World class teaching, performance and celebration in store at first Belfast Tradfest

Lúnasa, Ulaid, Louise Mulcahy, Jarlath Henderson and Ríoghnach Connolly are among a host of top performers and tutors tee'd up for the first ever Belfast Tradfest, formerly the city's Summer School of Traditional Music

Dónal O’Connor, artistic director of Belfast Tradfest, which takes place from July 27 to August 2 (
Robert McMillen

IF YOU have an interest in traditional music, whether it is playing or just listening and enjoying the lift in the spirits that it gives you, then keep July 27 – August 2 as free as you can because the Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music has metamorphosed into the Belfast Tradfest, a bigger and better manifestation of all that is good in one of our cultural treasures.

Ray Morgan from the Glengormley School of Traditional Music and the man who had the vision and the energy to set the festival up in 2017, says he is very proud of how inclusive this programme is of all the musical traditions in Belfast and beyond.

“During the day there are a fantastic list of talks, workshops, master classes, exhibitions, recitals, clinics, CD launches – and to be honest, my head was spinning trying to work out how I was gonna get from one to the next," Ray says.

“There are sessions every afternoon, evening and night involving the tutors taking the daytime classes with the first session of the week in the Crown and Shamrock Bar, a new home for traditional music in Glengormley."

The Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music has run for the past two years and hailed by all who attended as an unqualified success.

“It really has been wonderful,” beams artistic director Dónal O'Connor. “We've had two years of young and old people travelling from far and wide – some from as far away as Italy – to learn from the very best of master musicians here in the heart of Belfast.”

So, given the success of the summer school, why was it felt that a rebrand was needed? There already are Tradfests in Temple Bar in Dublin, in Ennis and in Dungarvan and a new one starting up in Edinburgh.

“Well, I think Tradfest better describes what we are – a festival and celebration of traditional music,” explains Dónal. "The summer school lasted for the week but it is our intention to expand that into 10 days and to have more concerts and more events and the new name also indicates that we are more than the learning aspect.

“Plus, Belfast Tradfest is easier to say,” he laughs.

Having said that, the festival does boast an incredible number of world-class tutors more than happy to share their skills with learners of all ages, a practice that has been part and parcel of traditional music through the centuries, that transmission from person to person and from generation to generation.

Among the teachers at his year's Tradfest will be no less than six winners of the coveted Gradam TG4 awards – Belfast's own Harry Bradley on flute, John Carty, the north Connacht fiddle-player, as well as three 'young musician of the year' winners Edel Fox, Michelle Mulcahy and the current recipient, Conor Connolly.

Tradfest will also have two of the best bodhrán players in Ireland, John-Joe O'Kelly and Eamon Murray from Beoga.

For you singers, there is a wealth of experience to be mined from the repertoire of Maurice Leyden, Jane Cassidy and Armagh's Ríoghnach Connolly.

All of the north's musical traditions are included in Tradfest, with Gareth McLees from the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band teaching the snare drum and Scottish piper Finlay McDonald sharing his skills as he does at the Piping Centre in Glasgow. Willie Drennan will be teaching the fife, rope-drum and Lambeg.

This year sees the introduction of set dancing into the programme with Rónán Eastwood, in his fun and energetic way, taking classes aimed at those at beginner level while also facilitating those who have danced for a few years and want to learn more dances and even some basic footwork.

Finally, there are no less than six fiddle tutors including Liz and Yvonne Kane from Co Galway, John Carty, Niamh Dunne from Beoga, local girl Theresa Clarke, Oisín Mac Diarmada (recently interviewed on this page). While the classes with their nervous but expectant students will take place in the classrooms at the University of Ulster in York Street, everyone is invited to what promises to be some unforgettable musical experiences this July/August.

Just a glimpse at the people taking part in the 2019 Belfast Tradfest should give you an idea of the great variety there is in traditional music, something that Dónal hopes people will come to appreciate.

“That is one of the great features of our music and something I have first hand experience with in programming festivals and working in television over the years, the wide variety of regional styles, very 'raw bar', traditional, puristic style and then you have the contemporary, modernist, pushing-the-envelope forms that are developing all the time,” says Dónal.

The whole gamut of those traditions – complementary rather than competing – can be experienced during Belfast Tradfest.

For me the highlights include the opening concert at the Lyric Theatre when Lúnasa, Ríoghnach Connolly and Ulaid take the stage, three very different acts but all on top of their game, while Monday July 29 sees the RL O'Mealy annual concert.

O'Mealy (1872-1947) was an uilleann piper and pipe maker, born in Westmeath in the last quarter of the 19th century. He lived most of his adult life in Belfast where he was renowned as a piper, broadcaster, piping teacher and pipe-maker. A host of exceptional musicians will be paying tribute to him while Belfast legend the late Sean Maguire will also be honoured with a memorial concert.

The Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 will be recalled in a concert in, appropriately, the former Presbyterian Church that is now Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich.

Skin, Wind and Reed will explore the repertoires of Scotland and Ireland through bagpiping, drumming, uilleann piping, fifing, flute, tin whistle and bodhrán. The Songs of the People concert will feature Jarlath Henderson, Niamh Dunne, Eamon Murray, Diane Cannon, Seamie O'Dowd, Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden and for the dancers among you, Oh Yeah is the venue for a céilí organised in association with Belfast Pride.

Now, with that bewildering list of artists and events, there is still much, much more planned for Belfast Tradfest, which is launched this week, but you can sign up for classes and find more information at

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