Thursday 19 April 2018

My Fleadh: Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin

Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain
Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is a scientist, teacher, TV presenter and musician. She will co-present RTé's Fleadh Cheoil coverage with John Creedon.

Did traditional Irish music and singing play a big part in your childhood?

Definitely. We've always been a big musical family and everyone in our house could either play a traditional instrument or sing. Some of us did both. My grandfather would play a button accordion but I decided to opt for the concertina.

When we are all together in my uncle's pub at home the instruments come out and the songs flow. Since I can remember it's just been completely normal to play a few tunes and enjoy the closeness that traditional sessions can bring. The cross-generational aspect, where the young yearn to learn from the old, is so special. As I got a little older I started to take lessons and enter competitions.

When did you go to your first Fleadh and how has the festival changed over the years?

I think I was around 11 when I competed in my first Fleadh, which would have been a local one. I remember I used to get nervous if I was playing on my own.

By the time I was 18 I'd decided not to compete anymore because what I loved doing most was joining in free-flowing sessions with other musicians - something that's at the core of a good Fleadh Cheoil.

Over the years the Fleadh has grown so much. Perhaps once it was seen as an old-fashioned festival but that's utterly changed now; there's a vibrancy and colour to it that's almost unique to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. It's a showcase for Irish culture and a huge event for Irish people and tourists.

The only thing that annoys me during the week is when you see buskers on the street who are clearly not musicians - they see it as a way to make money but the music quality of a Fleadh is so important that they should stay away.

What's so special about Sligo as a venue for Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann?

The design of Sligo lends itself to a wonderful Fleadh; lots of winding streets and pedestrian zones, just what you want for a festival such as this. And visitors clearly adore it. They came in their hundreds of thousands last year. I particularly recall the parade through the town, which was sensational. I suppose you could call it centralised excitement. What's clear is wherever the Fleadh is held, the local communities pull out all the stops.

When presenting from the Fleadh for RTÉ do you just want to join in with the musicians?

Certainly you can be heading in one direction to cover a particular band or musician but your ear can try to pull you in the opposite direction! That's especially true if you know the tunes being played. There's so much on that you can get lost in the wonderful music. I always bring along my concertina and make sure I get an opportunity to play during the week.

Is the future of the Trad scene in Ireland bright?

I honestly don't think it's ever been in a better place. At the end of the 19th century, lovers of traditional music, language and customs in Ireland led a cultural revival. They were afraid that we as a people were losing touch with our heritage and culture. If I could talk to those same people now, over a century on, I would tell them they had absolutely nothing to worry about. There's a vibrancy and energy in the traditional scene now and that can only see it go from strength-to-strength. Young Irish people can now travel the world with an instrument and events such as the Fleadh Cheoil in Sligo show how far we've come.

Irish Independent

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