Saturday, July 20, 2024

The soul and spirit of the Hidden Heartlands were exposed for all the world to see in the Fleadhanna

So that’s that – Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023 is disappearing in our rear-view mirror, joining its sibling from 2022, but the ‘Fleadh era’ has left memories for us all – and questions too, and some of them of the ‘serious’ variety.

Which one was best? Certainly that’s subjective; 2022 was something new, a huge festival in Mullingar, long awaited and surrounded by military-styled planning. It brought the music of the Fleadh into the heart of the community, and it brought its business too.

For something that has its own innocent beauty – Irish traditional music and dancing – it’s a pity that money was mentioned just a little too often.

The 2022 Fleadh was promised to generate €50m for the region, and perhaps it did, but An Taoiseach, at the 2023 Fleadh opening, said this year’s version was worth €100m. We know inflation is an issue, but that seems a little extreme. And anyway, how will we ever know?

Joe Connaire, who chaired the Festival Executive Committee, was never driven by money when he and his colleagues worked for years to get the Fleadh and then hold it (twice) in Mullingar. It had to have been an issue, of course, but it wasn’t at the heart of the drive.

The love of traditional Irish music and the love of the local land were their nuclear reactors, and they should be richly congratulated on their achievements.

‘Other winners were the town’s pubs and food outlets, some of the other shops and maybe the hotels were busier too…’

One of the biggest financial losers – and, ironically, a potentially big winner – is Westmeath County Council, which invested hundreds of thousands into the Fleadhanna. As the local authority, it may see a return on its investment in the coming years, if businesses spring up and if the community spirit, ignited by the Fleadhanna, can be maintained. The Council is its people.

Other winners were the town’s pubs and food outlets, some of the other shops and maybe the hotels were busier too. But other businesses chose to close because of the difficulty regular customers had in shopping.

Will Irish traditional music be a winner too? It seems so, given the comments made by a number of well-placed people who see an enthusiasm in young people who want to learn how to play instruments – and if you’re going to play an instrument, it may as well be a harp or uilleann pipes or a tin whistle. As the Waltons ad used to say, “if you’re going to sing a song, sing an Irish song”.

So what, then, will be Mullingar’s legacy from the Fleadhanna? Better community spirit, a better value placed on volunteerism, new businesses, a spirit of co-operation between the town and its local authority, more young musicians, more people attending live music events especially of Irish traditional music, a new attitude of respect towards our gardaí (who were magnificent during the Fleadhanna), an ‘easier sell’ for the people behind the Hidden Heartlands tourism initiative because of a higher profile for the Midlands?

All we know, for a fact, is that the Fleadh came to Mullingar twice in 12 months and was a huge success each time. What seeds they sowed will take some time to grow and longer to notice.

We can at least be grateful to the people who fought for the Fleadhanna, who planned for them, who worked and volunteered at them and who did so, not for profit, but for the love of something they may find difficult to explain themselves. It’s the soul of something.

Hidden Heartlands, exposed soul.

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