Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Tale of 2 Two Towns

31st Annual Ballyshannon
Folk & Traditional Music Festival

YouTube Clip (1): The Homes of Donegal - Paul Brady 1985, written by Seán MacBride
YouTube Clip (2): Ballyshannon Folk Festival

The Homes of Donegal (Seán MacBride).

"I've just stepped in to see you all
I'll only stay a while
I want to see how you're gettin' on
I want to see you smile.
I'm happy to be back again
I greet you big and small
For there's no place else on Earth just like
The Homes of Donegal."

This weekend at Ballyshannon, we were treated to 2 brilliant and emotional renditions of this classic Irish ballad. The first, on Saturday night, by political songstress Eleanor McEvoy (and very nicely done), and the second, on Sunday night, by the incredibly talented Jim McKee, with a literally breathtaking finale by PJ McDonald on the whistle. It drew gasps and cheers from the packed audience – vocals, guitar, cello & whistle soaring to heights of musical complexity & harmony. Beyond amazing really, especially for those of us that don’t play a note. It’s quite difficult to put the musical artists we saw this weekend in any sort of order. Suffice to say they were the absolute best of trad music that Ireland has to offer, no doubt. So we’ll write about them all, and we’ll put a few YouTube clips up, which might just offer a taste of our experiences, albeit in poor quality. More on all the music a little later…
Ballyshannon, in the southern most part of Donegal, is the birthplace of the poet, William Allingham and is one of Ireland's oldest towns. It’s pretty small - 2 main streets and loads of pubs, including Dicey Reilly’s & Finn McCool’s. This was so interesting because we haven’t actually seen these names in Ireland before although they’ve got huge international appeal as Irish theme pubs (Brisbane is saturated by them!) The publican of Dicey Reilly’s here in town is… you guessed it, Mr Dicey Reilly. He has brothers all over the world. Finn McCool’s would have to be one of the smallest pubs I’ve seen in Ireland - I guess his relatives went overseas too? So, plenty of creamy guinness, brilliant music, but a dearth of any decent food in the whole town unless you like average Chinese or bad takeaways. Sorry to be critical, but some of these Irish towns could do better. Anyway, we loved it.
We stayed in a Bundoran, a few kilometres down the road, with a spectacular mountainous backdrop. But if ever there was a tale of 2 towns, it would be right here. Contrary to the slick advertising from the local tourist authorities, Bundoran was tacky and somewhat rundown. I guess we should have taken note of the Lonely Planet. Full of B&B’s, demountable holiday homes and trinket shops. Yes, it has surf beaches & golf courses, but the culinary highlight seemed like KFC on the main road, and the area around the funfair was rundown and boarded up. A white limo from the Circus Chicago did circuits of the town, blaring their pitch through loud speakers adding to the atmosphere of the whole place.
I suppose everything in life is relative. The kids in Australia might get to Coffs Harbour or Surfers for holiday, while the kids here get Bundoran or maybe Wexford, unless Mum & Dad can afford a trip to Spain. But if you grew up in Belfast or Derry, then Bundoran on a nice day would seem pretty good. I grew up in an English seaside town – Southsea. Amusement pier, funfair, pebble beaches, rock candy. The shutters come down in winter and the carnies leave town. But in Bundoran, it seemed like the shutters had already come down a long, long time ago and left the town to the Circus Chicago and the horrible themed pubs. Not good.
Our B&B – Marlboro House (Food, Rhythm & Booze), €70/nt, tried hard. The bed was ok, the service was ok, but the breakfast menu options were non-existent (contrary to their website) and the whole placed constantly reeked of deep frying (Michael, you really need some air extractors in the kitchen). On the Sunday night, a live band below our room continued until after 2am. The Polish blokes shouting & pissing in the carpark outside our window didn’t help either. Ok – that’s their business, and we didn’t mind too much. We were dog tired from being out all day and our trad music concert each night. But if either of our parents had been staying there, they would have been out of there like a shot. There’s no doubt that investment has been made in this property, and again, people might think we’re being critical, but little things like offering a breakfast choice for people who don’t want the “fry” – bacon, egg, sausage, etc. should be considered. For an establishment that’s setting out to prove their culinary excellence, perhaps they should offer some fruit or yoghurt, or just something else. It’s the simple things that might make all the difference and bring people back to Bundoran.
We did a little day tripping between music sessions, particularly to nearby Rossnowlagh with its wide sandy beach and excellent surfing conditions. A far, far better place for an Irish beach holiday than Bundoran! Hey, you can even drive your car onto the beach and set up your windbreak, but look out for those tides… We had lunch at the Smugglers Creek Inn, dating back to 1845, with an excellent bar menu (all seafood) - best meal of the weekend.
So, on with the music...
1. Mórga (majestic) - Headed up by Barry Brady on the accordion, this young 4 piece group created some truly amazing and sophisticated trad music, different from trad sounds we'd heard before... fantastic harmonies & almost hypnotic in some ways (some of their sets were up to 10 minutes long). With the accordian, banjo, fiddle & bodhran, I think it might have been one of their first 'big' gigs, and they turned up at Ballyshannon with no CD, which was a pity as we would have bought one or two! In a way, they set the high standard for the festival, as they were the first of 9 acts across 3 nights at the Abbey Theatre. Luckily Mórga had 2 further sessions down at the Bridgend Pub, as they were well worth a second listen.
2. Eleanor Shanley - When confronted by the prospect of a "female singer of Irish ballads", Clare and I wondered if we could possibly bolt for the door to sit this one out, but we decided that might look a bit bad. Our feelings were confirmed when Eleanor took to the stage and started belting out her tunes (and stories) of how she 'd been "done wrong", in genuine Dolly Parton style. Much too close to country & western for our liking and it went on for too long. Sorry Eleanor, you're just not our cup of tea. This was our only real disappointment at the festival.
3. Dervish - Dervish took to the stage with deserved acclaim & applause. They've been around since 1989, and their trad sounds have a rich sophistication yet being competely exclusive, much due to the amazing vocals of Cathy Jordan.
"Dervish concert performances are a myriad of tones and moods ranging from high energy tunes, played with fluidity and intuitiveness, to beautifully measured songs, from charming lyrics of life and love, to inspiring melodies that lift audiences from their seats. All the elements are drawn together by Cathy Jordan's masterful stage presence. Her stories to the songs and her interaction with the audience draws people into the music in a way very few performers can achieve."
Well known in Ireland & internationally, Dervish were the only group at the festival we'd really heard of before (and in fact, we had one of their CD's), so the sound was familar yet inspiring all the same. The tracks from their new album (Travelling Show) were great and prompted us to buy a signed copy after the show. This brilliant and polished show rounded off night one at Ballyshannon, and we could already see how (and hear) how this festival was held in reverence by the artists who played here.
4. Téada - kicking off night 2 in style, Téada had a great trad sound. Much like Mórga & Dervish, their harmonies of instruments (fiddle, button accordion, flute, guitar/bouzouki & bodhrán) produced a seamless & pure Celtic sound. Definitely a step well above the average pub trad session sound. Looking at their group website, they're very well travelled and probably have more exposure overseas than in Ireland, where they remain relatively unknown (we certainly couldn't find any of their CD's in music shops when we went looking recently).

1 comment:

MacCárthaigh Family said...

Hi there,
will you be posting any photos of the Viking Festival that was held in Annagassan over the weekend?