You would hardly think that Irish traditional music was ever in trouble. Walk into an Irish pub anywhere in the world today and you might well be treated to an informal “session”— musicians playing for their own pleasure and that of their listeners. It might start with a fiddle player pulling an instrument from a battered case. Maybe a button accordion emerges from under a chair. A flute is pulled from a bag, and the music continues with the haunting sounds that were once the preserve of the rural country kitchen. But it was not always that way.
There was a time when the mere survival of Irish traditional music was not at all a sure thing.
In January 1951, representatives of the Thomas Street (Dublin) Pipers’ Club went to Mullingar for a meeting with traditional music enthusiasts from County Westmeath. Two ideas which had already been mentioned amongst traditional musicians were discussed at this meeting; the first was the founding of an organisation to promote Irish traditional music while the second was the organising of a great annual festival of Irish traditional music, song and dance. A further meeting was held in February, and at this meeting it was decided that, in conjunction with Feis Lár na hÉireann (a Gaelic League Feis which had been held in Mullingar for many years), a Fleadh Cheoil would be organised in the town in May over the Whit weekend.
In the years before the Fleadh, although the ordinary people of Ireland loved traditional music, the hundreds of traditional musicians in the country were largely unappreciated in popular social and intellectual circles. The aim of the Fleadh was to promote traditional music and to arrest the decline in its popularity. The cream of traditional Irish musicians attending the Fleadh played a major role in furthering this aim.
Fleadhanna Cheoil gave traditional musicians a platform where they could play to an appreciative audience and where traditional style was the criterion. That first Fleadh Cheoil in 1951 attracted only a few hundred patrons - a small but enthusiastic crowd. Within five years, however, this annual gathering had grown to become a great National Festival attended by traditional musicians, singers, and dancers from all parts of Ireland and overseas.
On October 14th, 1951, at Árus Ceannt, Thomas Street, Dublin, the first standing Committee of Cumann Ceoltóirí na hÉireann was elected. At a meeting in St. Mary’s Hall, Mullingar, on January 6th, 1952, the title of the organisation was changed from Cumann Ceoltóirí na hÉireann to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
Comhaltas has grown with the times, and today we’re proud to be the foremost movement preserving and promoting Irish traditional music. We love what we do.
Branches of Comhaltas have formed in every county in Ireland and also abroad, organising classes, concerts, and sessions in local communities. Now there are County and Provincial Fleadhanna, and also the Fleadh Nua, the Tionól Leo Rowsome, Seisiún, and the Scoil Éigse, and active branches in the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan and elsewhere. In fact, there are hundreds of branches in 15 countries on 4 continents.
As the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, said,
Take Comhaltas out of the equation, turn back the clock and contemplate Ireland without Comhaltas and the sheer scale of what we owe you is revealed.
We’re not resting on our laurels. In 2001 Comhaltas announced an ambitious plan to partner even more closely with local communities through our “Meitheal” initiative. Now in 2006, we’re happy to report that we’re ahead of schedule, developing over 50 active projects through our network of regional Meitheal committees.
Guided by our Development Programme we’re also busy opening Regional Centres and Outreach Centres, taking on exciting new projects in Education, expanding our Archive and producing the popular ComhaltasLive weekly video programme.
All of this exciting work, though, rests squarely on the shoulders of our local volunteers. If you think you might want to be involved, find your local branch and see what we’re all about!