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50 years of Comhaltas honoured

News Features
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Cormac Ó Cionnaith, Cathaoirleach of the Westport Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, making a presentation to Cllr Martin Keane, Cathaoirleach of Westport Town Council
MARKING THE OCCASION Cormac Ó Cionnaith, Cathaoirleach of the Westport Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, making a presentation to Cllr Martin Keane, Cathaoirleach of Westport Town Council, at last week’s civic reception. Pic: Conor McKeown

Comhaltas’s half-century is honoured

CIVIC RECEPTION
Denise Horan


IN LAUDING the longevity of the Westport branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann at a civic reception in their honour last week, Seamus McCormack, Chairman of the Connacht Council of Comhaltas, reiterated a call he made three weeks earlier at the official launch of Fleadh Cheoil Chonnacht 2008 – for Westport to seek to host the All-Ireland Fleadh.
“I hope ye will put Westport’s name in the hat for hosting Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann,” he said. “You have the town, the venues and the hotel infrastructure to host an event of this size, and I hope that you will consider seeking to bring it here.”
Whether or not such an historic event ever comes to pass in Westport remains to be seen, but last Wednesday evening was primarily a public acknowledgement of the huge work that has been ongoing for the last 50 years in promoting the Irish language, music and culture through Comhaltas activities in the town of Westport. It was to honour this half-century milestone, and to mark Westport’s staging of the Connacht Fleadh, that Westport Town Council accorded a civic reception to the local CCÉ branch, much to the delight of the members present.
Cllr Martin Keane, Cathaoirleach of Westport Town Council, congratulated the Comhaltas branch members and in particular its current chairman, Cormac Ó Cionnaith, for their commitment to the promotion of Irish music, heritage and cultural activities in the town and for hosting the Fleadh. Noting that Westport was lucky to have so many wonderful musicians of its own, he wished the Fleadh well and wished everyone a happy stay in Westport.
Cormac Ó Cionnaith, Cathaoirleach of the Westport branch of CCÉ, spoke of the close relationship that exists between CCÉ in Westport and the local town council, as well as Mayo County Council. He said that both authorities are always generous in their financial support to CCÉ, while at the same time CCÉ are always happy to provide musicians and singers for significant events in the town.
The relationship with Westport Town Council is, he said, a ‘partnership in civil culture’, with Town Foreman Eamon O’Malley playing a particularly crucial role.
Cormac said that Comhaltas is trying to broaden out its activities to include young people and new nationalities, because ‘culture is not static, it evolves, taking into account new experiences’.
“Culture is a medium of communication and a symbol of mutual respect,” he said. “And there is a new enthusiasm, especially among young people, for our culture.”
Presentations were made at the end of the reception, by Cllr Martin Keane to Seamus McCormack and by Cormac Ó Cionnaith to Cllr Martin Keane.
Town Clerk Ann Moore was, as ever, an excellent Master of Ceremonies.

Famine times and musical bridges recalled

SCHOOLS’ COLLECTION SCHEME
Emer Gallagher


IMAGINE stepping back into a world where famine victims lie dead on the road with their lips green from eating grass. As part of the Connacht Fleadh in Westport last week, those times were vividly revisited through folklore and copybooks dating back to 1938 that belonged to Westport children.
Young and old gathered to listen to Jacqui Sidney last Wednesday afternoon as she discussed the importance of the 70-year-old Schools’ Collection Scheme and brought the audience through times past by outlining the different traditions and folklore of the country people.
The Schools’ Scheme of 1937-38 represented one of the greatest drives ever undertaken in the field of folklore collecting. Almost 100,000 children, aged eleven to fourteen, in 5,000 primary schools, were involved in seeking out and setting down for posterity material dealing with a wide range of Irish folk tradition.
A story compiled by a young Westport boy, based on memories from a relative, told of how a neighbouring family were so badly afflicted by the famine that they could barely ‘walk with the hunger’. One of the family members, a girl, was well enough to walk and was sent for a stone of meal. Upon her return she discovered her family had died. The story also outlined the memories the boy’s relations had of dead famine victims lying on the roadside.
The story sparked tales from the audience of ‘an féar gorta’. The story goes that in the years after the famine the places where victims had fallen and died became known as the ‘hungry grass’ or féar gorta, and according to local stories, any man who walked through this grass experienced the sufferings of the dying victim. A lady in attendance told of how she knew of people who carried a piece of bread in their pocket for fear of being afflicted.
The folklore attached to the musical bridge in Bellacorick was also discussed, due to the fact that the last stone in the bridge has never been placed. A lady recalled how the man who had been laying down the last stone had died and it was considered unlucky to put the stone in, especially after a man who had attempted to had subsequently met an unfortunate death.
Before the crowd departed after reminiscing and sharing the folklore and traditions of yesteryear, there were calls to reinstate a system similar to the Schools’ Collection Scheme in a bid to capture the memories and traditions of this time that will eventually pass, so that they can be documented for future generations.

Next generation hit the high notes

JUNIOR COMHALTAS LAUNCH
Denise Horan


THE future of traditional music in Westport is in talented hands.
Last Friday night, as the Fleadh gathered momentum for its weekend leg, a dozen local boys and girls filled the new Cobbler’s Bar in the Wyatt Hotel with sweet music from a variety of instruments. They are the next generation – Westport’s first ever Junior Comhaltas group.
Just two months together, the group was officially launched to coincide with the Fleadh. And one of the organisers, Justin Sammin, believes they have a huge role to play in the future of Irish music and culture in the region.
“It is very timely and very important that this group has been formed now. Westport has come from a time, 20 years ago, when there was very little traditional music played locally to a stage where it is now a centre of traditional music of a very high standard,” he said.
“These young musicians [in the Junior Comhaltas] will not only keep that tradition alive, they will strengthen it. There are lots of children learning music individually, but it is important for them to come together in a group setting and enjoy it with their peers. The social side to it is important,” he said of the group with members up to the age of 14.
Justin paid tribute to local musicians like Pat Friel, Seamus Heneghan and Liam Grealis, along with Westport’s most famous adopted son, Matt Molloy, who officially launched the Junior Comhaltas branch. “They have all been a great example to the younger generation of musicians coming through,” he said.
“We live in an intercultural society now, and it’s important that there’s a local identity and also that there is an exchange of local cultures between natives of different countries. So any foreign nationals who would like to join the junior branch – or indeed the adult Comhaltas group – are very welcome.”
Every Sunday throughout the summer the junior members come together for a session in the Clew Bay Hotel, at 7.30pm. New members are always welcome.

An exchange of cultures on the sea

CRUINNIÚ NA MBÁD
Neill O’Neill


AMONG the unique events at Fleadh Cheoil Chonnacht last week was Cruinniú na mBád, which was a celebration of cultures embracing Ireland’s inherent connection with the sea.
Boat-owners from the local sailing club came and met some of the Burmese Karen people who have relocated to Mayo, and members of Comhaltas – who put on a display of singing and dancing for their benefit.
The Burmese people then performed some of their own traditional songs and dances, and gifts were exchanged between the groups.
The idea behind involving the boat-owners was to make a connection back to a time when the sea played a very prominent role in the life of Irish people, and to illustrate that as an island nation the sea remains a part of all our lives. As the Westport branch of Comhaltas look to expand their horizons beyond song, music and dance, this was seen as a way of delving into the depths of our past, to a time when our heritage and culture was shaped on land and on sea.
There are now thriving branches of Comhaltas on several of Mayo’s islands, and it is hoped that these off-shore links will be further strengthened through initiatives like Cruinniú na mBád.

Westport brings new dimension to Comhaltas

NOVEL INITIATIVES
Neill O’Neill


AS part of the seven-day celebrations for Fleadh Cheoil Chonnacht in Westport last week, there were all the regular competitions and sessions of music, song and dance. However, there were also some noteworthy events and some unique initiatives such as ‘bring down the lamp’ – which was a carbon footprint experiment.
On Friday last, July 4, the members of the newly-formed Junior Branch of Comhaltas in Westport went around to the hotels and many other establishments in the town and asked that their televisions be turned off in favour of traditional music sessions.
The co-operation with this eco-initiative was great and by mid-morning the pictures and sounds of televisions had been replaced in many of the town’s bars by the more traditional scene of an impromptu music session.
The Fleadh organisers decided to ‘bring down the lamp’ as one of their more creative ways of bringing a true Fleadh atmosphere to the town, as the weekend’s festivities approached. It was also their intention to show that they care about the environment as part of a new approach which seeks to give a different emphasis to Comhaltas.
Another event that many found interesting was the lecture on John McFadden – a Westport-born fiddler who moved to America as a young man and became a confidant of Captain Francis O’Neill.