Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann [Finola tells me that this is how you say it: kole tuss kyole tory air run – the literal translation is the Society of Musicians of Ireland] is an organisation founded in 1951 to ‘preserve and promote Irish traditional music and culture’. Its activities are very much in evidence – not just in Ireland, but anywhere in the world where Irish people have settled. They were evident in Skibbereen last week, when CCE featured some of its top class performers in music, dance, song and storytelling on a whistle-stop tour around the whole island of Ireland. We were fortunate that their venue in the south west was on the doorstep here.
It was a most inhospitable October night: gales and floods were rife across Ireland and Britain. Yet the Skibb Town Hall was full to capacity, and the concert was well worth braving the elements for. The whole programme was polished and professionally produced: not a wrong note was played, nor a dance step placed out of kilter. It was a most memorable, satisfying and entertaining treat for the senses.
This was a showcase for the principal work that CCE has been carrying out for over sixty years: training people young and older in the crafts of playing and dancing in the traditional style. Once this would have happened naturally – through families and generations handing on the skills and the tunes. The fact that a CCE was needed and is now so established suggests that there was a danger of The Tradition dying out, or at least becoming diluted or rarified. This may or may not have been the case – for decades and all over the world collectors of folk culture have been convinced that they are recording the dying remnants of customs and lore, but perhaps there are always undercurrents of renewal which happen naturally: many of the most skilled exponents of The Music today learn their craft in the ‘old’ way – at the hearthside from parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. In our electronic age, however, lifestyles are radically changing and the formalised classes and competitions which CCE runs, and which are within easy reach of every community, can only be for the good. The latent talents shine through in performances such as those at Skibbereen. I taught myself to play the melodeon and concertina at the age of fifteen (and I’m still learning): now I’m watching far younger people perform with skills which outshine any I might have at this stage of my life, and who are storing up great potential for their own futures.
As I drove back to Nead an Iolair through the lashing rain squalls I pondered our own weekly music sessions in the pubs of Ballydehob. They are rough affairs: plenty of wrong notes, certainly, and arguments on tuning, timing, song names and ornamentation; very little polish… And, while we play mainly Irish traditional music, very few of us are Irish. Nonetheless we do (mostly) enjoy the experiences, and the sessions maintain a life of their own. However you do it, it’s great to keep The Music going…