A trip to Cork is never too much of a hardship, and we don’t usually need to be asked twice, so when the opportunity arose to visit this year’s Cork Folk Festival, we jumped at the chance. It has been a few years since we were at the festival, so we thought it was about time for a return trip. And, as we suspected, we were not disappointed.
The festival in Cork is based around a series of concerts which range from the very traditional to the much more contemporary. Alongside there are workshops, music in the streets, dancing, and the inevitable sessions that spring up when so many musicians are in town. Since we were last there, the festival is utilising some new venues, and this led to quite a different experience, and a lot more walking than before as the venues are a bit more spread out, but even that couldn’t put a dampener on a great weekend.
The festival started on Wednesday night, and before we got there on Friday there had already been concerts from The Unthanks, Steve Tilston, Roy Harper, Hank Wedel, Rob Halligan, The Harversters and Eoin Ó Riabhaigh, Johnny MacCarthy & Máire Ní Chéileachair. But the first concert for us, and probably one of the best, was Lynched.
Despite a dodgy start with the support, Morning Veils (the less said about them the better), and despite a very difficult venue acoustically (an old church – beautiful, but echoey), Dublin folk band Lynched pulled off the gig of the weekend. They began with some of their big songs: Henry My Son, Daffodil Mulligan and Salonika, in which they sang the original Cork lyrics as opposed to their amended Dublin ones as a mark of respect for the Cork audience. They continued to delight the crowd with song after song, always paying tribute to the people who passed them on to them, and never being afraid to tackle the bigger, darker songs.
No harm to the lads (who are unerringly brilliant) but the highlight of the night came from Radie Peat when she sang Dark Horse On The Wind, a song she learned from Liam Weldon, accompanied only by her harmonium. She received absolute attention in the church, which was full of a very young, and probably not your average folk festival crowd. Lynched are breaking down barriers and introducing these songs to a whole new audience without compromising in the slightest. They absolutely deserve all the accolades that are coming their way at the moment.
The other high point for me was the Seamus Creagh tribute concert featuring excellent traditional music from Buttons & Bows, songs from local singer Danny Maidhcí Ó Súilleabháin, Duane Andrews & Aaron Collis from Newfoundland and Caoimhe & Eimhear Flannery, two young and incredibly talented sisters from nearby Rockchapel. This concert was more traditional in nature than some of the others during the weekend and attracted a capacity and very attentive crowd in the Cork School of Music – naturally, a great venue for such an event. The combined talents of Seamus and Manus McGuire, Jackie Daly and Garry O’Briain in Buttons & Bows is something special, and although they are professional and full of showmanship, they do so in a way that isn’t flashy or egotistical, and without any pretence at all. They let the music speak for itself. Some other bands could learn a thing or two from them.
The Kino (a tiny old cinema and another new venue for the festival this year) was the venue for The Compánach, a show which was sort of an audio-visual version of an encyclopedia of Irish music. With music supplied by Fintan Vallely, Gerry O’Connor and Tiarnán ÓDuinnchín, songs by Karan Casey and sean nós dance by Emma O’Sullivan, the show worked its way from A to Z through all the counties of Ireland, with tunes from each county enhancing projected images associated with that county (whether it be musical manuscripts of the tunes from there, photos of musicians, images of books or CDs, photos of the landscape, or other related images - e.g mummers in Co Armagh, Micho Russell from Co Clare, highlands in Donegal). It might sound a bit dry, but far from it – it was fascinating, and a great way to learn more about the history of the music of different areas up until the present day.
There was no festival club this year, but instead a series of late night gigs. We danced the night away to Socks In The Frying Pan and We Banjo 3 – two livelier bands taking traditional music and rocking it up a bit. Not to everyone’s taste, but great fun all the same, and definitely appealing to a certain demographic of people attending the festival. The Henry Girls and The Harversters (over as part of Cork’s twinning with Warwick Folk Festival) also played a late one in The Kino, to a smaller and somewhat more subdued crowd. Maybe it was the lack of booze – this venue was a BYOB venue, but since the off-licences were shut before the concert started, it wasn’t easy to get any if you hadn’t organised yourself in advance.
There was a flute concert, a fiddle concert, a concertina/box concert and a piping concert, all of which took the form of several solo players playing a handful of sets one after the other. This set-up allows you to really hear the individual styles and the phrasing and ornamentation that each employs, and it provides a nice contrast to some of the other concerts. That is one of the things I like about the festival in Cork – lots of different things are provided for, and because of the nature of the programme, there is room for everyone.
The festival ended on the Sunday evening with a concert in the very grand Cork Opera House featuring Mick Flannery, a singer songwriter from nearby Blarney who has become something of a Cork hero. While the concert was far less ‘folky’ in nature to my mind, it did attract a huge crowd of non-folk-festival punters, and who knows, they might venture to some other concerts next time around. For those who like their festival more on the trad side, running concurrently was a singing event by the Cork Singers Club and Dublin singer, Barry Gleeson. They were attempting to sing their way through the 50 songs published in Paddy Galvin’s book, Irish Songs Of Resistance. The night started with singers taking their turn on stage, and then evolved into more of a singers circle format. I don’t know if they got through all 50 of the songs, but they managed more than they left out, and gave us a great time in the process - a lovely way to end the weekend in this, the centenary year of the Easter Rising.
There were some things that we missed due to unfortunate programme clashes. The Lynched gig was on at the same time as The Atlantic Arc Orchestra featuring Donal Lunny, Pauline Scanlon, Jarlath Henderson, Aidan O’Rourke, Padraig Rynne, Ewen Vernal and John Blease – we would have loved to have been able to see both. And earlier in the festival, Steve Tilston played at the same time as Roy Harper, perhaps splitting the English songwriter-loving crowd a bit. But you can’t have it all, and we came home having heard plenty of fantastic music and once again enjoying every minute in the fabulous city of Cork.
It’s all happening again next year from 28th September to 1st October, and would be well worth a weekend of your time.
by Fiona Heywood