The Fleadh Cheoil is Ireland’s most loved music festival, and now it’s mine too
For this week’s “A first time for everything”, Geraldine Carton attended her first Fleadh Cheoil, which is the world’s biggest traditional Irish music festival and took place in Drogheda, Co. Louth.
My first glimpse of the Fleadh Cheoil; Ireland’s biggest, and most loved festival of Irish music, comes as I walked down Drogheda’s main street. Fleadh-bbergasted (I won’t do it again, I swear), I cannot get over the sheer volume of traditional Irish musicians who are performing outside nearly every pub, cafe and shop we see.
The oldest performer I talk to is 87, and the youngest is four (he’s too shy to speak, but his mum – who is accompanying him on the concertina – fills in the blanks).
My favourite kind of performing groups are those comprised of entire families who have come out to entertain passing crowds together. There’s Sean and Mairéad letting it rip on the fiddles; Daithí giving fierce heat on the bodhrán; little Aoife doing her one two three’s, whilst mammy and daddy lead the way with the singing. The best bit is when they see a neighbour or friend and insist that they join in on the singsong in front of the crowds, whether they like it or not.
Toilet queue sing-songs
To give you a sense of the fleadh; there are singsongs in the queues for the toilets and actual Irish dancing dance-offs in the clubs later in the night. It feels like a week-long St Patrick’s Day but with more focus on Irish music and tradition, and less focus on the drinking – although that’s a part of it, too.
Throughout the day we meet people of every age, hailing from every county of Ireland, and many from overseas too. Some visitors tell us stories of how they’ve been coming to Ireland for years, dubbing it the highlight of their year, their chance to embrace their Irish heritage in a way that the St Patrick’s Day madness no longer enables.
The part of the Fleadh that I most enjoy is incidentally the bit that I am least looking forward to. It involves holding hands with complete strangers whilst dancing to routines that I cannot comprehend and subsequently making a complete fool out of myself. I consider trying to avoid it altogether, but then I’d be left with nothing to write about, so off we go to the céilí mór.
We arrive to a ginormous hall full of middle-aged-to-elderly dancers, all moving perfectly in sync as they hop and shuffle around to the beat of loud diddlee-ey music.
Figuring out how to penetrate our way into one of the bouncing groups is the first hurdle we meet. No groups seem to be in need of an additional couple. Thus, we do what any millennial does in the face of an unknown situation: we stand for a while, and then reach for our phones and start taking photos of our surroundings, to be posted on Instagram later on.
After a few minutes, a kind woman called Mary approaches and offers her assistance. Putting our phones away quickly, we tell her that we want to dance, but we are unsure about how to get involved. “Leave it with me” she says with poker-faced seriousness, before disappearing back into the throng of bouncing bodies, backwards.
Mary soon re-emerges; she has found us a group to dance with. The group, we soon see, include the man who reels-off the instructions into a microphone; we have landed in with the VIPs.
Our fellow dancers couldn’t have been kinder as they try to direct us through the various songs; “In here now, loveen”, and “Maith an cailín! You have it now!”. In truth, we never “have it” at any point; these jigs and reels are significantly more complex than any Walls of Limerick remix we had learnt in primary school.
And so we bash and bump our way through each song; shuffling to the right when we should have been hopping to the left; grabbing elbows instead of shoulders… The man on the microphone clearly regrets allowing us to join his group, muttering “Christ almighty” under his breath when his patience runs dry.
Calling it quits
After four songs, we bow out; completely exhausted and spurting sweat from our every pore. Let it be known that no amount of yoga sessions and mountain hikes will provide you with the fitness levels required for a céilí with high-energy senior citizens at the Fleadh.
With that, it’s time to get the last train back home. After plonking down on our seats, limp and sticky with dried sweat, we looked back on our inaugural visit to the Fleadh; the people we had met and the brilliant gigs we had witnessed. We return to Dublin with hearts full of Irish pride, and bellies full of curry chips (we treated ourselves en route to the train station).
Main image via –Mark–