Trad/Roots: Glengormley School of Traditional Music more than the sum of its parts

The 2021 recipients of TG4's annual Gradam Ceoil awards include, pictured left to right outside Queen's University Belfast, Sorcha Costello, Ray Morgan, Angelina Carberry, Seán Ó Sé and Niall Hanna. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
Robert McMillen

THIS fortnightly page has been blessed by the people who have shared their thoughts with it as they describe their lives, their music, their philosophy, their outlook on life and all its opportunities and challenges.

They have featured the great and the even greater, the well-known and the unsung, but together they form a throbbing, beating heart of what traditional music is all about.

From Steven Cooney talking about his adaptations for guitar of Turlough O'Carolan's harp music from the 19th century and Ríoghnach Connolly talking about working in Zimbabwean bars in Manchester before finding her true voice, to Dónal Lunny describing the days before he became one of Ireland's most innovative and hard-working musicians, and the Iranians who play a mixture of their own music infused with traditional Irish music...

The above and others like them have been travelling on a road that has taken them to the heights of their achievement (although they will be drawing from their wells of untapped creativity for years to come) but all of them started off with the very basics of their trade/calling/gift.

Their journeys all began with encouragement from parents or friends or being stirred by one musician or another, or even just by going to a class to make friends until one day, they realise that they can do things with music that they had never imagined before and so they take off on a trajectory that turns them into trad superstars.

It can happen via an individual teacher or a fellow musician but it is the original epiphany that changes their lives and so it was great to hear last week that the Glengormley School of Traditional Music (GSoTM) has been awarded the Gradam Comaoine, TG4's Award for Outstanding Contribution to traditional music.

The school's founder, Ray Morgan, was a little taken aback when originally hearing the news.

"When we first were told, we thought, 'What? Us?" said Ray but as I pointed out to him, modesty is vastly overrated.

Since its inception, GSoTM has grown into one of the north's premier seedbeds for young traditional musicians.

Ray was the cultural officer with St Enda's GAC, a club with a proud history, when they had a weekly tin whistle class for children.

"We had around 30-40 pupils and after a while it occurred to us that some of the kids were good enough to move on to other instruments if they wanted," he explained.

"So with the help of people involved in Crosskeys Comhaltas – Conrad Murphy, Pat Flanagan, Sean Gillick and others – we found out that we were right. However, it was a long process building up the school.

"You just don't start and then two or three years later have all these brilliant musicians; it's a really gradual thing, building up the quality of the music and the younger you get them, then the better they become.

"Kids come, they drop out, but others stay on over many years and gradually the quality of the musicians that we've been producing has got better and better and the young people we have at the moment are so, so strong, they're really a joy to listen to."

Of course, that has come about from a huge number of factors – top-notch teachers such as Aaron O'Hagan on the pipes, Conor Caldwell on the fiddle and Gary Duffy on the flute; parents who get their kids to the classes; the pupils themselves; Edmund Rice College, who provide the classrooms; and all that team-work can only come about when there is a sense of community that evolves out of traditional music.

The Glengormley School of Traditional Music is more than the sum of its parts.

"It's not just a simple matter of teaching music, or even teaching traditional music," says Ray.

"It's about passing on the tradition. A lot of people I know don't understand when I say that, but I'm always very conscious of it."

The TG4 Gradam award comes at a time when the school is celebrating its 20th anniversary and music is planned already.

"We are having a big dinner dance at Christmas and next year, we are organising a festival week for which we have got funding from Antrim and Newtownabbey Council for the first time for which we are very grateful," says Ray.

"The Arts Council of Northern Ireland have also given us invaluable support over the years. We were able to put on a lot of classes because of Arts Council funding but their is a concern that the small grants award that we depend on hasn't opened again because the Covid so that has us a little bit worried."

Today, the school caters for young learners and adults, too. For the time being, the classes are staying online until the pandemic comes to an end when it will be back to strengthening the community through traditional music, such is the indefatigability of the school and everyone involved in it.

Other TG4 Gradam Ceoil 2021 recipients are:

:: Ceoltóir na Bliana/Musician of the Year: Angelina Carberry, the Manchester born banjo player who moved back to her parents' home county of Longford over 30 years ago.

:: Ceoltóir Óg/Young Musician of the Year: Sorcha Costello, a fiddle player from Co Clare.

:: Cumadóir na Bliana/Composer of the Year: Steve Cooney. Steve needs no introduction as someone who has been to the forefront of traditional music since he moved to Ireland from his native Australia in the 1980s.

:: Gradam Saoil/Lifetime Achievement: Seán Ó Sé, whose musical pedigree goes back to 1962 when he recorded the touring song An Poc ar Buille and who was a friend and collaborator with Sean Ó Riada.

:: Amhránaí na Bliana/Singer of the Year: Tyrone had more than the Sam Maguire to celebrate this week as Niall Hanna, from musical royalty in Derrytresk, was nominated as singer of the year.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access