The Boston/Eastern Massachusetts Irish community had every reason to take satisfaction from this year’s Mid Atlantic Fleadh competition, which was held May 18-20 in New Jersey.
It wasn’t just the fact that so many did so well – area entrants qualified in nine categories for the All-Ireland Fleadh in Cavan next month – but that the achievements represented a good cross-section of age and experience.
Satisfaction is not simply measured in competition results or other numbers, however, as fleadh participants relate: Satisfaction also is a young musician following a parent’s simple piece of advice to success; or a mother and her teenage daughter sharing the challenge, and joy, of competing together in the fleadh; or lending your friend one of your instruments – and, in so doing, enabling her to win the event in which you were competing.
“If anything, I think the most important things I’ve taken away from participating in the fleadh are the friendships and connections I’ve formed,” says Armand Aromin, who took first place in the Miscellaneous Instrument and Duos (with Uilleann piper Patrick Hutchinson) categories, and second in Newly Composed Tune. “The moment it starts to feel like work, then something needs to change. Just go out there and do your best, meet new people, learn new tunes, and enjoy yourself.”
Flute and whistle player Lisa Coyne had several vantage points of the fleadh: as a competitor herself in Over-18 Duos and Trios (taking second place in both), and as the parent of a competitor – her 12-year-old daughter Josie took second in the 12 to 15-year-old Duos, and also competed in Solo Fiddle and Trios.
But Coyne has a wider perspective, as director of Boston’s Hanafin-Cooley Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann School of Traditional Irish Music and, in general, as someone out to inculcate a love of Irish music among young people. She is gratified at the increase in numbers of Boston Comhaltas School students who opt to participate in the fleadh, and sees this trend as validating efforts to broaden their engagement with the music.
“Hanafin-Cooley has spent a lot of time and energy to show kids different facets of the music,” she says. “We’ve tried to create more contexts in which they can play, other than in their classes or practicing at home – playing for dancers, for example, or having sessions – so they see there is a social element to it.
“Rather than keeping to themselves, we’re seeing students form ‘posses’ that gather and play tunes, and showing more and more curiosity and interest about the music. And now, more of them are taking the opportunity to deepen their involvement and challenge themselves by competing in the fleadh. There’s more work to do, but it’s very promising to see this happen.”
Coyne doesn’t need to look very far to see a motivated young Irish musician. Josie, who turns 13 next month, began playing at age 8 and has become almost as much a session regular as Lisa and her husband John, who plays bouzouki; she’s even had a reel named for her, by Aromin (his entry in the Newly Composed Tune competition). In conversation, she’ll extol the virtues of fiddler Willie Kelly, concertina player Mary MacNamara, and the Clare traditional music style.
This year was Josie’s third fleadh, and for the Duos event she chose to play with her aunt, Mariel Wamsley. Going into the competition, Josie says she and Mariel “were pretty confident” and felt their performances – of a set dance and a reel – went well, except for a couple of little miscues here and there. When they found out they had placed second, thereby punching their ticket to the All-Ireland Fleadh, “We were so happy, we were screaming and crying.”
Josie (whose earnings from gigs and baby-sitting jobs will fund her trip to Cavan) believes that participating in fleadhs has aided her musical development: It has helped her not to be nervous about playing in public, and to get focused on “practicing really hard.” She’s also grateful for all the support she’s gotten from friends – like fellow fiddler Sean Clohessy, who coached her – and family, especially her mother. Lisa, she notes, made “a big sacrifice” by driving her down and back several times to where Mariel lives in the New York City area so they could get in some live practice.
Her mother also gave her some good advice about playing at the fleadh, Josie adds. It wasn’t anything technical, only basic words of wisdom: “She said, ‘Play from the heart and just love the tune.’ “
A mother-daughter dynamic also figured in the success story of the Boston Comhaltas School’s Hanafin-Cooley Ceili Band and their second-place finish in the Mid Atlantic Fleadh. Donegal native Sophie Kirby had been playing fiddle for several years, and took part in the school’s non-competitive ceili class for a few semesters before switching to the competition class directed by Danny Noveck.
Joining Sophie in the class was her daughter Roisin, now 16, who had started off playing fiddle at age 12 but two years later decided to take up drums and then bodhran. “At the beginning I just wanted to pick up an instrument and learn some music,” she says. “After playing the fiddle for a while, I thought it wasn’t for me and I was never really that good at it. I felt like I would be better with the beat than the melody. With the drums, I thought I would learn more by working and playing with other musicians. I hoped that while playing with others I could create more sounds and make a noise that was my own.”
Sophie, for her part, was pleasantly surprised by Roisin’s willingness to be in the same class with her, even though Roisin was by far the youngest member. “I was willing to leave if it made her uncomfortable. I played it by ear for a few weeks and tried not to ‘mammy’ her. She was so involved in her own progression, she hardly noticed me. The others all took a shine to her and I left it at that.”
In any event, Sophie and Roisin were caught up in the ceili band’s efforts to become fleadh-capable. Competing by yourself is one thing; being part of a ceili band – where tight playing, starts, stops, and transitions are a priority – is another. They both credit Noveck for recognizing and integrating the different learning styles among the band members, and nudging them along at just the right pace to the goal of competing at the Mid Atlantic. “We talked about it more as a joke so it didn’t look so scary to us mediocre musicians,” quips Roisin. “We are a pretty modest group.”
Sophie enjoyed this special bond with Roisin, where car rides to and from class became an opportunity to talk about the band’s progress as well as their own individual development. Roisin, for her part, saw the ceili band experience as more of an extension of the music they shared in their family life. Although a lot of their conversation, according to Roisin, centered around “me complaining about my ornamentation,” they also would talk about how fun it would be “to have more gigs and cool places to play.”
If Sophie had hopes her daughter would grow to love playing music as much as she did, then mission accomplished: Roisin talks of “the joy I get from playing or the feeling of me playing with someone else and we get into a groove.” She also clearly relishes the rarity in being a 16-year-old “city girl” ceili band drummer.
“I love doing what I am doing,” she says, “and I will always carry on the tradition.”
Two other young musicians from the Greater Boston/Eastern Massachusetts area had satisfying experiences at their first fleadh: Natalya Kay Trudeau won second place in Fiddle (15 to 18-year-old) as did Fiona Henry in Concertina (12 to 15).
“It was lovely hearing other musicians at the fleadh. There is so much young talent out there,” says Trudeau, who after having savored the achievement (“I didn’t think this would happen until I was 25”) is now concentrating on the All-Ireland Fleadh. “And preparing musically for this level of competition is so beneficial in becoming a stronger musician.”
Henry, who has chosen not to go to the All-Ireland this time, agrees with Trudeau: “Practicing those two tunes over and over again made me focus on some of the finer aspects I normally wouldn’t think about, and now I can apply what I have learned to other tunes. “
Also qualifying for, but electing not to compete in, the All-Ireland Fleadh was Boston’s Lindsay Straw, who took second in Over-18 Ladies Singing. Adam Cole-Mullen, a Greater Boston native now attending college in New York, won the Over-18 Whistling competition and came in second in Over-18 Slow Airs (Fiddle).
As the participants are quick to point out, the fleadh also is a time to renew and reaffirm friendships, sometimes in unexpected ways. Lisa Coyne, for example, was set to compete in the Seniors Trio; a trophy named after the late Mike Rafferty — a major influence for Coyne and many other Irish musicians — had been established for the winners in that category.
Then she got a last-minute call from a member of the other trio, asking Coyne if she would lend her C-flute to their flute player, Siobhan Kelly, for the tune they wanted to play. She didn’t hesitate to lend the instrument to Kelly.
“I wanted her to do it,” says Coyne. “Siobhan was a little hesitant about the whole thing, but I just said, ‘Siobhan, do it for Mike.’”
In the end, Kelly and her trio came out ahead of Coyne’s. The fleadh secretary, Terry Rafferty — Mike Rafferty’s widow — was so moved by the event, she had tears in her eyes when she recounted it later that weekend.
“It was the right thing to do,” says Coyne. “I wasn’t trying to be heroic or anything. I just wanted Siobhan to be able to do her best — and if borrowing my flute would help her, then there was no question of lending it to her.
“Really, what are we all there for? It’s to play music and enjoy ourselves.”