'We’d music sweet to shake our feet': festivals and fair-days in the Irish music tradition

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This guest blog is by Treasa Harkin, Irish Traditional Music Archive

Irish people are often noted for their friendliness and sociability. We relish the opportunity to get together, chat, sing, dance, make music and enjoy ourselves.

This is not a modern phenomenon but rather one that is deeply rooted in our history. While the Ancient Olympics were taking place in Greece, gatherings such as Aonach Carman in Wexford and Aonach Tailteann in Meath were happening in Ireland. References to annual gatherings can be found throughout the Irish literary tradition.

“Long ago there was a great fair held on Pollan Green twice a year, the twenty-ninth of June and the tenth of October. The last fair was held there on St Peter and Paul’s Day in the year of 1812. Before that it had been going on for hundreds of years….From all accounts it must have been the greatest fair, maybe, in the whole north of Ireland. The people gathered from all airts and parts, and the green was black with people and standings and play-actors of all kinds. It was a cattle, horse and sheep fair, but there was great drinking and dancing and singing carried on, too. All the mentioned girls of the three parishes were there, and many a match and wedding was settled at the same fair of Pollan”

The last of the name (1986) / Charles McGlinchey

These ‘fair-days’ also played an important economic role in rural Ireland. Some of the more famous fair days were Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co. Kerry, which continues to this day, and Donnybrook Fair in Dublin.

Those living in the rural hinterland would travel to the fair not only to trade but also to meet up with friends and relations. At such events, the voices of ballad sheet sellers would be heard, singing songs about the political and social events of the day.

The song ‘Aonach Bhearna na Gaoithe’, or ‘The fair at Windy-Gap’, describes in detail the ‘shenanigans’ of the fair day.

At “Wind-gap Fair” I witnessed there All sorts of fun and pleasure We’d music sweet to shake our feet And sport beyond all measure Spoileen, pig’s head and gingerbread For hungry folk to eat there With brandy fine, strong ale and wine And whiskey (sure) to treat there

Nice “sugarstick” for boys to lick And tempting cones of honey With raisins sweet, and chicken-meat To coax the youngster’s money All kinds of game, fowls, wild and tame Fed pampered folk and sinful While seasoned broth poor people bought For sixpence they’d a skinful

Wool, tow, and flax, with cards in packs Fine lots of “Irish beavers” And brogues galore decked with five-score Of “crabbit-heads” or “pavers” Those “up to snuff” may find enough To suit the proudest nose there Or smoke and drink until they wink Then end their spree in blows there

On hardware stalls were razors, awls Knives, forks, tin-cans and kettles With pans and pots in sorted lots And various kinds of metals There tents, two score, were quilted o’er With blankets, sheets and friezes While dairy-ware in piles were there The kind good housewife prizes.

Translation by M.Cavanagh from the Irish of Thomas Moran From The Gaelic Journal, vol. 3, no 26 (1887)

There was also a seasonal element to gatherings and the year was punctuated by annual events. One of the most famous of these is the mummers, or Christmas Rhymers, also known as wren-boys or straw-boys.

Traditionally they appeared on St Stephen’s Day, as the 26th December is known in Ireland, but also on other days throughout the year.

Traditions varied from parish to parish but there was always an element of music and dance, dressing up and a rhyming chant that told stories of local and political events. The group roamed from house to house, performing at each stop. Mumming is currently enjoying a revival in Ireland.

Irish traditional music continues to serve as a focal point for gatherings.

Most towns can boast regular informal sessions and the yearly calendar is filled with weekend festivals across the island. Two of the largest Summer festivals are the Willie Clancy Summer School and Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.

Both events feature classes with well-known performers and days and nights of non-stop music, song and dance. The Fleadh also hosts competitions for all age groups. The first Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann was held in Monaghan in 1952 and has grown in popularity since then.

The 2016 Fleadh Cheoil will be held in Ennis, Co. Clare in August.

Internationally Ireland is synonymous with the 17th of March, the feast day of its patron Saint Patrick.

On this day in towns and villages around Ireland, and indeed in many cities worldwide, parades are held and Irish culture is celebrated. This is another long-standing tradition, as can be seen from the description of St. Patrick’s Day in New York in this 19th century ballad sheet.

‘St Patrick’s Day’ is also the title of a traditional step dance, danced for us here by Céline Tubridy with music from Michael Tubridy, recorded at the aforementioned Willie Clancy Summer School in 2004.

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