Knockmore Céilí Band at the Fleadh  Photo: BBC (NI)

Knockmore Céilí Band Co. Fermanagh (2nd place) at the Fleadh Photo: BBC (NI)

One of the most successful events during London/Derry’s year as UK City of Culture, apart from tonight’s announcement of the Turner Prize winner, was the staging of the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, the first time this great traditional music competition was held in Northern Ireland. It was marked by a documentary on BBC Northern Ireland called ‘Fleadh‘, that was filmed, produced and directed by Sean McGuire with Paul McGuigan as Executive Producer.

McKenna Family, Clogher at Somers café Fardross  Photo: © Michael Fisher

McKenna Family, Clogher at Somers café Fardross Photo: © Michael Fisher

One of the groups appearing on the programme was the McKenna family from Clogher, who were competing in various categories. Peter plays the uilleann pipes. They are all very talented musicians, led by their father Martin. They performed during the William Carleton summer school at Somers café and caravan park at Fardross, Clogher, where they were joined by two pipers Frank Gildernew and Jim Brady as well as the Ulster-Scots Juvenile Pipe Band, who hold their practice sessions there.

Peter Mc Kenna (uilleann pipes) & his sister (guitar) at Somers café Fardross  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Peter Mc Kenna (uilleann pipes) & his sister (guitar) at Somers café Fardross Photo: © Michael Fisher

The BBC reported how every year hundreds of thousands of people gather for this festival of Irish traditional music, and for one week in August, Derry reverberated to the sound of fiddles, tin whistles and banjos. Organisers estimate that more than 400,000 people were at the fleadh over the course of the week, while 20,000 musicians were performing, whether on the big stages or in the streets and the city’s walls.

While the casual observer might have got swept up in the revelry, there were higher stakes involved for many of the musicians who had spent months and years fixated on winning a coveted all-Ireland title. It has been described as the Olympics of traditional music, and a new documentary goes behind the scenes to capture the pressure and tension at play when all those hours of practice come down to one nerve-wracking performance.

The programme charts the progress of a number of performers as they compete against hundreds of other hopefuls, first at county level, then at provincial level, in the hope of winning through to the main event. One of them is accordion player Justin Quinn, who likened the experience to “running down a hill faster than you feel comfortable”.

Justin grew up in Leeds but his parents are from Pomeroy in County Tyrone and Irish traditional music played a big part in his upbringing. While he won an all-Ireland title at the age of 14, he gave up the instrument when he went to university and did not return to it for another 20 years.

The competition itself is awful – having everything relying on five minutes, whether you forget the tune halfway through,” he says.

That pressure is echoed by accordion player Christopher Maguire, who says that by the time musicians have gone through provincial heats to reach the fleadh, everyone is of a high standard.

You’re in this massive room, and everyone’s watching you they’re like policemen for music, and you just have to perform your best. You have to know the song, you have to put feeling into the tune and imagine you’re singing it, you’re actually in the accordion,” he says.

While the world of traditional music is a close-knit community, friendships are put aside for a few hours while musicians do battle in front of the adjudicators. The programme’s producer and director, Sean McGuire, says the fleadh is about more than winning medals. Although there’s a competitive spirit, he says what he found in this world of music was friendship and camaraderie, along with  a lot of joy.


Waterside station, L'Derry

Waterside station, L’Derry

I wrote a blog recently (or started it) while travelling back from Coleraine on the train to Belfast. It was about the Setanta Cup match at the Showgrounds, which Shamrock Rovers won. Now I am writing on the move again, on the same stretch of track. But the difference this time is that I am returning from a day out in Derry.

Single Track replaced alongside Lough Foyle (viewed from Peace Bridge)

Single Track replaced alongside Lough Foyle (viewed from Peace Bridge)

Derry station

Derry station

Northern Ireland Railways (Translink) has just re-opened the line from Coleraine in County Londonderry to Derry City. The new timetable began this morning with the 09:20 service from Great Victoria Street station in Belfast, arriving at the Waterside station in Londonderry at 11:33am, one minute ahead of schedule. But even with the new track, the train takes nearly half an hour longer than the Goldliner express bus, which terminates at Foyle Street bus station, near the Guildhall.

This important rail infrastructure project has been timed to coincide with Derry being the UK Capital of Culture for 2013. It marks the completion of the first phase of the track renewal and improvement project at a cost of over £30m. Translink say it will secure the long-term future and sustainability of the Northern corridor rail link which provides vital connections to jobs, colleges, universities, shops, businesses and local attractions.

Mussenden Temple, Benone Strand

Mussenden Temple, Benone Strand

Peace Bridge from train

Peace Bridge from train

The GAA Congress was held in Derry for the first time this weekend and brought several hundred delegates from clubs throughout the island and further beyond to this rejuvenated city.

View from near Castlerock across towards Shrove, Moville, Inishowen

View from near Castlerock across towards Shrove, Moville, Inishowen

This blog was originally published as the train back to Belfast arrived at Yorkgate staion. I updated it later with a link to the new timetable. All in all, a very enjoyable day out, including a nice lunch at a popular bistro close to the station. So at this stage I think thanks are due to the Into the West rail link campaigners such as Eamonn McCann and the local politicians such as rail enthusiast John Dallat for putting the pressure on Translink to deliver what I hope will be a very successful improved service linking the two main cities in the North.