Musical storms are forecast - Belfast Tradfest is back next month

FOUR MEN AND DOG: The thirty-three year old band are playing the Belfast Tradfest for the first time this year in a programme packed with superlative musicians and singers
Robert McMIllen

Reasons to be happy: the Belfast Tradfest. 

Calling Tradfest a series of music workshops is like calling Mount Everest a hill.

Yes, there are workshops given by A-list traditional musicians and singers and they are at the heart of Tradfest each year but there is so much more going on that the week-long festival has become a microcosm of the traditional music community here in the north.

Walk through the Ulster University campus in central Belfast between July 23 and 30 and you’ll feel the excitement and the companionship and the group spirit as the animated talk and the jigs and reels fill its halls and lecture theatres.



Trad is one of those musics that doesn’t discriminate according to age so you will have teenagers learning and from ould hands but, given the flowering of today’s young talent, sometimes it’s the other way around.

This week, festival organiser, Dónal O’Connor, told me what the festival set out to achieve.

“Our aim since we started out five years ago was to create a focal point during the summer when most young and not-so-young people have put their instruments in their cases after their their three terms of lessons and to give them a reason to stay in Belfast for a week and be immersed in the very best of traditional music with the best practitioners of the music to be found anywhere on the planet,” he says.

“This year's festival and summer school are attracting international tutors such as Joanie Madden and Mirella Murray both from Cherish the Ladies.

“We have Finn Moore flying in from Scotland for the small pipe tuition. We have had the great John McCusker who's just come out of a recording studio with Eric Clapton and has toured with Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler and John's flying in from Scotland to teach fiddle; Michael McGoldrick from Manchester to teach flute. 

"John Doyle, who is Joan Baez’s musical director, is flying in from from America.”

That international aspect is very interesting as Dónal points out in an intriguing observation that might be discussed in the festival clubs in the Deer’s Head and the John Hewitt.

“When I travelled the world teaching at summer schools and summer camps in Europe and in American and Canada,” says Dónal, “I found that our best musicians were always outside of Ireland, teaching non-Irish people traditional music and I wondered were our young musicians suffering because of that. 

“So that was something that we wanted to address and make sure that the last full week in July in Belfast was a time that the very best in the business would want to come here and that the very best young and not so young musicians who are learning music, could spend time with these people learn their music, learn their philosophy on the music, see how they interact with other musicians see how they engage with the public and with other artists at close hand, because sometimes these things can seem far-reaching and unachievable but when you sit in a session in Madden's Bar, for example, between Mary Bergen and Mike McGoldrick, dreams are realised,” says Dónal.

Belfast Tradfest starts on Sunday July 23 with a number of concerts and sessions 

This fifth Belfast Tradfest also has its biggest programme of concerts and the largest number of master classes so it’s no wonder that it is said to be the fastest growing summer school in Ireland.

In terms of the concerts, the headline concert for everyone who is into their Neo-Acoustic Celtic Post-Rock is the olllam in the Mandela Hall, a band which features Belfast's very own John McSherry on pipes and low whistle while also on the bill is the force of nature that is Clare Sands.

This writer is also very excited that Four Men and a Dog are playing Tradfest for the first time. Their journey started in Belfast and 1990 at the Belfast Folk Festival and they've been on the road for nearly 35 years playing their hugely infectious brand of traditional music and Americana.

It’s also great to have Máirtín O’Connor play Tradfest for the first time in the company of Cathal Hayden and Seamie O’Dowd.

As Dónal points out, the Belfast empire is the perfect space  for the trio given the vaudeville nature to their music. 

Also playing in the Empire, on July 27, will be Mike McGoldrick, John Doyle and John McCusker, who have done astonishing work for traditional folk music and on the same bill will be Landless, a great four-part female vocal group who features Belfast’s Maeve Meir, who Dónal thinks is one of our most interesting traditional singers at the minute, someone who reminds him of the great English folk singer, June Tabor, but with a distinct Ulster flavour as well.

Sometimes, though it’s the smaller events that people remember most about Belfast Tradfest.

This year, the festival is being partnered by McConnell's Irish Whisky who are sponsoring a session trail which will have over 50 sessions; there is the harp concert at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and Masters of traditional music on Wednesday July 26 at An Droichead but the most keenly anticipated concert is the one that plays homage to the Belfast genius that was Sean Maguire.

This year’s line-up includes Gerry 'banjo O’Connor, Len Graham and a host of great fiddlers.

It’s also a sign of the times that Tradfest is again partnering with Belfast Pride for the Pride céilí which is moving into the Black Box this year as it has outgrown its former home at the Oh Yeah centre.

Tradfest finishes up on Sunday July 30 with a Titanic céilí on the Titanic slipways with the Blackwater céilí  band we we haven't advertised this yet. But the Blackwater céilí band, Niall Hanna, Ciara Fox, and the Belfast wren boys and Ards Comhaltas amongst many others. So it'll be a spectacular celebration of traditional music and céilí  dancing and set dancing on the Titanic slipways. 

“Last year, we had 3,000 to 4,000 people on the slipway as dancers,” Dónal recalls.

“But this year we hope to attract many more and with a view to having a Guinness World Record attempt at the world's biggest céilí. And so we're building towards that,” says Dónal.

And if you think traditional music is not part of your culture, just remember that the great tune and song Rosc Catha na Mumhan (The Battle Cry of Munster) is also played by Orange marching bands although they know it as The Boyne Water which shows that that the very same tune could be used by opposing sides who would use it to get their own message across but the music stays the same.

Even these 1,163 words can’t do justice to the Belfast Tradfest so head over to to find out what’s on and, better still, go along to one of the huge number of uplifting events that is taking place at the end of July.