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FIDDLER'S GREEN FESTIVAL - Rostrevor, County Down - 19-26 July 2015

The Fiddler's Green Festival has come a long way in the last 29 years. It began as a one day event, progressed to a weekend festival, and now extends to eight days and seven nights of music, culture and craic. Two things help define the festival - The Sands Family and the location, Rostrevor, a scenic village nestling on the shores of Carlingford Lough against the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains, which really do roll down to the sea.

C S Lewis was born in Ulster and spent his boyhood years playing in the Mournes. Throughout his life, he spoke of the magic of Northern Ireland. Although he spent his later years living in England, it was well documented that he regularly returned to Northern Ireland and to Rostrevor, the place that inspired what is arguably one of the greatest classics of 20th century literature, The Chronicles Of Narnia. In a letter to his brother, he confided explicitly: “That part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia.” He describes the place as “a land of heath clad mountains, thyme and flower filled downs, many flowing pristine rivers flowed over its black soils and through its flashing glens, the lands of mossy caverns and deep forests.”

This does give you an idea of the location and perhaps an insight into the Sands Family members as performers. Coming from an area which is so steeped in Irish legend and mythology, the way that the Sands brothers surround their songs with stories, or yarns, comes as no surprise. There is a certain magic in their performance and a certain magic in the place. I can hear any of the Sands saying this – “There is no evidence that giant fairies and dwarfs roam freely around Rostrevor, but there is also no evidence that they don't!” Believe me, from my experience of Fiddler’s Green, they do!

Although the festival is rooted in the community, there were visitors from far and wide, with a greater proportion of visitors from Europe than a typical festival of this kind, many of whom had encountered members of the Sands family over the years. The Sands Family toured extensively in Europe from the early seventies and Tommy, Colum and Ben are still regular visitors to this day.

Each year, the Festival bestows two special awards; the Hall Of Fame Award, which celebrates lifelong achievement in Irish Music, and the Creative Arts Award, to acknowledge achievements in the Arts and Literary fields.
This year, the recipients of the Creative Arts Award were local and the art being recognised was uniquely local. “All good art is precious, but there is a piece of art in this place that is priceless. It cannot be borrowed, bought or locked away in a vault. It is the property of all and of none and it is on our very doorstep. It is called Kilbroney Forest Park and loved locally as The Meadow.”

The presentation of the Award to The Quiet Meadow Makers, a small group who campaigned nearly 40 years ago to save the greenery from the cement and steel of developments, was one of my own personal highlights of the festival.

The festival runs for a whole week, I only caught events from midweek and over the final weekend. All the concerts and events that I saw were good, but three in particular were truly exceptional. The first was an almost unbelievable performance by Seamus Begley and Tim Edey. Seamus Begley and Steve Cooney were the 2015 recipients of the Hall Of Fame Award and they were scheduled to appear in the concert on the Friday evening. Unfortunately, Steve Cooney was unable to attend because of illness and Tim Edey was drafted in. Steve Cooney is Tim's own guitar hero and he knew Steve's music well. At this concert, he was flying by the seat of his pants, as only Tim Edey can, and words can’t begin to convey a real sense of what they achieved that night. They engaged totally with the audience with breathtaking music and a total sense of fun and mastery of their craft. I’m sure that on another night they would rise to similar heights, but this was a concert to remember.

The second was the final concert with The Sands Family, supported by Na Leanai, the upcoming next generation of Sands. The first half of the concert was given over to the young ones, the start of the second half to the Sands Family of old, and then, in the final section, a coming together of the extended family. This was another case of ‘you had to be there to experience it’. It was a home game for the Sands Family and the crowd were with them all the way.

The third highlight, and possibly more exceptional because it was less expected, was the concert to present the Creative Arts Award. Held in An Cuan, a centre that played an important role in the Peace Process and titled The Music Of Healing, the event saw Tommy Sands acting as host throughout. Tommy introduced a range of exceptional people, asking questions and usually eliciting a performance out of each of them.

Although I have picked out my own highlights, there was much more. There was superb order at the concerts; the audiences knew what they were listening to. There were free outdoor ceilis, an open air stage, art exhibitions, a photographic exhibition, children's entertainment, a literary pub crawl, and lunchtime, early evening and night time folk clubs.

There was no shortage of quality performers headlining the evening concerts, including Danu and Andy Irvine, and there was strength in depth throughout the daytime schedule. Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden impressed with their show, Songs Of County Down. On the outdoor stage, Oscail, a young band playing traditional music, excelled, and look set for a bright future.

This is a festival that people return to year on year and where lasting friendships are forged. The overall feel is one of friendship and welcome. In 2016, they will be marking their 30th anniversary.