How many Festivals have you gone to recently with a line-up of musicians such as this? Connie O’Connell, Gerry Harrington, Andrew MacNamara, Eileen O’Brien, Charlie Piggott, Matt Cranitch, John Carty, Jackie Daly, Donal McCague, Sean Ryan, …… oh and Danú and heaps more. This was Dungarvan TradFest 2015 held in the Waterford town over the June Bank Holiday weekend. It’s a pity more musicians don’t make the trip to take part, because it was well worth it.
There were only a few formal functions with a free choral concert on the opening night a concert with John and Maggie Carty and the highlight, Danu’s 20th anniversary concert. In between was a gig rig with appearances from well-known groups along with local bands and wall to wall sessions. The festival coincided with the County Fleadh so it was possible to attend these competitions also. And there were events that I hadn’t seen elsewhere including a Busking Competition (for which yours truly was dragooned into being a judge!) and a Bucket Singing Competition.
It started on the Thursday with the Official Opening by the worldwide head of Comhaltas, Vince Jordan, some tunes from local young musicians and then a concert by the Cor Fear na nDeise, a local male choir and 120 children from local schools. Aside from the spectacular achievement of coordinating this throng, the music was delightful. All in Irish and all sung with gusto. The choir led by Darren O Droma really pulled it off and to see the unbridled enthusiasm of the children performing to a packed auditorium of largely proud parents was wonderful to see.
There was no formal session that night but I was told of a session afterwards at Lismore, an half an hour away. It was held in the appropriately named Classroom Bar and led by young musicians including All –Ireland champions, Sarah and Seamus O’Gorman. Great tunes. Fast and energetic. The session was hijacked though by locals and it became a good old Irish ‘sing song’ with one song starting almost before the other had finished. We had a plethora of old favourites and some rousing and not-so-rousing renditions. In fact we had songs sung in keys not yet invented. Nevertheless it was all sung with passion and it was great craic. It was amusing to watch the frustrated musicians waiting patiently for the tiniest gap to jump in with a tune.
I had got a tip there may be music out at Ring. Ring (An Rinn) is only fifteen minutes from Dungarvan and on the way to to Helvic Head (I really must learn that tune). It is a small Gaeltacht area and fiercely proud of it. So I headed out there next day. After a long chat with fisherman Jack at the harbour at Helvic and a few deep breaths to recharge the batteries I headed to Mooney’s Pub where sure enough some of the best local music talent was gathered to help celebrate the end of the school term. I recognised musicians from the concert the night before including the leader Darren.. What a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon.
That night there was a concert by John Carty and his daughter Maggie at The Local, so I got there early to take up a seat in the front row. I have always admired his playing since I met him in Perth back in a previous century. How deliciously sweet it is, with effortless bowing and a beautiful flowing rhythm, Maggie’s talented banjo playing provided a terrific counterpoint. It was gorgeous music enhanced occasionally by guest spots from Donnchadh Gough from Danu on the bodhran, who just happens to own the pub. And then the icing on the cake, they stayed around for a session with some of the young local musicians and a few others dropped in such as Andrew MacNamara. I was privileged to be part of this . Perhaps the less said about the dancing though the better.
The weather was not kind the next day with squally rain and occasional hail though there were sunny breaks. I had just ordered my hamburger at the The Local when an harassed organiser came in. “We have a problem, can you help”? Turns out that a judge for the busking competition had pulled out and they needed an urgent replacement. Like right then! The busking was underway and there was about half an hour to go. Never one to refuse a challenge I agreed and after scoffing my burger I was discussing strategy with the Chairman of Comhaltas, who was the other judge. There were no guidelines; how on earth do you judge a busking competition? So we went our separate ways and arrived at three “winners”. Turns out however that this was just Day One and there were another 15 contestants next day AND Vince was leaving that night so I would have to judge the remainder and and pick the winners out of both days. As it turned out the winners were obvious and I was able to remain in town unscathed without being hacked to pieces by irate parents.
Of course my raison d’etre for being at festivals is to session and each day from 4 pm I followed the Session Trail until the small hours. In fact most nights I went to bed as the sun rose. There were many highlights. For example a truly tasty session in a quiet pub with Gerry Harrington, Charlie Piggins and James Duggan being one. Another was to be joined on a couple of occasions by living legend and genius John Dwyer (brother of Michael, Finbar and Ritchie), a delightful man and a wonderful musician. Here is a selection of photos. You’ll get the picture.
The headline concert on Sunday night was at a function room at the Park Hotel and 600 plus people crammed into a space that they really shouldn’t have. It was bursting at the seams and there was a mad rush to get more seats to accommodate some of those standing. The warm up act was a group of young local musicians featuring Claire and Niamh Fennell, Clara Mannion & Sarah O’Gorman and really they did a fantastic job.
Danú are local heroes and one of Ireland’s most durable traditional bands. Most of their current line up was there and a few guests including previous singer Ciarán Ó Gealbháin joining Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Donal Lunny, producer of two of their albums. . This was a high energy concert and there was a buzz in the hall as they were celebrating their twentieth year together. They were clearly happy to be there and from the opening chord to the electric dancing and the rousing climax kicked off with a bodhran solo from Donnchadh Gough there was never a dull moment. The loyal and loving home crowd was screaming for more.
There were a few intrepid survivors on the Monday and they gathered at Downey’s Pub for the Bucket Singing Competition. This long standing Waterford tradition (well it is at least two years old) involves singing with a bucket over your head and then being savagely demolished by an entirely unsympathetic adjucator. Quality had nothing to do with the final result with rules being invented and broken as the competition went on. The majority of competitors suffered the Downey’s Drop announced solemnly after the adjudicator donned a black handkerchief. It was great craic and at the risk of my never being allowed to compete again the organisers would have great difficulty defending the accusation that the winner was a not home town decision! I have contacted my lawyers! Congratulations to the organisers and in particular to the MC (Sean) and Judge (Dick) who kept it all together with a marvellous commentary. Bucket Singing may have a controversial history with some saying it goes back hundreds of years but the winner on the night was that other Irish tradition of slagging.
There were more sessions on the Monday but the enthusiasm was waning and by midnight everyone and believe it or not, yours truly, had had enough.
A memorable weekend and seamlessly organised by the ever present Michael Marrinan and an amazing committee. Well done all.