Trad/Roots: What a year 2017 was for Irish traditional music north of the border

Trad is going from strength to strength, particularly among young people – so much so that picking out the highlights of the past year in terms of live music had proved impossible, there were so many

Jarlath Henderson

WOW! What a year it's been for anyone interested in traditional, folk or roots music.

Despite its all-encompassing title, this column has been almost exclusively about traditional music and I think that shows the heights the native art form has achieved in all its diversity, from the quality of the playing, especially among younger musicians; the growing audience for trad, whether it is dyed-in-the-wool ethnic or adorned with world music grooves; or the quality of the venues, from the Duncairn in north Belfast to the Glassworks in Derry and the increasing number of bars who are enticing people to come and spend some quality time with some jigs and reels and hornpipes.

The music itself is becoming more multifaceted as time goes on, with some composers bringing in electronica and computers to help composition and performance, people like Jarlath Henderson and Pádraig Rynne, while others such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Martin Hayes are stripping the music down to its bare essentials and creating a minimalist beauty that is achingly beautiful at times.

One venue where you will hear the whole gamut of traditional music is the the former Duncairn Presbyterian Church on the Antrim Road, now the Duncairn Arts Centre, which is coming close to rivalling St James Church in Dingle as a place of worship for great music.

It was no surprise that Other Voices made its way to the Duncairn last month for a stunning evening's music from the likes of Beoga, Ryan Vail, Jealous of the Birds, Picture This and Rosie Carney.

As arts and events manager Ray Giffen says, it was brilliant bringing the event to Belfast but that it was decided to have it in north Belfast and not the city centre, was amazing.

Ray managed to programme 31 gigs in 2017, his passion for the music and his belief that artists and arts venues need to contribute to community wellbeing reflected, not just in the quality of the music that was created on stage but in the artists who share Ray's philanthropic worldview.

His own highlights however, were not the blockbuster, marquee events but the small intimate gigs from the likes of Anthony Toner, Joe McKeague, Niall Hanna under the title Live and Local.

“Then there are the two Lisas, Lisa Hannigan and Lisa O'Neill, who were absolutely mind-blowing,” says Ray.

“They say you should never meet your heroes but I can honestly say that in my experience, Irish musicians are such lovely, caring people on top of the talent they possess.

“We had Zoe Conway and John McIntyre and another couple Barry Kerr and Síle Denvir and to be honest, there are far too many highlights to mention.

From my own point of view, the Duncairn's highlights have to include Jarlath Henderson who played songs from his new album, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned. The gig was more akin to a theatrical performance such was the quality of the storytelling in Jarlath's beautifully chosen collection, not to mention the superlative playing on traditional instruments and electronica which found itself completely at home in songs, some of which go back to the 17th century.

Another highlight was that force of nature, Ríoghnach Connolly who played at the Duncairn with her band Honeyfeet in March (and with The Breath at the excellent Soma Festival in Co Down later in the year).

For Claire Kieran, arts events officer at An Droichead, the highlight of the year was Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Cormac Begley who played at the south Belfast venue in May of this year.

“I'm a big fan of both artists individually, having hosted each of them a few times through various projects at An Droichead but getting to see them perform together in such intimate surrounding was very special for me," Claire says.

“The gig launched Cormac's amazing debut solo album of traditional tunes and new compositions recorded and performed on the night on a bewildering range of bass, baritone, treble and piccolo concertinas, all complemented on the night of course by Caoimhín's beautiful fiddle playing."

Another highlight for Claire was The Belfast Song Gathering in February where, over two days traditional singing in Ulster was celebrated in various venues such as the Sunflower, the Ulster Museum and the Linenhall Library.

“We had a concert with the amazing talents of Cathal O'Neill and Doiminic Mac Giolla Bhríde which was fantastic but, for me, the singing sessions we held over that weekend were a real highlight.

“It's was such a treat to see the warm and welcoming traditional singing community come together for these informal event just to share song and sing. We such a wealth of history, knowledge, resources not to mention talent in Ulster if was really great to spend time immersed in it,” she says.

Finally, as part of Féile an Droichead, Cathal Hayden and Máirtín O'Connor were joined by the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet in August.

“There certainly wasn't your average trad gig,” says Claire. “I have the album Spicatto Junction from ten years ago which had me at The Bachs of Oranmore but to host and see the cream of trad musicians performing live with the quartet was, for me, amazing!”

But of course, Belfast isn't the only place where trad/folk/roots are taking, er, root.

Derry has Acadamh Ceoil Chaoimhín Uí Dhcohartaigh where the trad superstars of the future are getting trained, and Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Great James Street is home to Imbolc the festival that featured Dervish, Declan O'Rourke, Four Men and a Dog and Sharon Shannon at the start of the year.

Tíona McSherry does fantastic work in organising The Soma festival in Castlewellan each July, the Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy provides an intimate space for trad an folk singers, while back in Belfast, the Sunflower has a great singing session every Thursday.

Of course, I have left some venues and some fabulous gigs out but that now is the state of traditional music today. So much exciting music in all its diversity, is being made all over the north that it would be rude to ignore so get yourself to a gig near you asap.

That gives me the chance to mention a highlight that hasn't even happened yet. The Annual Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair is happening right now in the stunning surroundings of the north-west Donegal Gaeltacht, and is without question one of the highlights of the traditional music calendar!

If you can get yourself up to Gaoth Dobhair for New Year's Eve, then there will be a heavyweight Battle of the Trad Bands when two legendary dynasties go head to head with Donegal's Na Mooneys meeting the west Kerry giants, Na Begleys, led by Séamus & Méabh Begley, at the local GAA hall.

What a way to see in 2018!

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