Joe Connaire’s love affair with the banjo began when he was just 12 years old and would plant the seed for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann’s return to Mullingar many moons later.
The Fleadh Executive Committee [FEC] Chairperson came from a musical family that originated in Galway, but later settled in Westmeath.
He said when himself and each of his four siblings were old enough to play, his parents would ask them what instrument they would like to learn, and Joe was instantly struck by the banjo.
“It would have been the sound of the banjo I really enjoyed, so it was an easy decision picking that instrument, and then I got involved with Castletown Geoghegan CCÉ at 12 years old,” said Joe.
“I got the notes for the banjo off an accordion player and really took it up myself. I had the notes and that was it, I looked after myself after that learning the banjo.
“My sister played the accordion, another played the whistle, and my brother played the keyboard at the time. But I’m the only one who kept it up, and I’m glad I did, I think the others regret it now.”
Although Joe liked to figure out the banjo and learn songs by himself, he did have some inspiration:
“I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out the instrument for myself. I found it hard enough to play at first, but I kept at it and kept at it and eventually you would begin making progress.
“I loved the sound of the banjo, and I was a big fan of The Dubliners and Stockton’s Wing growing up, who both had banjo players, so I leaned into their sound a little bit I would suppose.
“The banjo is unique and it’s a great instrument for ‘livening up’ a session,” he added.
The FEC Chairperson soon formed part of a Céilí Band in his early teens and began touring his self-taught banjo skills around the country.
“I met some great friends through our Comhaltas branch, the Flood brothers from Edgeworthstown, back in the mid-80s and within two years of starting to play music we formed the Glenside Céilí Band,” he recalled.
“We toured the country, and I was very young, thinking back, to be doing that at the time but those were the days, and we had the privilege of playing at the Late Late Toy Show.
“The great, late, Gay Byrne was the man in charge then and that’s my claim to fame until this day – getting a gig on the Toy Show!”
He said of all the “thousands of jigs and reels” on the banjo, his favourite would have to be ‘The Morning Thrush’ – a song he learned just two years ago.
Joe also gave special mention to ‘The Bucks of Oranmore,’ and The Mason’s Apron’ as two classic banjo tunes, he’s always had a soft spot for.
From the age of 18 years old, Joe had mastered the craft of banjo-playing and began being asked could he provide lessons for younger children, which he obliged to do.
“I started doing the lessons from there and my students have gone on to win county, provincial, and all-Ireland titles on the banjo down through the years.
“I’ll be hoping to have another student winning an all-Ireland this year, young Aoife Dunleavy, who will be competing on the banjo and mandolin in Mullingar – she’s absolutely fantastic.”
Although the FEC Chairperson has had many successful banjo students, his children decided to take up different instruments:
“Ellen plays the whistle and the flute, Ríona is a very capable guitar player and Cillian would know his way around the accordion a bit, but he’s more into his sport!”
The Big Banjo Bash will be taking place at Dominick Square in Mullingar during Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023, in honour of another banjo teacher, the recently deceased Noel Kilkenny.
“We’re making it a tribute to Noel, a great banjo player, a man like myself who taught many students in County Mayo, similar to me in Westmeath,” said Joe.
“He passed away very young at the age of 53 last December so we’ll give be giving a few Mayo and Westmeath tunes a blast in his name.
“We’re encouraging as many banjo players as we can get to come to Dominick Square on Friday, 11 August, at 12.30, to participate in the Big Banjo Bash. It should be a bit of craic too.”
Joe said he’s expecting Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023 to be a “massive” event, the likes of which Mullingar has never seen.
“Please God we get the weather because this volunteer committee has put in Trojan work to run Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.”
“The Fleadh in Drogheda was run by the local authority and next year’s Fleadh in Wexford will also be run by the local authority – but we did it with a group of amazing volunteers.”
“We’re doing it for the absolute love of it, I know the Fleadh inside out and have been going to them for years and years, like many in the committee, so its success is all down to our knowledge, grit and determination.”
Joe concluded that he’d like to sincerely thank the volunteers who have made the Fleadh in Mullingar happen, and wished everyone a great time for when it all kicks off on Sunday, 6 August.