Reading David McCann’s account of his first visit to the Museum of Orange Heritage, I was reminded of the fascination and challenge of learning about other cultures and traditions, especially here, where the divide between the two dominant traditions has been particularly evident in the last number of weeks.
With over 25,000 visitors expected to flock to Castlewellan in County Down this weekend, for the celebration of traditional music – from Sean-nós to Ceilí Bands, from strict competition to impromptu sessions, some of the best musical talents the province of Ulster has to offer will gather in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains.
These ‘feasts of music’, take place in every county across Ireland, with county champion’s progressing to their provincial competitions and onwards to the All-Ireland fleadh held annually in August.
This year, the Newcastle Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch are our hosts and will have voluntarily dedicated over 4,000 hours of hard work, and some fun to the organisation of the Fleadh by the time its all over.
This commitment is central to the ethos of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. With 69 branches in Ulster, 44 in Northern Ireland, and 8000 members, Comhaltas touches the life of thousands.
Established in 1950s to preserve and promote the Irish language and culture, Comhaltas with its not for profit community-based, voluntary led organisation, plays a hugely significant role in the cultural heritage of the North thanks to passion and talent of people and groups from Donegal to Down.
Recognising that there are many people and communities who may not see themselves as having a strong or indeed any affinity with Irish traditional music and culture, Comhaltas has, inspired by our love of musical culture, embarked on an extensive outreach programme, using musical culture to cross the religious and political divide.
The hugely successful Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Derry in 2013, historically brought the Fleadh north of the border for the first time. For this Comhaltas was awarded the European Citizen’s Prize for promoting better mutual understanding and closer integration between communities, perhaps more importantly, people who never would have seen or heard Irish traditional music, got to experience the unique atmosphere of this cultural phenomena.
More recently, the John Kennedy Weekend in 2017 and the Edward Bunting Festival in February 2018 celebrated the influence of Ulster Scots on traditional Irish music and culture.
Working with the Executive, Comhaltas is delivering an exciting cross-community project, CEOL (Community Engagement, Outreach & Liaison). The project operates across Northern Ireland, working to improve community relations, develop a deeper understanding of shared culture and help breakdown mistrust within and between sections of the community.
On Tuesday (24 July) audiences in Castlewellan enjoyed the results of this work, as young musicians from the Newcastle Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch and the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association shared the stage in a memorable display of the best of our shared cultural heritage. The Castlewellan Interchurch Group, Music Service for Pipes and Drums and the Annsborough Pipe Band also entertained crowds at the historic cross-community concert.
CEOL has fostered a real curiosity, a curiosity in finding the similarities they share with each other – whether this be a tune or a song, a rhythm, or a beat of a lambeg or a bodhrán drum.
The Ulster Fleadh, offers something for everyone. Music, dance and song celebrated in a welcoming atmosphere for all. The 20,000 people that visited last year’s Fleadh in the seaside town of Bangor will agree.
So this weekend, while I watch the musicians, singers and dancers, all competing to be crowned Ulster champions, with the ambition to succeed in the All-Ireland Fleadh, taking place this year in Drogheda, I will be thinking about what unites us, a love of music and a commitment to the things we care passionately about.
Ulster Comhaltas Director
Ulster Fleadh takes place from Monday 23rd July until Sun 29th July. To find out more about the Ulster Fleadh visit www.ulsterfleadh.com call Comhaltas on 028 8224 2777 or contact your local Comhaltas branch. The Ulster Fleadh is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Tourism Northern Ireland and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.
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