Trad/roots: Imbolc International Music Festival spells springtime for music in Derry

Spring springing – even though, to non-Irish people, it's still winter – means the Imbolc festival in Derry and this year's looks to be better than ever

The Transatlantic Sessions ‘house band’, led by Aly Bain
Robert McMillen

IT IS often a cause of bewilderment that the Irish celebrate the first day of spring on February 1 while others sniffle in what they believe to be the bleak midwinter.

Is it to do with global warming that the agricultural year has put the seasons out of kilter? Do the dates of the solstices give us a clue? Who knows but what is true everywhere is that people look forward to signs that the cold and dark are about to make way to flowers and sunshine and happiness.

For the past number of years, the theme tune to the coming of spring in Derry is provided by the Imbolc International Music Festival, a richly varied music and arts festival that sets the tone of renewal that the new season brings and which this year runs between January 27 and February 10.

Top of the bill and coming to the Millennium Forum will be the famous Transatlantic Sessions doing their only Irish gig of the year, featuring Cara Dillon, Gretchen Peters, Tim O'Brien and others backed up by the Transatlantic ‘house band', led by Aly Bain and dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas with Phil Cunningham, John Doyle , Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker, Donald Shaw and others.

Other shows to keep an eye out for include the world-conquering Lankum at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin on February 7 and the amazing Trú, Dublin brothers Richie and Jamie Martin aka Cry Monster Cry and the Whileaways, featuring Noelie McDonnell, Noriana Kennedy and Nicola Joyce all on the one bill at the Cultúrlann on 3 February; and the musical family from Abbeyfeale, west Limerick, Mick, Louise and Michelle Mulcahy will be playing a dazzling array of instruments between them at a lunchtime concert on February 10.

People often talk about the “legacy” of (usually) very expensive projects (the London Olympics is a good example) and where long-term benefits on investment are often illusory, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 2013 – the biggest Fleadh to date – has certainly endowed much to Derry as Imbolc director, Eibhlin Ní Dhochartaigh, explains.

“Well, we decided after the Fleadh that we should set up two legacy projects in the city, a music academy which we have done in the Glassworks in Great James Street and that we would also try to create an annual festival here and that is how Imbolc came about.”

This year could prove to be an extra special year as coinciding and complementing Imbolc will be the internationally acclaimed art exhibition Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger.

The collection, sent by Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, its permanent home in Connecticut, features selected artworks from 50 of Ireland's most eminent artists, including Jack B. Yeats, Micheal Farrell, Alanna O'Kelly, Robert Ballagh, Dorothy Cross and William Crozier.

Eibhlin, of course, is delighted.

“This is a very important gift for Derry,” she says. “It ties into An Cultúrlann's remit to place the city on the international stage as a place that celebrates culture and community. We're encouraging everyone to visit us and to see this exhibition as a homecoming, because the famine story is our story and the art will provide a deeper connection to and understanding of this story."

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger will be on show from January 18 until March 16 2019 but Imbolc will be supplementing the exhibition with some wonderful musical events.

Top of the bill should be Declan O'Rourke's Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, a fabulous mixture of song, music and storytelling which Declan wrote after finding out that a relation of his had been in a workhouse during the famine.

Another gig not to be missed is Songs of Migration and Displacement with some of the finest singers around. As the late singer and song collector Frank Harte wrote: "Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs."

In this event Ríoghnach Connolly, Niall Hanna, Niamh Farrell and Alan Burke “will pay tribute to the displaced, disposed, vulnerable and unsheltered everywhere through a selection of songs they have chosen and give us an insight into why they selected them”.

The show takes place at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin on February 1 at 8pm.

There will also be a series of lectures on the famine including one by the eminent writer Seamus Deane, and much more besides.

The Isles of Scotland have seen their fair share of famine and emigration too and Imbolc will be welcoming back the Presbyterian psalm singers from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides at Christ Church on 10 February for a Gaeilge/Gáidhlig evening of song.

On top of that, Imbolc, through its Learning and Participation programme, is presenting shows for young people including a puppet show Return of Spring, where Huggy the Hedgehog must go on an adventurous musical quest in search of evidence that spring has definitely arrived so he can waken his friends up. The show is suitable for children ages three to five while there is also an introduction to sean-nós for singers aged between seven and 11!

:: Full details at

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: