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Frank Whelan with the late Robbie McMahon

Ambitious Fleadh plan comes to fruition

SITTING in the Old Ground Hotel after a busy Fleadh Nua in Ennis, an ambitious plan was hatched, a plan that will be realised with the welcoming of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann to Ennis.

The initial idea for the Abbey branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann to bid to host the festival was decided upon on that fateful day by Micheál Ó Riabhaigh, Rory Casey and Frank Whelan. After a number of attempts to win the coveted title of host town, this month will see the culmination of the hard work of the Abbey branch, along with supporters of the bid from across all sectors.

Frank Whelan of the Abbey branch remembers the day when the notion to bid for the Fleadh first occurred.
“On a Sunday after Fleadh Nua, five or six years ago, Micheál, Rory Casey and myself were sitting having a cup of coffee and that’s where the plan was made to bring Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann to Ennis.”

He acknowledges the path to the eventual hosting of the festival was not without its difficulties. “We made a couple of attempts and it was a long and winding road but we got there.”

Along that road to hosting the Fleadh, a number of events took place in recent years, including the decision to stand aside in 2013 to allow the Fleadh to be held in Derry, something Mr Whelan believes was a positive move.

“Comhaltas passed an historical milestone in bringing the Fleadh to Derry and our committee was instrumental in facilitating that. Looking back now, we are very, very happy that we did that, it was such a positive move,” he says.

The Abbey branch itself was formed in 1986 with a number of the great names in music involved over the years. Comhaltas itself, which formed in 1951, had a presence in the county since 1954 with the formation of the Clare County Board, one of the first formed within the organisation.

One of the key members was Seán Reid, who played a huge role in the development of Comhaltas in the county. Mr Whelan says, “The first Fleadh in Ennis in 1956, it was acknowledged at the time, and since, as the first Fleadh that had some sort of structure put on the competitions. As you can imagine, the organisation was still at the very early stages of development so someone like Seán Reid coming in and putting a structure on the competition was a huge thing at the time.

“The Fleadh was back again in 1977 and that structure was the same one still in use. And, would you believe, it’s still in use to this day. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Seán for his work in the early stages of development of the Fleadh.”

Speaking of the 1977 Fleadh, Mr Whelan recalls a very familiar name who competed on the day, though he was not as successful as he would later become.

“Michael Flatley competed in the concert flute, he didn’t actually win on the day. It was a lad from Limerick, Patsy Moloney. Michael came second but he came back the second year in Listowel and he won. He was a fine flute player.”

Looking ahead to the festivities, Mr Whelan says the Abbey branch is thrilled to be welcoming so many people here.

“We’re definitely looking forward to welcoming people to Ennis. I think Ennis will be a great venue for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. I know that the Fleadh has grown into an enormous event and the figures that are being predicted, they don’t look like they will be far out. Ennis and Clare, within the traditional music community, they have a special place and we’ve seen that in the interest from the people who have contacted us to say they are coming. People are coming just because it is in County Clare and it is in Ennis.”

“One of the sad things is that the man who wrote the great song, The Fleadh Down in Ennis, Robbie McMahon unfortunately won’t be with us. But he will be with us in spirit and his name will be mentioned very often over the week.”

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