This will be a milestone year for the Cooley Collins Traditional Music Festival. As well as marking its silver anniversary, one of the festival’s organisers is retiring from the committee after two decades of continuous involvement.
The festival began in 1984 when a group of people at O’Grady’s Bar in Gort came up with the idea of holding a festival in honour of the two great musicians, Kieran Collins, who had passed away not long before, and Joe Cooley, who died in 1973.
Local man Frank Cooney owned The Man of Arran bar in Dublin. It was a venue for much traditional music, so Frank knew a lot of well-respected and very talented musicians, including Frank McGann.
Frank Cooney, along with Paddy Jordan, Noel Mullins and Johnny Walshe, made up the first committee 25 years ago, taking the festival from its infancy through to its fifth anniversary.
After that, a new group took over including Mary Coen, a woman whose name is now synonymous with the festival. Mary remained onboard since but this year she is resigning her duties.
“I know that after 20 years as organiser it is time to get new blood, with new ideas to enable the festival to continue to be a noted date for followers of Irish music and Irish culture,” Mary says.
Another familiar face, Ann Walsh, the festival’s treasurer, is also retiring.
“Ann has been involved most of the 25 years as Johnny, her late husband was the treasurer from day one,” Mary explains.
“Ann is the most meticulous, honest person to have in charge of our accounts. Nobody would equal her attention to detail,” she adds.
Since its inception, the festival has evolved and underage competitions were introduced, attracting a large number of participants, many of whom have gone on to be all-Ireland champions on their chosen instrument.
“Michail O’Rourke, Oliver Deveney, Marie Walsh, Tara Breen, Fiachna O’Mongain and Darren Breslin, to name but a few. Local and visiting musicians have supported the festival over the years but, in particular, Charlie Harris, Gradam Ceoil winner 2009,” Mary states.
Charlie is someone Mary believes has made a huge contribution to the festival.
“He is a gentleman and is very unassuming and humble regarding his musical ability. He has been so helpful to me all the years I have been involved, obliging at the drop of a hat.
He plays his music for the love of it, never the money. He would never let anyone down and is always cheerful. I would say Charlie has never missed a festival. The people of this area are very proud of Charlie’s talent being recognised as the TG4 Gradam Ceoil musician of the year 2009. We know that he richly deserves this award,” she says.
Among the changes Mary has witnessed and been key in implementing is the introduction of children’s and underage competitions in accordion and tin whistle.
“This move was very popular. Children’s activities such as face painting, story-telling and crafts became part of the festival, with these taking place at Gort library, the town hall and at Coole Park Visitor Centre. Set-dancing and sean-nós workshops were very popular also,” Mary recalls.
“Some years ago, lectures were developed to inform locals and visitors about the history of Joe Cooley and Kieran Collins’ music and their legacy to future generations. This year’s lecture deals with traditional music in the 21st century.
“This is really part of our effort to include an educational element to tastefully broaden the attraction of the festival,” she continues.
According to Mary, there are at least 10 other similar festivals happening on the same weekend. Despite this, the Cooley-Collins festival has retained its popularity and continues to attract loyal visitors and new faces to South Galway.
In this regard, Mary believes the festival organisers are lucky. “I have really met the best of people from at home and abroad and some others too. I have heard from other organisations that many festivals cease because of the same problems we face here in Gort – lack of support from the main beneficiaries,” she explains. However, she adds that the festival has managed once again this year to attract sponsors, with Guinness remaining on board, along with Galway County Council, the Arts Council and local businesses.
Each year the committee has worked hard to keep the music of Joe Cooley and Kieran Collins alive for the generations to come and Mary hopes that in the future a CD of both musicians will be produced.
Among the many musicians invited to this year’s festival are Kieran Hanrahan, Jimmy McGreevy, Chris Droney, Mary Parker and friends, Des Mulkere, Billy Carr, Pat O’Connor, Graham Guerin, James Duggan, Finbar Roche and Marie Curran, Teresa Tierney-Ryan, Ned Kelly, Tim Collins, Jim Barco and Friends, Charlie Harris, Monica Naughton and Kevin Rohan, Paddy Jordan, Chris Nestor and Colie Moran, Oliver Deveney, Francis Droney and Áine McGrath, Joe Carey and The Mayo Musicians, John Regan and Patsy Broderick, Michael, Louise and Michelle Mulcahy, Martin Quinn and Dennis Liddy.
The festival runs from October 22 to 26.
Among the highlights of the festival are lectures on traditional music, recitals, multiple céilithe and workshops in button accordion, tin whistle, banjo, fiddle, flute and concertina playing as well as competitions.