I have just returned from another festival/school, this time at Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsular in West Kerry. And it really was a beauty. It is called the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh which translates slightly optimistically as Spring Music School.
The Dingle version of Spring involved rain, hail, mist and wild winds whipping up the Atlantic, but in the warmth of one of the many sessions you didn’t notice. Ballyferriter is almost the classic Irish village, with mandatory three pubs, hotel, church and shop. What sets it apart is its glorious setting right at the western end of the peninsular sandwiched between Slea Head and Mt Brandon . When the rain stopped as it did on a couple of occasions and the mist lifts, Mt Brandon, all 952 metres of it, stands proud with is snow capped peak and to the west the beaches and hills beckon. It is obvious why this area was chosen to film the seminal classic Ryan’s Daughter. It is also very compact so everything is within staggering distance and this is important when you are trying to find your way home at 6am.
Everyone said I would love Kerry and I do. This festival was a wonderful introduction to the Kingdom and the music. This blog is just about the Festival. I will post some pictures later of Dingle’s spectacular scenery.
The Scoil Cheoil Earraigh seems to hold a special place for many people. For some it is the only festival they attend. Of course there is a strong local contingent but there are also visitors from many other counties and from the UK, France, Russia, Germany. So what is it that brings them here?
It is not a huge festival and it benefits from this. It was very well organised with no obvious hitches. The workshops over three days were with top class tutors. How many opportunities would a guitarist have spend three days with Steve Cooney? Many of the tutors performed in a number of impressive concerts along with other headline acts. The stamp of the Begleys was everywhere. I’m not sure what the collective name for a lot of Begleys is – perhaps a boggle of Begleys but whatever it is it translates to pure musical genius. Along with Seamus and Breanndán with their vibrant and pulsating rhythms interspersed with wonderful soulful songs sung in Irish was Breanndán’s son Cormac displaying his virtuosity on a range of concertinas and other members of the extended Begley family popping up in various sessions. But it wasn’t just the Begley show. Other guests included Galway’s Páraic Mac Donnchadha on the banjo, Connie O’Connell renowned fiddler from Cork, Steve Cooney, back together in a big way with Seamus and adding his driving rhythms to a variety of other artists and in sessions, Harry Bradley , musician of the year last year, Tommy McCarthy a traveller singer with an extraordinary presence, and a huge repertoire of songs and fascinating stories and Brendan Powers from NZ master harmonica player across many genres stirring up the trad scene by utilising technology to take the music into uncharted territory. There were also informal concerts in cafes which was a great counterpoint to the frenetic energy of the sessions.
I just loved the way the whole festival was conducted in Irish. It didn’t seem to matter that you didn’t understand much of what was going on. This was West Kerry being West Kerry and while visitors were welcome it was very much a showcase for the unique heritage of this part of the world. This was reflected in the music which was of course riddled with polkas and slides, the spontaneous dancing of sets and half sets – vigorous and energetic, reflecting the music, the craic and the warm welcome all visitors received. I attended a lecture on the origins of polkas and while I didn’t understand a word I picked up enough from the slides and musical examples to be totally riveted.
The workshop was one of the best I have been to in the last year – and I have been to plenty. We had two tutors. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, well known for his many musical collaborations including more recently the Gloaming, who explored dynamics and how to extract more feeling. We didn’t learn a tune but it was a revelation. And young Aiden Connolly showed the group (exclusively adults) how to play polkas and slides – something that had never been explained so clearly to me before. I came away inspired which is what a good School should do.
There was a concert on Saturday, in the wonderful setting of St Vincent’s church, of all the workshop groups led by their tutors. This was the most successful format of any I have seen where similar things have been tried. Everyone played in their seat eliminating massive logistical problems. The highlight was the finale with all groups led by Breanndán Begley playing a stirring version of Fáinne Geal an Lae.
What to say about the sessions. These were numerous and exhausting. All the ‘stars’ who appeared at the concert joined into various sessions. Something that doesn’t always happen. Those who were at the Bar an Bhuailtin on Saturday night will never forget the musical treat provided by Begley, Cooney, O’Connell and a host of others until six in the morning, There was a session in Tig an t-Saorsaig with a contingent of musicians from Thurles where sets of reels lasted forty minutes without a break and another session at Tigh Ui Cháthain led by Cormac Begley on his bass concertina and Páraic Mac Donnchadha on banjo which must have gone for eleven hours and it would not surprise me if they didn’t repeat a tune in that time. Spellbinding. But for me the real highlights were playing in quiet sessions such as with Alph Duggan on the Thursday and with Fergal, Breige and Anja on the Sunday with hardly an audience just sharing tunes and songs.
As I say I have never played music in Kerry before so I should talk a little about my introduction to their music. While the Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle peninsular) is not part of the Sliabh Luachra, the more widely known home of polkas, the West Kerry Gaeltach has a long musical tradition and much in common. The music played here historically was for the West Kerry dance sets and comprised mainly polkas, slides and occasionally hornpipes. For many years this music was considered ‘foreign’ having been thought to have been brought in by the occupying military forces, but the Goodman collection of the late 19th Century demonstrated a rich tradition which was largely ignored by collectors such as O’Neill and Breathnach. Polkas were among the first tunes I learnt many years ago when starting out on the fiddle. They were considered easy. And of course in Australia no one knew how to play them properly so they were pretty awful. I couldn’t play reels, so in my various bush bands we used polkas instead. We got away with it with the unsophisticated Aussie audiences but it was hardly satisfying. So I developed a dislike for them and it seems this is shared by many over here as well. Even in Clare you rarely hear them unless you’re playing with someone from that tradition such as Jacky Daly. Hearing these tunes however delivered by masters steeped in this tradition and on its home turf was a revelation. The tunes are full of an internal energy that drives the music forward all the time. They are infectious. The rhythm sucks you in and drags you onto the floor to dance. I wouldn’t say I have come away converted but I will take this body of music much more seriously and revisit those hackneyed tunes I rejected so many years ago. Thanks Ballyferriter.
I say well done to the organisers for a memorable experience. I understand the lure of this place and its music and I too will be back.