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PATRICK O’KEEFFE TRADITIONAL MUSIC FESTIVAL - Castleisland, Co Kerry - 27-30 October 2017

If you’re a keen student of early 20th century Irish history, you may associate the Crown Hotel in Castleisland with the formation of a branch of the Irish Volunteers in 1914. Well-known speakers on the balcony of the hotel convinced huge crowds to join the nationalist cause. If you were in the Crown during this year’s festival weekend, you’ll have been involved in great sessions with musicians from this area of Kerry and beyond. Many of the tunes they’d be playing would be ones associated with Sliabh Luachra and maybe more particularly with one of the great exponents of the music of this area, Patrick O’Keeffe.

There were equally great sessions in other hotels and bars in the town, and if there was no live music, you could always walk up and down the High Street listening to the piped music. Although there were several formal organised concerts over the weekend, Cormac O’Mahony, one of the organisers of this 25th Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival, was especially pleased that the bar sessions, which were led by established professional musicians, also attracted enthusiasts of all levels and all ages from other parts of Ireland and indeed the world. One of the sessions I sat in on included virtuoso musicians Liam O’Brien, Derek Hickey, Frankie Gavin and Aidan Coffey among others, as well as two young brothers of maybe 12 and 9 playing concertina and whistle respectively. In situations like this, anything can happen – and it did.

So, who was Patrick O’Keeffe and why have there been 25 festivals in his memory? Patrick was born into a musical family in 1887. His father was a school teacher and his mother played fiddle and concertina, and his uncle Cal O’Callaghan, who had emigrated to the United States and then returned to Ireland after 20 years, is thought to have been a major musical influence on Patrick. Patrick was an educated man who graduated from university in Dublin and then returned to his home area to teach. Eventually he took over from his father as principal of a National school in Glountane near to Castleisland, but because he was more interested in music he eventually gave up this career and devoted the rest of his life to playing and teaching music. He is now remembered as one of the greatest exponents of the Sliabh Luachra style of fiddle playing, as a teacher who ensured that this music did not disappear, and for his unusual system of musical notation. Among his pupils were the revered fiddle players Denis Murphy and his sister Julia Clifford and Paddy Cronin, and the accordionist Johnny O’Leary.

The first festival commemorating Patrick’s life took place in 1993, inspired by Peter Browne’s RTE radio programme about Patrick and his music, made to mark the 30th anniversary of his death.

There were people at this year’s festival who had attended many, if not all, of the 25 festivals and, having been there myself for the first time, I can understand why the event has become so popular. In addition to the fantastic music, the warmth of the welcome in the town by everyone involved was wonderful. Something that particularly struck me was the complete lack of commercialisation. The committee organising the event all do what they do for love of the music and the event, and nobody tried to sell you anything; no doubt most of the musicians could have pushed their CDs or books, but none did. The bars and hotels were welcoming to musicians and the public alike and there were no attempts to rip anyone off. Publicity was kept to a minimum too, Saturday’s fiddle concert being advertised on a handwritten sheet of A4 paper cellotaped to a wall!

The festival was officially opened in a low-key informal ceremony in The River Island Hotel on the Friday evening. Speakers included Matt Cranitch and Peter Browne. In the hotel reception area there was an informative exhibition of newspaper articles and photographs tracing the life and times of Patrick O’Keeffe. On the Saturday morning, instrument classes devoted to Sliabh Luachra music took place in the town’s secondary school. Fiddle, flute, accordion and banjo classes were on offer.

The first organised event was the Fiddle Recital hosted by Matt Cranitch in The Ivy Leaf Arts Centre and involving Gerry Harrington, Emma O’Leary, Dylan Foley (from the USA), Paddy Jones, Connie O’Connell, Conor Daly and Frankie Gavin. For two hours on Saturday afternoon, we were treated to pieces played by individuals, by duos and by the whole group. Running simultaneously was a “brush-up your conversational Irish language” session. Having nothing to brush up, I chose the recital. This was followed by a Singing Concert hosted by Aileen Roantree in Hartnett’s Bar with Mickey MacConnell, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Dónal Clancy, Tim Dennehy and Don Stiffe. Bar sessions started at 4.00 pm and continued with various changes of musicians until late. One packed afternoon session featuring Derek Hickey, Aidan Coffey and Liam O’Brien, among others, attracted many people. Frankie Gavin, who had been waiting patiently to join in, asked the barman if there were any spare stools. “Sorry,” said the barman, “but the stools are only for musicians.”

The final official event of the weekend was the Sunday Night 25th Anniversary Concert, MC’d by singer Tim Dennehy. It was mid-way through this concert that Matt Cranitch was presented with the 2017 award for his contribution to the music of Sliabh Luachra.

Even though each performer or group was restricted to just a few pieces of music, the concert lasted two and a half hours. Proceedings were kicked off by a trio consisting of Gerry Harrington, Eoin O’Sullivan and Paul de Grae – great music introduced by Eoin with his deadpan sense of humour. This was followed by singer Dónal Clancy who started by reading the account of how his father, Liam Clancy of Clancy Brothers’ fame, had come to take the photograph everyone knows of Patrick O’Keeffe, and how this chance occurrence had shaped the rest of his life. He went on to sing Whiskey You’re The Devil and a catchy song about the Irish outlaw, William Crotty, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The audience joined in with both these songs. Connie O’Connell was up next with flute player Eileen De Paor playing some of Connie’s many wonderful tunes. American fiddler Dylan Foley and guitarist John Blake continued the concert with sets of reels and barn dances.

Next came what was, for me, one of the highlights of the evening: Johnny O’Leary’s grandson Bryan O’Leary on accordion and Andrea Palandri on fiddle playing two sets of exquisite Sliabh Luachra style music.

The award for his contribution to the music of Sliabh Luachra was presented to Matt Cranitch by Peter Browne, who credited Matt with having spread the music of the area to the whole of Ireland and indeed the world. Mention was made of Matt’s PhD thesis on the life and music of Patrick O’Keeffe. In his short acceptance speech, Matt quoted the words of a previous winner of the award, Jackie Daly: “It’s good to be first at last. I’ve always been behind before.” This was probably not true of either player, but it was a great self-deprecating line and the audience loved it. Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly then played their set, and half-way through were joined by the 16-year old fiddle-champion, Caoimhe Flannery. I particularly enjoyed their Bluemont Waltz.

One is always intrigued by the name “Frankie Gavin and Friends”, which was how the next act was advertised in advance of the festival. It was to have been Frankie Gavin and Barry Brady from De Dannan, with George Grasso on bouzouki and Tommy Fitzharris on flute. In the event, for unknown reasons, Barry Brady was replaced by the better known Dermot Byrne. This was slightly disappointing for me personally as the Gavin / Brady combination is absolute magic. However, the quartet played a great set which included two duets: Gavin and Fitzharris on flutes and Gavin and Byrne with an incredible fiddle-accordion waltz which left the audience breathless. They’d obviously rehearsed but there was clearly improvisation going on.

Singer-guitarist Don Stiffe was on next singing a couple of well-chosen songs which were popular with the audience.

The evening was brought to a close by what the programme called “Damien Mullane & Band”, but actually comprised only Damien on box and Donogh Hennessy on guitar. There can be no doubt that this duo is technically brilliant, but for me the approach to the music and indeed the audience lacked the warmth and empathy displayed by the other musicians. One cannot hold Damien’s London accent or Donogh’s fierce facial expressions against them, but these seemed somewhat incongruous in the gentle Castleisland setting. They ended their set with The Independence Hornpipe which started as a slow pleasantly lilting tune but accelerated from nought to sixty in around four minutes. You could barely see Damien’s fingers moving towards the end. If the audience was hoping for an encore from the duo, it would have been impossible to follow this.

In conclusion, I’d say that this was one of the friendliest and most musically rewarding festivals I’ve ever attended. When I asked Cormac O’Mahony the reason for the festival’s continued success his answer was simple: “The dedication and enthusiasm of our team of volunteers.” They’re all devotees to the music of Sliabh Luachra and many are musicians in their own right. My slight concern is how long the festival will continue in its present form. There are plenty of brilliant young players keeping the music alive, but there were not many people of their age in this weekend’s audience. Maybe in 25 years’ time the festival will take a different form?

Would I recommend the festival and the music it celebrates to others? Certainly. Get there if you can next year.

by Simon Haines