BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
It was a promising debut for Féile Cheoil Boston, as some 60 musicians and singers from greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts signed up to take part in instrument and vocal competitions among several different categories at the event, held June 22 in Melrose.
But organizers with the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley Boston School of Music were looking at more than numbers as indicators of success for the Féile, which was established to showcase the talents of area Irish musicians – especially young ones – and celebrate the Irish tradition’s presence in Boston.
“Most of those competing were kids, and a lot of them were in the 10-12-year-old range, or younger,” explained Comhaltas Music School executive director Lisa Coyne. “So there were lots of families around – not just parents, but grandparents and siblings. It was wonderful to see their commitment to the music, that they felt the Féile was something important to attend, even though this is often a hectic time of year for people.
“What happened was that we made a little space where everyone could hear each other play, or sing, and also have a chance to play or sing together. That is a very, very important part of being an Irish music community.”
Coyne noted that the kick-off for the Féile, a memorial ceili for the late CCE Boston co-founder and chairman, Larry Reynolds, held the previous night at the Sons of Italy Hall in Waltham, set the right tone for the weekend.
“The turnout was huge, the dancers didn’t stop – literally – for the whole four hours, and the musicians kept the energy up,” she said. “It gave the whole thing a great feeling, which carried over into Saturday.”
Melrose’s First United Methodist Church, the site of the Féile, was bustling with activity during the day Saturday. Competitors carrying fiddles, accordions, and other instruments clustered inside, waiting to check in and find out where their event was taking place, or seeking a room or a relatively quiet corner so they could tune up. Volunteers sporting black Féile Cheoil Boston “staff” T-shirts hustled around, lending assistance where needed, sometimes even helping carry an instrument. Four rooms of varying size, including the church auditorium and a cozy, ornate second-floor office, were set aside for competitions, and adjudicators Cathie Ryan, Kieran O’Hare, Liz Knowles, Kieran O’Hare, Florence Fahy, and Shane Keating welcomed competitors, listened to them present their tune or song, then wrote down their evaluations.
In the auditorium, Elicia Folmar of Walpole took out a fiddle from its case and handed it to her eight-year-old daughter, Tierney, who was preparing to compete in the solo fiddle category. “We’ve been familiar with Irish music for a long time, and have known Tierney’s teacher, Dennis Galvin, for a while, so this seemed like a good fit for her,” said Elicia, as Tierney’s younger siblings shook off some excess energy. “As for the Féile, we felt that whatever gets her interested in playing in front of people, and seeing other kids her age playing music, is a terrific idea.”
Asked if she was at all nervous about the competition, Tierney gave a little smile and shook her head.
Outside, area musicians and singers led sessions or presented short performances under a canopy on the front lawn, as participants and onlookers relaxed. Some of the younger attendees lined up to get their faces painted or to buy drinks or ice pops to stave off the heat of the day. At one point, a small group of children took part in a non-musical competition, the object being to toss water balloons back and forth without breaking them – nobody seemed particularly upset about not achieving the objective.
Late in the day, as almost two dozen musicians went through a succession of jigs and reels, dancer Jaclyn O’Riley and some of her young students stepped along in the sean-nos, or old style of Irish dance, their hard-soled shoes tapping out the rhythms on a narrow plank of wood lying atop the grass.
Around that time, with the competitions over, many of the participants joined the adjudicators, organizers, and other musicians on the auditorium stage for an informal concert, playing as duos and trios as well as in a full ensemble as the late afternoon sun softly illuminated the room.
Concluding the event was an evening concert that featured the duos of Fahy and Keating (with Coyne’s husband John accompanying on bouzouki) and O’Hare and Knowles, as well as Ryan, who was backed by John Coyne and fiddler Sean Clohessy; O’Riley also made a couple of cameo appearances.
When it was over, audience members lingered to chat with the performers and organizers, even as the Féile staff continued cleanup operations.
Coyne was effusive in her praise for the work of Clohessy and Cara Frankowicz, who oversaw the Saturday portion of the Féile, and the volunteers and other supporters who pitched in. She also lauded the adjudicators for giving of their time – Ryan, she noted, started up a singing session on the spot when the vocal competitions were over – and acknowledged Brendan Carroll, who suggested Melrose as the venue.
“It may sound repetitive, but you can’t say enough about the spirit of community we’ve seen here in putting on the Féile,” said Coyne, who also pointed to the contributions of the Melrose Messina Arts Fund and Waltham Cultural Council, as well as the Melrose Farmers Market. “There was clearly a lot of enthusiasm for it, especially among the kids, which is what you want to see.”
Already, Coyne noted, she and the other organizers have begun talking about next year’s Féile – moving the date up to May, for example, and expanding the event to two full days, one for music and dance workshops, the other devoted to competitions.
“We want the Féile to be a good learning experience particularly for the young musicians, singers and dancers, but we also want them to be able to simply enjoy themselves. They get the idea that coming together to play or listen to Irish music is a perfectly natural thing to do.”
Results of the Féile Cheoil Boston are available through the CCE Boston School of Music website at ccebostonmusicschool.org.