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Taking up the céilí challenge

ITS unprecedented success has brought it back for a third year at the Ennis Trad Festival. With 10 bands readying themselves to do battle, Árd Ghaisce na mBuíonta – the great céilí band challenge – is set to cause foot-stompin’ havoc at the West County Hotel this Saturday at 7pm.

Getting some practise in before Ennis Trad Festival’s Great Band Challenge this Saturday night – Ceoltóirí na Mainistreach, Sinéad Heagney, Anne Marie McCormack, Anne Marie Vaughan, Geraldine Cotter, Liam Ryan, Eamonn Cotter, Oliver O’Connell, Jack Talty and John Carroll. Photograph by John Kelly

As the only céilí band competition outside the protective boundaries of comhaltas, Saturday’s contest between many of the country’s finest musicians will afford audience members the opportunity to put pen to paper and vote their preference as the fifth adjudicator.
Many of them have spent years dancing their sets to the various bands throughout the county and further afield so it is, quite literally, their only chance to vote. They are, after all, dance experts and this is their music. But beware – those wishing to have their votes counted must be in attendance before the first band takes to the stage.
Six new bands are accepting this year’s challenge – the Oranmore, Listowel, Inish Craggy, Triogue, NAMA and the Midlanders Céilí Bands.; while former winners, the Corofin (2009) and Ceoltóirí na Mainistreach (2008), along with the Awbeg and Banna Cheoil CCÉ Timpeall an Ghleantáin are back for another crack at the title.
It was little over a month ago that the organisers of Ennis Trad Festival announced that it was all systems go for this year’s event, so a number of the bands are not only newcomers to the competition but are also brand-new céilí bands. There was some amount of organisation involved, given that the competition rules stipulate a minimum of 10 senior musicians per band, then tunes have to be decided upon and a certain amount of practise done before the competition.
Among the brand-new céilí bands are Ceoltóirí NAMA/M50 who decided to enter “all for a bit of fun” and describe themselves as the M50 because “We play straight and fast with no twists or turns”. And if they win, they say they would consider bailing out the banks with their prize money.
“Last year, Catherine McEvoy was at the trad fest and came back saying that we have to enter the céilí band competition. But then, we didn’t know if it was going ahead so it was only three weeks ago that we decided for sure that we were going to enter when we got confirmation and everybody jumped at the chance,” NAMA’s piano player Noreen O’Donoghue explains. Clare fiddler Michelle O’Brien is amongst NAMA’s ranks, as is Jimmy McGreavey on accordion.
Like Ceoltóirí NAMA, the Inish Craggy Céilí Band also formed especially for the Ennis Trad Festival. Made up mostly of students from the University of Limerick, fiddler Trish Clarke says that there’s just a really good atmosphere at the Ennis Trad Festival céilí band competition and that’s why they decided to enter.
And while she says that the competition is “a really good laugh”, she stresses that the Craggy musicians are all very experienced céilí banders and are hoping, at least, for a best-costume prize on the night.
While the Oranmore Céilí Band fall into the category of a new céilí band, flute player Richard Murray explains that the band have, in fact, been together since the 1950s but have disbanded and reformed many times over the years. It has been two years since they last competed in the All-Ireland Fleadh and they decided to get together again for Saturday night’s competition. “The competition is attractive to the bands, as we’re not limited to the type of music we can play and as well as that, we can play harmony,” he says.
For the Corofin Céilí Band, last year’s winners, Siobhán Peoples explains that the band was never worried about winning – they just wanted to do their best. The band originally got together to help out the festival, she says, and just to make sure that there were bands in the first competition three years ago. Siobhán hadn’t played in a céilí band since she was in national school and says that the céilí band set-up is quite different for her because everyone has to play the tunes the same way at the same time.
“So it’s quite disciplined,” she says, but what attracted her to the competition is that she liked the concept that judges are behind the screens.
“The audience can see and judges can’t so there’s very little politics involved,” she says, and also welcomes the ‘Clare handicap’ which means that if the three Clare bands – Ceoltóirí Mainistreach, the Corofin and Inish Craggy – receive 15% or more of audience first-preference votes, then two points will be deducted from their overall tally. “I’m really happy about the weighting system for bands and I’d prefer it if the Clare bands were judged harder than others throughout the country,” she says.
In addition to the all-important audience vote, four anonymous adjudicators will listen to the competitors from behind a screen. As the bands take to the stage, the fear an tí on the night, Brendan Begley, will announce each band by number only so the judges will have no way of identifying them.
From the adjudicators’ perspective, the competition is entirely different from the usual as judges must rely only on their aural senses. John Lynch, leader of the Kilfenora Céilí Band and former adjudicator at the festival, points out that the only drawback to this is that if you can see the musician on stage in the competition, then you can decide whether or not they are playing strongly enough and in other band competitions, points can be deducted for this.
However, he says, this is a mere difference and not a criticism. “Everyone has their own definition of what makes a good céilí band,” he explains. “You put down your headings and make up your marking scheme. Are the tunes within the rules? Do the instruments blend? Was there any instrument protruding above the rest and are all the instruments in tune? Was it tight – are all the musicians playing the same notes and together and then of course, you’re listening for harmonies and if there are good variations,” he says.
That’s good advice if you’re planning to be part of the audience vote at the Árd Ghaisce na mBuíonta this Saturday night.
Visit www.ennistradfestival.com for more information.

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