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Sligo: The Fleadh

I had good intentions. I picked up my Fleadh 2014 brochure, selected a dancing competition, a film, a concert, a museum. Out on the street, Sligo was heaving. This was only my second visit to Ireland’s national folk music pageant — and my first to Sligo town. So much to see and do.

Sligo: The Fleadh
The Knockmore Ceili Band performs in Sligo. Image: James Fraher/Redferns.

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Then, on my way down Harmony Hill, I saw three silver-haired men doing a turn in front of Jenny’s Bar. It was lunchtime. I ordered a pint of the black stuff and leaned on a doorjamb. The singer intoned, “Come sit down beside me, if you do love me…” A crowd gathered. Shoppers paused to dance in pairs. I stayed an hour, soaking up the music, watching the faces, enjoying the warm air, and the charm, and the craic. A drunk came out and did a jumpy jig for the crowd. If I’d stayed for a few more I’d have soon been doing the same.

The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (‘The Music Festival of Ireland’) — which everyone knows as the Fleadh, with a silent ‘d’ — is Ireland’s annual folk music extravaganza. Since its inception in 1951, the event has travelled all around the country, showcasing traditional music and dance, with a little bit of theatre and film. This year’s programme, which ran from 10-17 August, also featured walks and Gaelic-language events.

I went to the Cavan Fleadh in 2009 and had a ball. Sligo, if anything, seemed livelier, and the setting of the compact, colourful town huddling beneath mighty Benbulbin — a tabletop mountain famous for its prehistoric flora — was picturesque.

To stretch my legs I headed down O’Connell Street. It was rammed with spectators, boozers, shoppers, prams-pushers, and entertainers drawing crowds, creating bottlenecks. Many musicians were at either end of the age spectrum: serious seniors on fiddle, bodhrán, guitar and penny whistle, teens playing their hearts out — all wearing the impassive look of the true folky.

There were impromptu reel sessions, one man soloing with a shepherd’s crook to fast accordion music, and a theatre-style event unfolding at the Peace III Gig Rig. Here I watched a young woman perform soulful English- and Irish-language songs to acoustic guitar, an acapella recitalist from Orkney, storytellers from all over, and a 10-piece outfit beating out an impressive folk repertoire from across the diaspora. While the emphasis was on fun and frolics, the Irish love to educate, and singers and comperes always explained the roots of their songs and sets.

In the Yeats Memorial Building the mood was different, with a veteran fiddler playing exquisite phrases for an audience of half a dozen. On the wall was Yeats’ song-cum-poem, The Fiddler of Dooney:

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney, 

Folk dance like a wave of the sea;

My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,

My brother in Moharabuiee.

Born in County Dublin, Yeats fell in love with Sligo. He had family there, adored the landscape and the sunsets, and cherished childhood memories of his time there. He is buried at Drumcliff, beneath Benbulbin. He was the first of many artists and poets. “A lot of people come here because it’s a bit wild, not crowded, and very diverse,” said Denise Rush, a social media coordinator for the Fleadh. “There’s a high percentage of artists — they choose Sligo because the rents stayed down during the boom years of the 1990s — and we’ve got an eclectic music scene, which is why the Fleadh is such an opportunity.”

At the smart Lyons Café, I grabbed a pie and then retired to The Swagman, on Wine Street. Here, over a fine local pale ale, I settled in for yet another gig — 15 young musicians performing a medley of popular polkas, waltzes and folk songs.

The music was mesmerising, the atmosphere warm, everything sort of sublime.

I’d walked all of three blocks — in six hours. Good intentions…

The Fleadh returns to Sligo for 2015. I’ll be doing the same.