A Tribute to Tony Finnegan

By Seamus Mac Gabhann

Tony Finnegan’s sudden death in December occasioned intense grief in his native Meath and throughout Comhaltas. Tony was a worthy President of the organisation because he personified the values which have made Comhaltas into a national movement, capable of creatively moulding the cultural identity of Ireland. With the loving support of his wife Ann and of his family, Tony served Comhaltas at national, provincial and county level’s as well as on missions abroad, and always with distinction.

Tony’s strength sprang from his firm roots in his local community. Alongside Ann, herself a brilliant organiser, Tony was a founder member of the O’Carolan Harp, Cultural and Heritage Festival in Nobber in 1988, the 250th anniversary of O’Carolan’s death. As Chairman, Tony’s flair and sure judgement led him to stage major Irish music acts in Nobber, a daring risk in a small venue. He relished the challenge, and year after year, at major concerts, many of the greatest exponents of Irish music performed at the Festival, in O’Carolan’s birthplace. The Festival’s renown spread abroad and soon musicians from overseas were being welcomed by Tony in Nobber: from Europe, North America, Australia, even from China.

From the outset, Tony grasped the cultural potential of the Festival for the region. The magnetic appeal of the music generated enthusiasm and energy which could be harnessed for the enrichment of the community. To help enhance possession of the heritage, Tony initiated lectures and workshops on regional archaeology, history, music, architecture, folklore, bilingual poetry and on the significance and legacy of Turlough O’Carolan. Articles and publications soon followed. Classes in Irish and historical tours of the area were sponsored. Local talent was encouraged, as musicians, singers, dancers, artists, craft workers and photographers exhibited their skills.

A striking innovation was the foundation of the Meath Harp School. Tony was proud of the splendid work which Ann did in developing this flourishing institution. The Harp School, in conjunction with Cairde na Cruite, provides expert tuition to young musicians from Co. Meath and beyond. Tony viewed it as a fitting tribute to the genius of O’Carolan whose music had brightened the gloom of Ireland in the dark era of the penal laws. Young performers from the Meath Harp School were soon talking All-Ireland titles. President Mc Aleese welcomed them to Aras an Uachtarain. Tony’s daughter, Dearbhail, a graduate of the School, is now an established professional harpist who has played in the British House of Commons and for President Clinton in The White House.

Tony’s unfailing enthusiasm, nurtured by Ann, and his deep personal warmth made him a natural exponent of the age-old Irish custom of the ‘meitheal’ when neighbours would combine in solidarity to undertake a project. I did not grasp this when I first worked with him, and I would be quite luneasy about his laid-back approach before a daunting event, like a major concert. As my heart-rate rose, Tony would chat away affably about points of history, or tradition, or placenames. And then, casually, like a magician drawing back a curtain, he would open the show. All would fall into perfect place, because unseen squads of co-workers had rallied to the cause in warm support of Tony. I t was magical. In fact, at grassroots parish level, Tony was a gifted embodiment of the pioneering self-help revivalism which shaped Irish culture in the early 20th century, and made traditional cultural forms central to national progress and self- realisation. His final completed project illustrates his resource. He wanted a major monument to O’Carolan which would ratify th community’s work and heritage.With apparent ease, he rapidly galvanised a broad range of supportive interests and then trimphantly unvelied a splendid bronze sculpture of O’Carolan at the Festival in October: an eloquent symbol of O’Carolan’s enduring legacy to later generations from whom his music is unifying and creative heritage.

We little knew then that Tony’s passing was so near. He rests now in Nobber cemetery, close to O’Carolan’s birthplace in Spiddal townland, and within earshot of O’Carolan College where he hosted so much superb Irish music. He will be sorely missed by Ann, his family and his many friends. Yet , part of his rich legacy to us is that we understand that for Tony’s work teaches this truth to his community and to Comhaltas, as we face into the challenges of modernity. It is valuable wisdom. Go dtuga Dia leaba i measc na naomh do.