Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann Ceol project makes for an upbeat gathering

Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann's Ceol project has been bringing musicians from the north's two main traditions together, with many discovering that there's much more common ground than they'd imagined

A thronged Shipquay Street during the all-Ireland Fleadh in Derry in 2013 Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Robert McMillen

NORMALLY, music is music is music but here in the north of Ireland, culture and heritage have long been contested subjects, mainly due to the strong role they play in relation to identity.

However, one musical organisation is working hard to promote the message that Irish music, dance and culture are for all to enjoy – and that we might just be surprised by the amount and quality that the Irish and Ulster-Scots traditions share.

Established in the 1950s, the mission of Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éireann has always been to preserve and promote traditional music and culture, its name meaning Gathering of the Musicians of Ireland – although it is simply called Comhaltas by aficionados.

It is a not-for-profit organisation which provides affordable music classes to the young and old across its 69 branches in Ulster – each having an average of 111 members – as well as in branches as far away as Russia, China and South America.

However, because it traditionally attracts more members from nationalist communities, Comhaltas has been working to engage with non-traditional audiences, including those from unionist communities who may not have had much interaction with Irish traditional music and culture.

Working with the Stormont executive on delivery of their much-anticipated cross-community programme, Together: Building a United Community, Comhaltas has developed a programme, known as Ceol – Community Engagement, Outreach and Liaison, a pioneering project across Northern Ireland to improve community relations.

Brendan McAleer, who heads up Comhaltas in Ulster, says the process is a two-way learning for all involved.

“The Ceol Project has been a fantastic way of getting into communities who might not consider Irish music and traditions as something belonging to them,” he says. “Quite often, we are working with groups from different sides of the divide who are playing the same tunes and who are astonished to find out that much of the music they play is also played in communities of different cultural backgrounds.

“Similarly, it challenges Irish traditional musicians to see the close cultural links we share with the Ulster-Scots tradition, enabling them to share ideas and tunes, and ultimately learning from each other’s culture and seeing the similarities they share.”

The project, which concludes at the end of this month, has seen projects take place in Limavady, Warrenpoint, Markethill, Bangor, Ballygawley, Ballycastle and Derrygonnelly.

It has featured cross-community music workshops, bringing children from both sides of the community together to learn a number of traditional songs reflecting their shared heritage; concerts celebrating Irish, Scottish and even Bulgarian influences.

Project Officer Seán Ó Roideáin, says that he believes music and culture can be a powerful way to bring people together.

“The Ceol project has not only developed the participants’ musical abilities and cultural understanding but it has brought people together in a way that fosters a real curiosity in finding the similarities they share with each other, whether this be a tune or a song, highlighting the fact that there we have more in common than that which divides us.”

And the Ceol project is not the only evidence of Comhaltas’s commitment to promote and engage with other audiences. This year will see the return of the Ulster Fleadh, the jewel in the crown of the organisation's year, to Bangor, not traditionally known as a hotbed of Irish culture, but now firmly on the map following a successful outing last year by the Ards Branch of Comhaltas.

The Fleadh, which includes competitions as well as live performances, will incorporate a cross-community aspect, bringing musicians from the Ulster-Scots tradition together with Comhaltas members, and is a huge boost for the local economy: figures showed that the 2013 Fleadh yielded a total of £2.25 million.

Brendan McAleer says that Comhaltas is on a journey which will see ambitious plans for the next five years and which will be reflected in its strategic plan, which is to be launched later this year.

“Comhaltas believes that arts and culture can hold the key to unlocking trust in communities, and building relationships that show we have more in common than what divides us,” he says.

“And we also want to unlock further the economic potential which organisations like ourselves can help drive. Our Economic Impact report from the 2013 Ulster Fleadh showed that the event saw over £2 million invested in the local area and in the same year, the All-Ireland Fleadh generated over £40m in the economy of the north west. We think we can only build on this.”

:: For more information on Comhaltas CEOL Project visit



85-YEAR-OLD John Kennedy from Cullybackey is a well-known figure on the traditional music scene across Ulster and further afield. Famed for his musical ability as an accomplished tin whistle, flute, fiddle, accordion player and singer, Kennedy has taught traditional music across the religious divide to thousands of young people for decades.

The John Kennedy Weekend runs today and tomorrow in Ballycastle, and will include shared heritage music workshops, taster sessions as well as a historical talk on Irish Traditional Music and the Protestant Community.

Corrymeela Peace & Reconciliation Centre will play host to a talk on the important role played by the Protestant community in saving much of today’s repertoire of Irish traditional music from extinction, as well as a traditional music taster session led by CEOL Project Officer Seán Ó Roideáin, which will begin at 4pm today.

There will also be traditional music and singing sessions during the weekend with the House of McDonnell and Central Bar playing host.

:: More information on the event can be found by contacting Catherine on 0753 0498 919 or Michael on 0787 1744 110 or email


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