Boyle’s All-Ireland Fleadhs
First published, Saturday, February 20, 2010
“I was in Boyle once …many years ago now. It was during one of the great Fleadhs…the best I was ever at ... I remember it well ...great days, great music.” I have had this reaction more than once whenever I mention that I’m from Boyle. The Fleadhs of Boyle live on in the memories of the thousands who visited the towns on those memorable weekends nearly thirty years ago. They act too as markers in the memories of those involved.
Origins: Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann had been founded at the turn of the fifties to nurture and promote Irish traditional music, song and dance. This promotion culminated in the great annual festival of Irish music, the Fleadh Cheoil. These had begun at Mullingar in 1951 and had been held, through the fifties, in towns such as Athlone, Ennis, Loughrea and Longford. Boyle’s turn came in 1960.
Surrounded by Music: While traditional music, native to the town, was scarce enough, Boyle was at the heart of a countryside immersed in music. Among those musicians were Joe and Paddy McDonagh of Ballinafad. They possessed a wealth of tunes which they passed on to the younger generation including Matt Molloy. Also from Ballinafad were Bertie and Michael Joe MacNiff. The sessions in Corrigeenroe revolved around Paddy Nicholson. Here was a fine fiddle player, Michael Lyons, who later emigrated to the U.S. while Jim McLoughlin played the whistle. Paddy Nicholson himself played the fiddle, while another great player was Phil McConnon. In nearby Doon were the McGlynns, Eugene, Joe, Pat and Owen and also Peter Gallagher. On the other side of Boyle, in Keash, were Peter and Joe Cullen, Michael Brennan and Mark Walshe. From Killaraght came Mrs. Meehan, Kevin Meehan and Oliver Knott. In Ballinameen there were Eugene Duffy, and Paddy Kenny with E. Lavin in Breedogue. Nearer the town was accordion player Paddy Cregg and flute player Eddie Cummins. From the town were the fiddle players John Dwyer and Paddy Morris and brothers Jimmy and Bernard Flaherty, originally from near Castlebaldwin, both accomplished accordion players. Then there was Kathleen Dwyer Morris who hailed from Ballindoon but became intrinsically linked with Boyle. These musicians flavoured the times as they played at Country House dances, American wakes, occasional concerts and rambling house sessions. They had their own local style dictated by restricted means of transport and local identity. In the fifties this changed and the Fleadhs accelerated the change.
Venue Selection: News of the great gathering of musicians at the All-Ireland Fleadhs, of the early fifties, began to filter back to Boyle. A branch of Comhaltas was formed, instigated by Micheal O Callaghan. He became the first Branch Chairman. Clareman, Garda Joe Leahy was Vice-Chairman; Des Kennedy was Secretary with Paddy Morris and Mrs. Margaret Nicholson acted as Co-Treasurers. Other core committee members included Mr. and Mrs. John O’Dowd; Jimmy and Tess Flaherty, Martin Candon and Kathleen-Dwyer Morris among others. Present, at that initial meeting, to lend encouragement, were Tommy Flynn and Pat Joe Dowd from Lough Arrow. This ambitious committee applied to host the 1960 All-Ireland Fleadh. Because of its youth, it had to overcome the national organisations doubts in its ability to do so at a special meeting in Birr.
Preparation and Anticipation: The town did not know what to expect from the event and could hardly have anticipated the immense size and impact of the occasion. It came as a shock to Boyle but the town rallied and won through on all fronts. The days immediately preceding the weekend were days of feverish activity. Temporary cafes, eating houses and accommodation venues, emerged, responding to the cajoling of the committee’s accommodation secretary, Jimmy Flaherty. Camping grounds sprang up as the town improvised to cater for the expected crowds. And they came, first as a trickle on Friday evening, to a steady stream early on Saturday to a flood on the evening and night and on Sunday morning, until the streets were filled with a happy, jostling throng.
Triumph: The 1960 All-Ireland Fleadh was a triumph for Boyle; a triumph of organisation, co-operation and atmosphere, which left a wealth of memories and established Boyle as a premier venue for the festival. Sunday morning opened to the crash of a thunder storm, which threatened the day. But, having given its salute, it passed on, as the parades and music returned to the streets, while the competitions proceeded in the many centres. Among the winners that weekend were many who were to become household names in the traditional music scene. Joe Burke, Matt Molloy and Josie McDermott were winners as were the Tulla Ceili Band. Locals too performed with distinction, including Frances Grehan, Sean Kenny, and Aidan Sheerin. The St. Attracta’s Ceili Band, Ballinameen; Buion Cheoil Mhuire, Drumboylan and Marian Band, Boyle were successful in the Roscommon County competitions.
A post-Fleadh account went thus “the memory of it is still fresh in the minds of the thousands, and what memories they are. To try and sort them out is almost impossible for they come crowding into the mind in a confusion of sounds, faces and incidents that prevents the pictures from coming sharply into focus. The skirl of the pipes, the lilt and lift of the dance tunes, the ballad singing and dancing on the pavements, the laughter and noise of the happy laughing crowd seemed to hang over the streets of Boyle.”
Epilogue: The return of the Fleadh of 1966, held in glorious Whit weekend weather, confirmed and enhanced Boyle’s reputation. The opposition encountered by the committee to the Fleadh’s proposed return in 1972, in the nervous atmosphere of the Northern Troubles, was a big disappointment to them. While there were very good County and Provincial Fleadhs in this period, and an active branch, the possible repeat of 1960 or 1966 faded as Listowel took over the mantle. Neither has the number of Boyle musicians grown beyond the traditional families of Flaherty, Morris, Meehan and Grehan. The strongholds are still outside in places such as Ballyfarnon and Castlebaldwin. The local Comhaltas branch is dormant, with little prospect of coming to meaningful life. The twenty fifth anniversary of the 1960 Fleadh inspired the Editor of the Roscommon Herald (and motivator of the first festival, Micheal O’Callaghan) to ask, above a picture of a crowded town; “Will we ever see the like again?” I doubt it very much, so let’s hold on to the memories of ’60 and ’66.
“Ah yes, I was in Boyle once…. “
First published in the important Moylurg Writers Book of essays, on Boyle, Vol. 2, published Nov. 1993.
(Acknowledgements to Mrs. Margaret Nicholson and Mrs. Kathleen Dwyer Morris for their help with this article).