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PETE FAWCETT (ED: BARRY SMITH) - Fawcett's Fleadh! Memories Of Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann

PETE FAWCETT (ED: BARRY SMITH) - Fawcett's Fleadh! Memories Of Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann
Comhaltas ISBN: 9781527212275   

Pete Fawcett, long-time resident of Cleckheaton and a man with as sound a Yorkshire accent as you would find in the mouth of a sheep farmer from Buckden, is nevertheless a confirmed eirophile. He has had a lifelong love for Ireland, its people and particularly its music, and this handsomely produced book is his record of that enthusiasm. It has been published by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann to commemorate their 60th year in Britain, but it is also a very personal account of Pete's experiences at Fleadhs as he has followed them around over, not quite 60 years, but at least since the 1970s. It helps that Pete has long been a keen photographer, and came to take photos for several periodicals in Britain and Ireland that cover Irish musical life. So the book is chock full of very well reproduced photographs, all taken by Pete.

In case you didn't know, the word “Fleadh” is Irish and means a musical get-together, a festival, but a bit different from a folk festival as we know them over here. It's intended as a celebration of Irish culture, music, dancing and singing – but the instrumental music is the heart of it. There is a strong element of keeping up musical standards and passing them on, so children are encouraged to take part, and also of competition. They're not about booked artists and sitting politely to applaud, but about participation, sessions of course, and playing music. The only time people sit and listen in silence is for the competitions. And these competitions are worth paying attention to, because the standards are often very high, even amongst the juniors. And to win an “All-Ireland” on any instrument, but particularly fiddle, flute or accordion, is to have attained world-class status as a musician. There are regional Fleadhs (the first one I went to was in Leeds) in Britain and Ireland where competitors move up towards the final big one, if they make it, which is always in Ireland at the end of August, at a choice of locations – usually small towns like Listowel, Ennis, Buncrana. So the Fleadhs are a seed-bed of Irish music. Nearly all the great Irish musicians have done their time with them.

I've been to a handful of these but it seems as if Pete has been to them all since 1973. I'm sure he can't have done, but he has been able to produce an almost historical account of the passage of the Fleadhs from the 1970s to the present day. He's not trying to write a history though – it's more anecdotal and humorous a lot of the time, including numerous encounters with Irishmen “half-seas over” as Pete puts it. (Not that we would tolerate national stereotypes of course.) Fleadhs do encourage conviviality though, it has to be said.

Now I should record that I do know the author quite well, and I am featured in the book. It seems that we both got into Irish music at almost the same time and place – at the Regent pub in Leeds in the early 1970s. Pete includes a telling quote from fiddler John Gillard who came over from Mayo and played there, that before Comhaltas set up in Leeds, “most musicians hadn't played for years”. Although this was “folk music” these people didn't, on the whole, play at folk clubs or festivals, and places like the Regent didn't advertise themselves, and were hard to find out about if you weren't Irish. Pete says his first Fleadh was the Leeds Fleadh at Primrose Hill High School. It was mine as well, but I don’t remember him on that occasion. We soon became acquainted though. Our paths coincided for a while when Pete invited piper Leon Rowsome over to England and I accompanied him. He includes all kinds of humorous stories from this time, most of which I've completely forgotten. He has written this in an unadorned, conversational style – much as he speaks - as if he's bending your ear over a pint at the back of an ongoing session.

Pete forged closer connections with the Irish community here and in Ireland until he became an “honorary Irishman”. His affable, cheerful nature leads him to make friends easily (but maybe lets a few of the oddballs in too), so a lot of his stories involve encounters with slightly wacky individuals. But he does get to photograph some real VIPs too, like Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland. Often Pete's photographic duties will have involved taking formal portraits of ceili band competition winners and the like, for the local press, and perhaps there are rather a lot of these in the book. Posed portraits can be a bit dull, so it’s nice when this is leavened with photos like the beautiful one of Blacksod Bay( yes I know – it doesn't sound very appealing but from the photo I want to go there) - or daft ones like the 35-foot high statue “Miley” stood in the middle of the Slaney river.

There's a nice touch with the page numbering – at the foot of each page is a drawing of a photographer with you, the reader, in his sights, the page number in the lens, and the hairstyle giving away the identity of the author taking the pic. Pete begins the book with, “This book is dedicated to the memory of Leon Rowsome” - a lovely touch. We both thought Leon was, and perhaps still is, under-appreciated, and in the shadow of his famous father Leo. He was a quiet gentleman, I thought, a simple soul even, in some ways, if that doesn't sound patronising, with a warm heart. Pete tells a rather strange story about his passing. He also includes a selection of tributes to his playing by people who know about piping, including his father Leo.

So this is a substantial book of over 120 pages, in quality, heavy paper and largish format - about A4 size. It's available from Comhaltas or from Pete himself.

Gordon Tyrrall

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This album was reviewed in Issue 122 of The Living Tradition magazine.