Thursday, 4 February 2010

Fairs and festivals in Ireland

Feis and Fleadh: The Best Festivals With such a wealth of talent in so many fields, it's hardly surprising that Ireland should be blossoming with festivals. What is surprising is that, without ever depending on having warm and sunny summer weather, they take place virtually yearround and last anywhere from a day or a week to a month or two. Some are oddball events devoted to strawberries or the arcane mysteries of the uilleann (elbow) pipes, a type of bagpipes that use the elbow as a bellows to pump air.

Others are rooted in the European tradition of street musicians, buskers, and parades. Lisdoonvarna, in Clare, has a matchmaking festival in September, and Belfast an agricultural exhibition in May. There are rallies and angling competitions, horse shows and country fairs, and people stand around in their town's main square listening.

Listening to bands and ballad singers, meeting neighbors they might not have had a proper chance to speak to since the previous year's event. There is a very good reason for this abundance of festivals: During festival times, all bars are allowed to stay open later than usual (though in the cities, late night drinking, that great source of Irish joy is confined to a single appointed place). Consequently, the atmosphere is usually jolly, and there is generally a feeling that something is actually happening.

Music festivals in Ireland

Music festivals are abundant, though it should be said that some kind of music, traditional or popular, jazz or rock is part of every Irish festival worthy of the name. Cork holds an International Jazz Festival annually in late October; Dublin holds a Festival of Music in Great Irish Houses every June; and each year, there's usually a major rock musIc event held outdoors in a natural amphitheatre on the sloping banks of the river Boyne at Slane Castle, in County Meath, not far from some of the country's greatest archaeological treasures.

In addition, since Ireland is the home of U2, and a host of other international musical heavies, visitors might catch the latest planetary sensation doing a gig at a sports stadium in the provinces or at the Point theatre and Royal Dublin Society in the capital.

Rock events, in any case, are held mainly in June and July and can, if the weather is good, be very enjoyable. The same goes for the kind of event known in Ireland as afleadh cheoil (festival of music), which convenes almost every sumer weekend somewhere in Ireland. The festivals manage an extraordinary combination of 1960s bonhomie and the long-standing Irish tradition of playing musIc at fairs.

Whether it be the biggest of the breed, the All-Ireland Festival (the Fleadh Cheoil nah Eireann), which generally takes place the fourth weekend in August, or one of the smaller affairs, the experience is fairly unbelievable. Thousands of people, young and old, take over the host town. Guesthouses and hotels don't have a bed to spare, ordinary homes turn into lodging places, and the young put up tents. People drink in the streets, and day and night the music goes on and on.

Many of the best intepreters of Irish traditional music and dance show up for performances and competitions alike (so it is not all just drinking and carousing). The size of the throngs who come to listen and take part demonstrates once again how Irish traditional music has grown in importance and popularity over the last decade.

Dublin Airport car hire

If you plan to arrive at Dublin Airport, book a hire car to pick up from the airport before you travel. This will save you time and money when you arrive, and enable you to drive around the country to find the best Irish festivals being held in Spring or Summer.

When attending an Irish festival or fleadh. it is sensible to buy a program. But buy It as a souvenir, a reminder of the event attended, an aid to identifying some featured celebnty, even a place to take notes.
In certain Circumstances, the greater part of the attendance may decamp to another town in pursuit of music, or sImply, as they say in Ireland to explain doing practically nothing, for the crack.

FESTIVAL OF MUSIC IN GREAT IRISH HOUSES, near Dublin, Irish Republic: At this event, hear the best singers in stately Killruddery, in County Wicklow, just outside Dublin (described in Stately Homes and Great Gardens). Or enjoy a Handel opera in the beautifully restored Royal Hospital, at Kilmainham in Dublin.

Or hear the New Irish Chamber Orchestra in splendid Castletown House, a mere carriage ride from Dublin for the 18th-century magnate who built it. This festival doesn't just want to sell tickets it wants to provide music lovers with an opportunity to enjoy the period architecture, the damask curtains, a cool glass of wine in the paved hall during the interval, and the perfumes of the herbaceous border laid down by her ladyship years before.

FLEADH CHEOIL NA EIREANN, varying venues, Irish Republic: The All-Ireland Festival is the culmination of the traditional music year in Ireland. Staged In a different town each year, it brings great numbers of Ireland's musicians and singers together for 3 days to compete, to judge, to listen, and above all, to play and sing in concert halls, pubs, car parks, squares, and streets, to audiences numbering in the tens of thousands.

Total informality and sheer physical stamina are the order of the day.
Visitors are likely to find themselves footing out a handy polka on the macadam surface of some remote main street to fiddle music provided by a local doctor seated on an upturned beer keg. Don't worry they'll never believe it back home anyway!

FLEADH NUA, Ennis, County Clare, Irish Republic: A little more formal than the clamorous jollifications of the All-Ireland Festival, from which it sprang, this late May event showcases Irish musicians, dancers, and singers in a pretty little inland town with some nice Georgian houses and a ruined friary just a few miles down the road from Shannon Airport. Details: Minnie Baker, Fleadh Nua Office, Crusheen, County Clare, Irish Republic.

GALWAY INTERNATIONAL OYSTER FESTIVAL, Galway, County Galway, Irish Republic: This western seaboard city was colonized in the 16th century by Elizabethan Planters, but, in addition, the surrounding bays have always been famous for their oysters and scallops, and in recent years local agencies and fishing cooperatives have actually farmed them. So it's only appropriate that the big annual wing ding here, traditionally held during the last weekend in September, continues to attract thousands of visitors each year.

After all the cultural festivals, this is the place to come and relax. The festival begins with the Irish Oyster-Opening Championship, followed a couple of days later by the World Oyster Opening Championship, which draws participants from around the globe. Throughout the festival, yacht races, golf competitions, and other festivities take place. To conclude all these activities, head for the pubs of Clarenbridge, where many a tasty bivalve slips down an eager throat on a stream of foaming stout to the accompaniment of terrific Irish brown bread and sweet butter. Or take a boat or plane to the Aran.Or explore the city: Tudor doorways and coats of arms are still visible on many streets.

GUINNESS JAZZ FESTIVAL, Cork, Irish Republic: A magnificent razzle for the those passionate about their upbeats and downbeats, this popular event attracts such international luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, the Heath Brothers, and Cleo Laine, and together with a circle of local swingers, they keep the joints jumping on both banks of cork's stately river Lee. Don't expect to get too much sleep, and try to book the more important events in advance.

KILKENNY ARTS WEEK, Kilkenny, County Kilkenny, Irish Republic: Established enough to have acquired a roster of unofficial goings-on known here as a fringe, this event, held at the end of August or the beginning of September, convenes in one of the most pleasant and prosperous of Irish towns, with the added advantage of several very comfortable hotels and a location that makes it feasible to drive down from Dublin (a matter of a couple of hours), have a drink in The Marble City or Tynan´s Bar, catch a lunchtime concert, browse through the arts and crafts exhibitions, see the city's many interesting sights, attend an evening concert in acoustically excellent St. Canice's Cathedral, and then, for those who are not yet worn out, drive back to Dublin. Although many writers poets Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes among themhave read their work here, music is the main thing, and many of the performers are internationally known.

LISTOWEL WRITERS' WEEK, Listowel, County Kerry, Irish Republic: Listowel is the chief town and center of an area distinguished by its writers, among them playwright John B. Keane, who runs a pub here, the short story writer Brian MacMahon, and the poets Brendan Kennally and Gabriel Fitzmaurice, who are the presiding spirits of this increasingly popular and enjoyable festival usually held during late May or early June.

They hold workshops in drama, poetry, and fiction writing for the interested and aspiring, plays are produced by authors new and old, books are launched, and writers give lectures on and readings from their own works and those of others.

Yet the atmosphere is anything but academic. Among the musical concerts, art exhibitions, book fairs, and poster showings is the John Jameson, Humorous Essay Open Competition (first prize: a cut-glass decanter full of Joyce's favorite whiskey). At this event, the main purpose is enjoyment and people have been known to engage in the pursuit there-of all night. The pubs are friendly, and there's also an official club where a band plays dance music, and the assembled writers, aspiring writers, and other attendant festive spirits when not drinking leap about the floor.

ROSE OF TRALEE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL, Tralee, County Kerry, Irish Republic: Nowadays, nobody takes the competitive element of this beauty contest with a difference too seriously, but young women still come from all over the world at the end of August or early September to vie for a Waterford crystal trophy and the title Rose of Tralee, first made famous by tenor John McCormack. But this 6-day event goes beyond McCormack and, as a sort of Irish Mardi Gras, provides an extraordinary range of entertainment, from donkey and greyhound races and tugs of war to fireworks, brass band concerts, performances of traditional USIC, cabarets, and much more.

At any given moment, it might be possible to find four or five acts going on in different parts of the town. People roam the streets from early morning until late at night, and the Guinness flows like a flood. There's always something happening, and most of it is free. Nearly 100,000 attend.
ST. PATRICK'S WEEK, countrywide, Irish Republic: Irishmen and Irishwomen by birth, ancestry, or natural conviction descend on the Emerald Isle to celebrate the 17th of March with a week of holiday fun.

In Dublin, there are concerts of music and dance in St. Stephen's Green, Gaelic football and hurling matches, an annual dog show hairy with tradition, and the biggest parade the capital can muster with foreign and local brass bands, silver bands, fife and drum bands, pipe bands, and accordion bands, competitive exhibits on foot and on huge floats, Irish dancers in battalions, Irish and American majorettes, antique cars, and 18th-century ceremonial coaches bearing lord mayors dripping with gold chains and driven by solemn fellows in tricorn hats, not to mention legions of happy visitors, almost everyone of them greenhatted and beflagged.

It's a great sight, and every child in Dublin exercises his right to attend, festooned with shamrocks and round-eyed with delight. All of Ireland's other villages and towns do as much as they can of the same program and many have their parades on the Sunday after the big day to give the citizenry the chance to do the whole thing not once but twice. It's March often wet, cold, and windy. But most of the time visitors don't notice the weather, even if they forget their waterproofs.

WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA, Wexford, County Wexford, Irish Republic: In the latter half of October, when the nights get long and cold, this harbor town comes alive with an event that, from a social point of view alone, is probably one of the most enjoyable in Ireland, filling the town's narrow winding streets with opera lovers from all over the world. The festival's long drawing card is the opera usually two seldomperformed works by well known composers and one contemporary opus. Ticket prices are low, even by European standards, and performance quality is very high, as it has been since the festival's inception in 1951. Talented newcomers often use Wexford to launch their careers, and many well known singers (among them Frederica von Stade) have sung here.

Much of the backstage work, the ushering, and ticket selling is done by volunteers, and at least one member each of most local families is directly involved in the festival. As a result of such participation, this otherwise very elite event has become very public and popular. What makes it really special, though, is the setting a tiny opera house that seats only 446, crouched on a capillary of a side street plus a general feeling of style and opulence.

Among the broad range of events offered are concerts, recitals, and exhibitions and readings at the local arts center: There are also singing competitions in pubs and a window display competition that gets butchers, bakers, grocers, and others in on the act. Rounding out the roster are theatre presentations, lectures, walking tours, flower shows and art shows, and other events. To add to the glamour, several of Wexford's public buildings, including a few designed by Pugin, are floodlit for the duration.

WILLY CLANCY SUMMER SCHOOL,Miltown Malbay, County Clare, Irish Republic: Following the early death of the great piper Willy Clancy, a delightful man, his friends decided that musicians particularly pipers should come together every year in July in his memory to play, teach, and learn the pipes not hearty warpipes but the cunning, sweetly toned little uilleann, traditional and unique to Ireland.

It is an instrument that lacks the shrillness of Scottish warpipes and has a wide melodic variation. It's easy to understand the Irish wag's remark about how the Irish exported bagpipes to Scotland and the Scots haven't yet caught on to the joke. Old and young, American and Irish, novices, experts who can pipe their listeners into a trance, and wildly diverse others jam the pubs, and the music goes on and on.

Come closing time, the doors are locked so that no new merrymakers may enter, but those present remain as long as they can stay awake.

BELFAST FESTIVAL AT QUEEN'S, Belfast, Northern Ireland: One of the two biggest cultural events in the United Kingdom (the other is the Edinburgh Festival), this November event has, since its beginnings in the early 1960s, created excitement on the cultural scene that even the troubles have not been able to undermine. Although it covers the entire spectrum of the arts, the emphasis traditionally has been on classical music. But the jazz and film programs are excellent, and folk and popular music are well represented, as is a spectrum of drama, opera, and ballet, with visiting companies from the Republic and the rest of Europe.

Superstars like Cleo Laine and Dame Janet Baker, James Galway and Yehudi Menuhin, and Billy Connolly and Michael Palin have performed here. The setting is the Victorian campus Of Queen's University; concerts are also presented in the Grand Opera House, the Ulster Hall, and the Arts, Lyric, and Group theatre.

CORK INTERNATIONAL CHORAL AND FOLK DANCE FESTIVAL, Cork, County Cork, Irish Republic: This event takes place annually at the beginning of May. Choirs and folk dance teams from all over the world participate, and each year a number of choral works are commissioned from distinguished composers.

DUN LAOGHAIRE SUMMER FESTIVAL, Dun laoghaire, County Dublin, Irish Republic: During the last week in June, this prosperous and well-kept old borough 6 miles from Dublin expresses its essentially Victorian style with art exhibits and musical soirees in the Maritime Institute (High St.), local tours and trips to nearby Dalkey Island, a ball, a regatta, and everything from sea chantey concerts to Punch and Judy shows. Dun Laoghaire's popular harbor is jammed with boats and yachts.

PAN CELTIC WEEK, Killarney, County Kerry, Irish Republic: Scots, Welsh, Manx, Bretons, Basques, their kin, and their descendants are warmly welcomed back to their home turf with concerts, displays, parades, and plenty of music, song, and dance.