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Fleadh Nua, Ennis, 1979. Photograph by Liam McGrath

Golden year for Fleadh Nua

FLEADH Nua’s legacy of showcasing the very best of traditional music, song, dance, storytelling agus Teanga ársa na nGael in Ennis over the past five decades is to be quite literally be etched in stone.
This year’s Fleadh Nua, running from May 25 to June 3 marks the Golden Anniversary of the festival’s arrival in Ennis back in 1974, and organisers have planned some very special events to mark this momentous occasion.
These include the unveiling of a specially commissioned commemorative stone created by sculptor Mike McTigue celebrating 50 years of the Fleadh Down in Ennis opposite Clare Museum in co-operation with Clare County Council.
Chairman of Fleadh Nua’s organising committee Frank Whelan tells us they are very excited to have a lasting monument to Fleadh Nua’s huge contribution to the cultural life of the county town.
The 50th Fleadh down in Ennis promises an exciting programme of events planned to mark the Golden Anniversary with Frank saying, “We are trying to do something a bit special this year”.
Some events will reflect back on the Fleadh’s illustrious past while others look ahead, showcasing the talented young people keeping the future of the traditional arts in Clare burning bright.
Anniversaries offer a time for reflection with Frank saying this year in particular is an occasion “to remember all the great characters and volunteers that have been involved with the Fleadh over the years”.
Among the highlights of this year’s festival will be the presentation of the Gradam na hÉigse, the highest award by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, to festival stalwart, Pádraig Mac Mathúna.
Pádraig was one of the original committee members that brought Fleadh Nua to Ennis in 1974 with Frank paying tribute to “the last man standing”.
“Pádraig has been a very active member of the committee down through the years, he will be remembered for his extraordinary work in organising Comórtas Rínce ensuring it was always a truly national competition,” he said.
“He has written many interesting articles for the Fleadh Nua programmes and he was always available to lend a hand, whether at church gate collections or decorating the town with buntings.”
Memories of the late Frank Custy who passed away earlier this year, will also be shared during the Fleadh. Remembering the Dysart musician as the “anchor” for the Fleadh’s sessions at the Holy Family School hall for many years, Frank reveals this year’s session will be re-named the ‘Frank Custy Memorial Session’.
These and many more musicians synonymous with the Fleadh will be recalled by festival goers this year as they reminisce on the festival’s past with Frank saying, “This will be a year for remembering so many great people with many names rolling out over the week of the Fleadh.”
While this year’s Fleadh programme kicks off on May 25, Frank reveals the music is set to ring out in the town a little earlier with plans to host street sessions featuring school bands from across the county in the week ahead of the festival.
“Last year we brought school bands from the town out onto the street for lunchtime sessions and they went very well,” said Frank.
“This year we are planning to expand it and we are bringing some schools from other parts of the county in this time.
“We’re planning to do it a week earlier, spreading it out leading up to the Fleadh so they will be on the streets from Monday, May 20.”
This year’s Fleadh Nua will be held as multi-million euro public realm works continue on the streets of Ennis this summer. However Frank believes this won’t dampen the spirit of the historic celebration, outlining the organising committee have been working closely with Clare County Council and contractors Shareridge in putting their plans in place.
This year’s programme is full to the brim with activities including céilís, sessions, lectures, books and CD launches, Irish language events, reed making workshops, singing, set dancing workshops, pub sessions and an expanded street entertainment programme.
Since 1974, Fleadh Nua has developed from what had been a three-day event to a festival spanning 10 days attracting thousands of people to the county capital of Clare.
The festival started life in Dublin in 1970 with Frank describing the decision to move the Fleadh across the River Shannon to Ennis as “brave and visionary”.
“The vote of confidence shown by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the capacity and ability of the market town of Ennis and the local organising committee to host an event of such significance has since proven to be a master stroke,” he said.
“It is impossible to overstate the cultural, social and economic dividends which have accrued not just to Ennis but to Comhaltas generally in 50 years since its arrival in the town.”
With the emphasis placed firmly on entertainment rather than competition, the festival has become synonymous with imagination, innovation and participation.
Over the years the festival has developed into an intimate family festival attracting around 5,000 people to the county capital each year.
Asked what has been the secret to Ennis’ successful hosting of the Fleadh through the decades, Frank replies, “It’s a natural setting for it. Clare is a traditional county and Ennis is a very traditional town and it has a way of drawing people. People like to come to Ennis.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who came here for a concert or a session on the street that didn’t love it here.
“With the exception of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Fleadh Nua is the longest running festival in the Comhaltas calendar. Other festivals have come and gone but Fleadh Nua has remained.”
Among the highly anticipated events in this year’s programme will be a concert performance on May 25 of a specially commissioned work by the Comhaltas National Folk Orchestra of Ireland.
Titled ‘Cuisle – The Musical Heart of Clare’ the event in glór will explore in music and song, words and dance, the rich musical heritage of the Banner County.
Comprised of gifted young Irish musicians and singers, the Comhaltas National Folk Orchestra of Ireland has performed at venues all over Ireland including the National Concert Hall and Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and the National Opera House in Wexford.
The orchestra have performed at events for the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins and for Pope Francis during his Irish visit. Their performances have also been broadcast on RTÉ and TG4.
Given its age it is not surprising that the festival has forged links with some of the most storied names in traditional music, with many of those set to return to the Fleadh this year.
The legendary Liverpool Céilí Band, long associated with Fleadh Nua, will provide the music for the official opening concert at Cois na hAbhna on Sunday, May 26.
“The Liverpool Céilí Band were a mainstay of the Fleadh and we are delighted they have reformed and are coming back to Ennis,” he said.
They were last here in the mid ‘90s. They’re very excited themselves to be returning, they are rehearsing at the moment and getting their tunes together.”
Meanwhile the famous Kilfenora Céilí Band will take to the stage in glór on May 26 which will be music to the ears of their countless followers and friends.
The emergence of trad supergroup Stockton’s Wing is inextricably linked to Fleadh Nua’s migration to Ennis. With strong family links to committee stalwarts Jackie and Mary Hanrahan and Sonny and Frances Murray Fleadh Nua played a pivotal role in the development of the traditional music scene that emerged in the town to which ‘The Wing’ gave full expression.
Their homecoming gig at Fleadh Nua on June 2 “is sure to be one for the ages,” says Frank.
A firm favourite with audiences at the festival since its inception the annual Aos Óg concert showcases the very best of young and emerging traditional artists.
This year’s event will celebrate 50 years of the Fleadh by journeying through the years and welcoming back some of the now accomplished and highly celebrated performers who, as children and teenagers, first shared their talent with the world at an Aos Óg concert.
Past members of the legendary Inis Óg Ceilí Band will be the house band for the night on Friday, May 31 in glór. “The prowess of our younger musicians, singers and dancers is frequently remarked upon at fleadhanna cheoil and sessions and over he years this concert has provided a platform for the very best of the best,” says Frank.
Acclaimed musician, teacher and arranger Padraic O’Reilly has been tasked with delivering Aos Óg – Thar na mBlianta, Aos Óg – Down The Years.
As always the Irish language will feature prominently throughout the festival. In a unique concert not to be missed Diarmuid de Faoite with some of Ireland’s finest singers will take the audience on a journey through the hidden Gaelic song heritage of County Clare.
“Diarmuid has a huge amount of work done collecting old songs in the Irish language from County Clare,” outlines Frank.
Dúchas is Dóchas will be held in Cois na hAbhna on Wednesday, May 29.
Traditional music groups from schools all over the Banner will perform in Merchants Square from Monday, May 20, to Friday, May 24.
On Monday, May 20, Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg will play at 11.45am while Quin National School will play at 1pm.
On Tuesday, Barefield National School will play at 11.45am and St Flannan’s College at 1pm. On Wednesday, Doora National School will play at 11.45am and Kilnaboy National School at 1pm while on Thursday Ennis National School will play at 11.45am with Fanore National School playing at 1pm. Finally on Friday, May 24, Kildysart National School will play at 11.45am with Moyasta National School playing from 1pm.
For more information on this year’s Fleadh Nua check www.fleadhnua.com or email fleadhnua@ceoltrad.com.

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