brought to Sligo by the Fred Finn branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí éireann following a competitive bid. A group made up of the local authority, traders, hospitality sector, IT Sligo, HSE and An Garda Síochána was brought together to co-ordinate events.

A key concern was to ensure visitors were not ripped off. A long-term view was taken - it was better to provide a high-quality service, without raising prices, and encourage visitors to return in the following years.

"We've worked with Sligo Chamber of Commerce to run campaigns to keep a focus on where the real value of the Fleadh is," Mr Gavin said.

"The influx of money during the Fleadh is huge, but the long-term opportunity is to promote Sligo with a very positive image. We emphasise that we provide a quality product, and don't raise prices and don't overcharge. That paid off last year."

Paul Keyes, chief executive of Sligo Chamber of Commerce, said the Fleadh was a major driver of local employment, with the effects seen throughout the year.

"The money circulates throughout the system for the next 12 months. You see it in renovations in pubs and restaurants months later, you see it in extra purchasing power, and it revolves throughout the community."

Paul added: "One thing we're very aware of in Sligo is our lack of profile, compared with the likes of Galway. The advertising value of the Fleadh for Sligo is very difficult to put a figure on but it's very significant."

Sligo County Council had a key role to play, ranging from identifying campsites and park-and-ride facilities to changing local by-laws so that loud music could not be blared from pubs, which might drown out impromptu sessions on the streets. There were also the practicalities involved in planning for a massive influx of people - where should the Portaloos go? How could retailers get their deliveries? What streets would be closed to traffic? Was there access for emergency services?

"Local authorities are like a silent partner to ensure all these events run off," chief executive Ciaran Hayes said.

"One benefit was the way that statutory agencies came together for the benefit of Sligo. Civic pride came through and people came out in their droves. Sligo has reaped the rewards of that. When people could see what could be done, there was a feelgood factor and pride in what could be achieved by working together."

The core activity of the Fleadh is, of course, the competitions. Some 6,000 musicians will bid for glory in 25 venues across the town, with competitions running for three days, some with a 1,000-strong audience.

Many take place at IT Sligo, which offers the university to open up the campus to the community.

"Public engagement is hugely important to us," college president Vincent Cunnane said.

"Getting thousands of people onto the campus, asking questions about the courses we have, gives us a bounce."

Bartley Gavin says that, above all, the Fleadh has given the town a lift. "When it kicked off last year, after a few days this was a community hosting thousands of visitors and everybody felt good. It brought together so many people," he said.

"Coming through the tough times in the last couple of years helped us focus on getting to where we need to be. What the Fleadh does is lift the community."

Irish Independent

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