Musicians and music lovers gather for annual Frankie Kennedy celebration
By Carolyn Farrar
It was part-concert, part-launch and all-around reunion on Monday night at Teach Hida Beag's pub in An Bun Beag, as the 17th annual Frankie Kennedy Winter School was launched by Luka Bloom before a room filled with traditional musicians and trad music lovers.
Very much a part of the opening night was the spirit of Frankie Kennedy himself, the talented and charismatic young Belfast-born flute player in whose memory the annual school was established.
The evening also featured the launch of two new trad CDs: A Feeling in the Blood, a comprehensive musical picture of the late Rosses fiddler Nillidh Boyle and his music; and Nuair a thid s fn chro, the new CD by award-winning sean-ns singer Mire N Choilm of Gaoth Dobhair.
After fear an t Rnn Mac Aodha Bhu, RT Raidi na Gaeltachta presenter, announced the evening's festivities as Gaeilge, Luka took the stage in the pub and apologised for delivering his remarks in English.
"You'll have to forgive me - I'm from the Pale," he said, to laughter from the audience.
The well-known singer-songwriter said he first met Frankie Kennedy and Mairad N Mhaonaigh at the 1978 Ballyshannon Folk Festival. They were in an upstairs pub for a Sunday afternoon session, and the founder members of Altan were performing.
Luka said he always encountered Frankie in a musical setting, "and I always felt deeply enriched by being in his company."
He said that hearing Frankie play was always an added bonus, but as well as that the flute player "carried a natural joy of living with him." In the early 1990s Frankie and Mairad joined Luka and others in a Dublin recording studio for a session, and after the couple left the musicians "agreed that was just the icing on the cake of the recording," Luka recalled.
He said when he learned that Frankie was unwell, "it was one of the few times in my life that I had the feeling that life isn't fair sometimes." Frankie died of cancer in 1994 and the winter school was established in his memory later that year.
But before his death there was a concert in his honour at Barry's Hotel in Dublin that drew trad musicians from all over. "People just wanted to be there," Luka said. "It was an incredible celebration of a very beautiful man."
Frankie himself was there, and was not one to seek sympathy - he broke the tension in the room by telling a joke about his own condition, Luka said.
"He was a really, really beautiful man," he said. "I feel really honoured to be here tonight."
The winter school, with its celebration of Irish traditional musical culture and the new generations of musicians that have come from its workshops, is a special way to carry on and mark the tradition, he said.
"Gatherings like this will mark the future of our country," Luka said. "Irish people doing what we do best."
And launching into his own song, "City of Chicago", Luka declared the 17th Frankie Kennedy Winter School officially open.
But there was more music to come.
Mairad N Mhaonaigh launched the new recording, A Feeling in the Blood, a three-CD compilation of every available recording of Rosses fiddle player Nillidh Boyle, accompanied by extensive notes on the man and his music. The production, by Cairdeas na bhFidilir and compiled by Rab Cherry and Dermot McLaughlin, includes recordings that date back to 1937, and continues through recordings from 1945-1953 that were made by Alan Lomax, the BBC and the Folklore Commission. Nillidh's famous speech on his view on the state of Irish music at the time is also included in the collection.
Mairad said she was "delighted and really honoured" to launch the collection of the fiddle player who she said was already a legend when she was growing up. Nillidh Boyle was the measure of fiddle players, she said, adding, "Nillidh Boyle was the best."
The founder member of Altan recalled a story that Nillidh's wife told, about how he would head off on his bicycle to go and listen to bird song, and then try to imitate their sounds on his fiddle. Mairad also heard that he learned his tunes from his mother's lilting, which would explain their unique complexities.
"He had a master's tone in his fiddle music," she said.
Mairad also credited Rab and Dermot for their work on the notes, calling it "an incredible piece of work".
"It is a scholarly piece of work," she said, calling the three CD set "a must have" for anyone who has an interest in traditional Donegal music.
Chef Brian Domhnaill, known locally as Brian Danny Minnie, launched Nuair a thid s fn chro, the new CD by award-winning sean-ns singer Mire N Choilm of Gaoth Dobhair. He said he has known Mire for many years and in that time no matter which music festival they attended, "She always lights up a room."
He said the Gaoth Dobhair singer incorporates the three elements that are needed for traditional music: an appreciation of heritage, in this case of the three Gaeltacht parishes of Gaoth Dobhair, Cloch Cheann Fhaola and Na Rosann; a deep understanding of the songs of Gaoth Dobhair, Tory Island and Na Rosann that she recorded on the CD; and her own sweet singing style, which he called "very representative of the singing in north-west Donegal".
"She brings a great intellect to her singing because she understands the words and the stories of the songs and the tradition that goes with each," Brian said. "She takes an intellectual approach to her singing."
Mire said her singing was influenced by a teacher she had in school, Nellie Bean Mhic Giolla Bhrde, and Annie John Gallagher later became her mentor. Mire has twice won Comrtas sean-ns na mBan at the Oireachtas, last year and in 2007, as well as the All-Ireland Fleadh in 2006 and the Pan-Celtic Traditional Singing Competition.
Brian said Mire's new CD would be a great help to anyone who was learning traditional singing, and said the disc "adds to the wealth of music from the three parishes".
Mire then entertained the filled pub with two songs from the CD: Ar a ghabhil go Baile Atha Cliath domh, accompanied by Ciarn Maonaigh on the fiddle; and An ghiobg, a humorous duet about a long-married, squabbling couple, which she sang with Gaoth Dobhair singer and writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrde.
The launch was also something of an inauguration for flute player Conor Byrne, who is the new director of the winter school, though he is no stranger to the annual winter festival: He knew Frankie when he was a child, and attended the first winter school 17 years ago. Conor came to the school first as a music student, and later became a teacher at the school.
The start of last year's school coincided with the January freeze, making it difficult for students, musicians and fans to get from one venue to another. This year the thaw came just before the school started.
"We said a few prayers to a few different gods," Conor said. He said class numbers were up over last year and ticket sales were going well.
Conor said Frankie "was very much involved in encouraging musicians of any age, really, in learning music". That ethos continues to be at the core of the school.
"He was so encouraging," Conor said of Frankie. "To me, that really explains what the winter school is all about."