Walking down from dropping my daughter at Nursery is a rare occasion for me to day dream. Red and brown autumnal leaves crunch under foot and a first trace of winter breath sneaks out in front of me in the foggy Sheffield air. My son has fallen asleep on my back and my mind wanders back to my solo visit to the All Ireland Fleadh in Sligo this summer. This was the last time I had a stretch of time without the family, time to indulge in watching and listening and playing as little or as much as I like.
Sligo 2014 was much more hectic, with family in tow and two competitions to deal with. The journey there and back with the children was great fun but I didn’t enjoy the Fleadh itself. No sessions, off to bed straight after the Senior Band competition and the early Monday morning train back to Sheffield.
2015 was different. A walk in the rain to the the train Station. My bag packed with a great Ethnomusicology book to read again (May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music by Timothy Rice, University of Chicago Press, 1994), some craft ales from Sean at Beer Central, bread from the Forge Bakehouse Sheffield, smoked bacon from Konrad Kempka, my flute and some glitter of course.
Train and boat are my favourite way of travelling. Head down if you are feeling anti-social or chin up if you want to discover. My first discovery was on the train was a man in a gimp suit. I’ll save you the pain of a picture. His suit was plastic and had to avoid radiators and open flames.
14 hours after leaving Sheffield I jumped off the train at Carrick-on- Shannon, County Leitrim, to stay for the first couple of nights with my cousin and catch up with relatives. It’s a quick train ride from there to Sligo Town and I wanted to get some decent rest before the Band Final on the Sunday night and the ensuing madness.
The Senior Céilí Band Competition is the final competition of the Fleadh. It’s a hot ticket with people queuing from 5 a.m. of the morning of the competition to get their tickets. The couple of days leading up to competition revolve round grabbing practices when ever you can, where ever you. 250,000 people pack into a small town for 4 days. There’s not much room.
Leeds Céilí Band practices were held in the glamorous surrounds of an open air archway which was an entrance to a pub car park.
Our band comprises of Drums, Piano, 2 flutes, 3 fiddles, a banjo and a button accordion. Most members come from Leeds with a couple of blow-ins from Sheffield via Manchester and Liverpool. Qualification for the Fleadh requires success in Regional and Provincial (All Britain) competitions.
There are few rules for the competition apart from maximum number of members and type of repertoire. Four sets of tunes are allowed. We chose to play a March, Hornpipe, 2 Jigs and 2 Reels.
Tunes are learned in a mixture of ways. Some learn by ear, some learn by written music. We practiced in sub groups (e.g. flutes & fiddles separate) and then as a complete band. Band members come from a mixture of backgrounds including learning through Comhaltas as children, coming through the Folk scene and Rock/Country music. Our music is directed by Michael Tennyson, a great Piano Accordion and Piano player from Leeds.
After a slight uniform malfunction last year, this year I was ready and in full attire a good few hours before the competition. I had a little bit of blue glitter on just to bring a bit of sparkle to the event and played plenty during the day to get my flute warmed up. My flute is made by George Ormiston, a world class craftsman. But anything made of wood can subject to a change in environment and so it’s important to warm up.
The Band Competition was held at the Sligo IT Arena. 1500 seats, cameras, lights and 15 bands from Ireland, USA, Scotland and England competing for honours. The talk around the town was that the Sligo band the Knocknashee were favourites, but in reality the adjudicators do their own thing and I’m not sure they get swayed by hype.
A big issue for me is nerves. I’ve really worked had to develop techniques to manage them. I’ve learned a great deal from ‘The Inner Game of Music’ by Barry Green. As well as practice, much of performance is about conquering how your mind works.
We arrive at the Arena and are guided into the first band room. This is a military precision exercise with so many musicians and equipment in one place. I look out and see this….. no I’m horizontal, I just can’t work out how to flip this picture 90″.
Next move is into the changing rooms… no pictures there. You don’t want to see Leeds Céilí Band half dressed. That would certainly be niche. Warmed up and in a semblance of tuneage we’re led into the back stage area. I’m congratulated by the crew for having proper trousers on this year. Two sets of ten chairs are lined up opposite each other for the two bands waiting. One band comes off to the left of the stage another band goes onto the right. Very smooth. It’s our time now. We head on to the stage. It’s hot and the crowd are chattering about the previous band, the great and the good are lined up on the front row and the adjudicators lie somewhere beyond in the dark of the audience. I take a breath, smile and relax. I don’t think I can do this next year so I decide to really savour the moment.
Our drummer Tim checks if everyone is ready. we’ve checked our tuning, a tap of the block and the march introduction swirls us into readiness, the pulse becomes part of us and we become one great Céilí music machine. The Thatch Hornpipe next, three vamps on the piano to set us off. Remember the variations, keep the tuning in the high notes, relax. Two taps for the jigs. Bunch of Roses in G minor for a start. This has pushed me musically. So that’s what those shiny keys are for.
One tap, are you ready? Two taps and we’re off with the reels. It feels great…
It’s all done now. We head to the Green Room and watch some of the other bands. We know we won’t get placed but revel in the best Leeds Céilí Band performance in years.
Two days of tunes ensue. We are looked after royally by the landlords of the pubs in which we play and by our hosts. A great fleadh. Thank you Sligo. The slow train home to Sheffield suits my weary but happy head.