Baltimore lies in the very southwest corner of Ireland in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland – West Cork. It is a very pretty town nestled on a protected harbour with a strong maritime heritage. Very popular with the yachty set but for one weekend a year the sound of clinking gins-and-tonic is replaced by fiddles and pipes. That is the Baltimore Fiddle Fair and that’s where I headed for the last Festival of my first year in Ireland, which is rapidly coming to a close. And a fitting way to end the year it was.
Four days of music centred on the fiddle and covering many genres. We heard Old Timey, Cape Breton, Bluegrass, Swedish, Gypsy Swing, Scots and a variety of traditional Irish. There were fiddlers of the class of Gerry O’Connor, Zoe Conway, Liam O’Connor, Danny Diamond, Dermot McLaughlin and Shane Cook. The core of the festival was the concerts though I have to admit I only attended one, so I can’t really comment on them but the one I did attend was a show stopper. Warmed up by the fiddle and pipes of Liam O’Connor and Sean McKeown the crowd was blown away by Swedish superband Väsen. I had never heard of them (shame on me) but I know them now. Slick and professional and as tight a sound as you will ever hear, with five string viola, nyckelharpa and guitar combining effortlessly. This music was a revelation with its dynamic range and variations in tempo and rhythm. I was truly ‘polskafied’.
I attended five workshops. A big stretch but I was able to get exposure to Donegal style, Old Timey and Cape Breton as well as picking the brains of Gerry O’Connor and Zoe Conway. I never tire of these workshops. Every time I learn something.
But of course as always it was the sessions that kept me occupied. Every day from around 1 pm there was continuous music in the venues around the Square and in the evenings, after the concerts, Casey’s Hotel raged with as many as four sessions until at least 4am every night. There were visitors from all over the world and I met some wonderful new people including John from Wales, Patrizia and Angelica from Austria, Julie from Denmark, who is cycling around Ireland (https://www.facebook.com/TourdeFolk), Liam from Queensland, Kathleen from Boston, Larry from Tipp, the delightful, Joleen, Karen and Lorna who make up the Henry Girls from Donegal and caught up with old friends again such as Trish from Dublin, Clare from Cork and Aina from France.
You meet all kinds at a festival such as this and for me that is what makes travelling to them worthwhile. Every evening, we were joined at Casey’s by Jeremy Irons. Self-effacing and just happy to sit in on the edges of the session and find his way in and out of tunes. Clearly revelling in the craic and a world that is a long way from Hollywood.
And I had the great pleasure to meet renowned Danish artist Claus Havemann. I chatted to him outside Bushes Bar as he stood there having a cigarette and staring across to Sherkin Island where he has had a home for thirty years and spends his time when not in Denmark. He told me of his journey in art over the last forty years which took him from Surrealism to Realism to Modernism to Minimalism to his current works which reinterpret the masters. He told me that he once painted a picture during his Minimalist period called ‘Yellow’ which was essentially dozens of layers of blue paint. The title made perfect sense to me when he explained that yellow is opposite blue on the colour wheel. I have included a couple of his paintings. I especially like the Velazquez ‘copy’, one of a series in which he paints in the style of the master but puts in modern references such as a Picasso and Miro on the wall and his interpretiaon of the Vermeer as a portrait of his daughter. See more at http://www.claushavemann.com/
Speaking of Sherkin Island, one of the highlights of the Festival was a session at the Island Rest Hotel. Sherkin is only a few minutes by boat and has about 90 residents. I met many of them that night as they lapped up the seriously good music from the visiting musicians shipped over (literally) for the event. There were some great contributions from locals also including songs and some impromptu dancing from Mary and her artist friends. I have never been to a session where I was picked up and delivered back by boat and the memory of this one will stay a long time.
I was intrigued by the Algiers Bar where I also played, having spent quite a bit of time in Algeria during my geology days. Turns out this pays homage to the notorious event in 1631 known as the Sack of Baltimore when Barbary pirates (comprising Dutch, Algerians and Ottomans) attacked Baltimore and captured 108 English settlers who were transported back to North Africa as slaves. Funny how we think of slavery in terms of Africans being sent to the new world, but in the century from 1580 to 1680 there were up to a million Europeans taken as part of the Barbary slave trade. Baltimore was abandoned and the village deserted for generations.
The face of the festival is Declan McCarthy. It was his brainwave back in 1992 and he is still running it. And what a trooper he is. Everything (well nearly everything) ran smoothly. The venues, the workshops and the support of the town. Hat’s off to him! Speaking of the venues some of the workshops were held at the magnificent stately home Inish Beg and at the famous Glebe Gardens. Along with the church, sailing club and a specially erected marque they really got it right with, of course, the fabulous location. And unlike many other festivals where you’re lucky if you can buy a bucket of chips there were great food options with the Glebe Café a standout.
I was absolutely shattered at the end of this week. Workshops every morning and some afternoons, sessions all day and surviving on just a few hours sleep. To fiddle a bit with the words of Richard Thompson in Beeswing “you wouldn’t want it any other way”.