Ballina Hosts the Fleadh

By Caoimhghín O Brolcháin

Ballina Hosts the Fleadh

Long before we actually reached Ballina, the Fleadh was in full swing on the train - oh, the whole artillery was brought into play, bodhráns, feadóg stain, fiddles, pipes and a coorse . . spoons rattling off seats, windows and elbows. Unfamiliar mountains - the Nephins, mór agus beag and the rest of the Nephin family marched alongside the tracks, though at a distance. This was Mayo, green and fertile - where ‘in ainm Dé’ did that old deprecating exclamation, ‘Mayo, God help us!’ ever come from?

A nice, ‘live in’ little town with a lovely salmon river, the Moy complete with fishermen up to their nipples in the water, casting, casting in long elegant snakes of line, in front of the cathedral. I haul my weighty case off the luggage rack and out of the station with the both of us … not a bus, not a taxi to be had for love or gold and a two mile trek out the Crossmolina road to the accommodation . . a stretch of road I was to get to know rather too well ‘Tá do chara i gCillala’ (Your friend is in Killala) the old 1798 password spreading the news that the French had landed recurred to me. Wouldn’t it be grand if he were to turn up with an oul’ ass car just now! The case seems to be full of bricks - ‘Trom cearc i bhfad’ (Even a hen grows heavy if you carry it far).

The atmosphere was rather slow in building up . . almost as if the town had to adjust itself to this unaccustomed invasion, but by the second day things were ‘hotting up’ and the crowds building in the main streets. An excellent, continuous series of performances on the gig-rig, as good as any I’ve ever heard, ensured a large crowd throughout the three days, regardless of rain or shine - and we had both! Where was the bould Séamus MacMathuna? Somehow there was a tangible gap in things. We missed being urged to rattle the street windows with ‘O Ró Sé Do Bheath Abhaile!’, never the less the music groups entertained us royally.

There can be no doubt that the people you meet at the Fleadh are an enormously enjoyable part of the total Fleadh experience. A delightful Australian girl from Sydney told me she was here on a ‘one-way’ ticket. She meant to visit her peoples’ place in Cork, but someone had given her a lift to the Fleadh. She was entranced with it all. ‘Why don’t you stay here - get married - become president! (I happen to know there’s a vacancy just now!)’ ses I. ‘I have to see Connemara and Fermoy first before I make any decisions’, ses she.

The breakfast has been agreed ‘for ten o’clock in the morning. ‘The other guests aren’t early risers’, the ‘bean a’ tf’ tells me. I can’t believe it.. a question of continual adjustment . . ‘When in Rome’. Early next morning. I can’t stay in bed, so out with me and up the bóithrín for a bit of a stroll. There I meet up with a grand little man from Monaghan ‘Takes some getting used to’, he says. ‘At home now, all the fields are up in front of you - the very same as if they were on a postcard! - Very hilly,’ I mention Patrick Kavanagh and his tale of the Monaghan crows going up and down the turnip drills, pulling them up to get at any worms that might be amongst the hair roots. One crow came on a well-grown seedling that he couldn’t get up at all . . Kavanagh tells us incredulously, that another crow came up, grabbed his tail and the two of them heaved till the root yielded. My new friend tells me of baling silage and next morning, ‘Begod, it seemed as if every crow in Ireland was in my field and they roostin’ on the bales. Dammit they’ll rip at the plastic after worms and ruin the whole thing!’ I supposed it must be the warmth of the ‘heating’ new-cut grass that attracts them to roost… they like warm feet in bed just like the rest of us.

He tells me that the people from the north are all down for the Marching Bands competitions. ‘It’s like a religion at home!’, he tells me. It gives me an insight. Sure enough, the banners proudly borne in front of the high- stepping gorgeous uniforms I watch later that day are all Donegal . . Monaghan… Armagh. . and the crowds applaud them with enormous enthusiasm. ‘I’ll tell me Ma when I get home! . . Pipin’ Tim from Galway! . . We’re no awa tae stay awa! I’m reminded of an old Bavarian former German army band master watching the Trooping of the Colour in London . . ‘Schon wieder em deutcher Marsch!!’ (Yet another German March!!) he would exclaim indignantly . . In the same way I’m sure ‘We’re no awa . . ’ didn’t grow on our manure heap. The marching is amazingly in step - as a man who has done his share, I can tell you that the muffling effect of grass on marching feet is disconcerting for the marchers - yet they cope wonderfully in the competition field. Colourful, energetic, enthusiastic, swaying, thumping, twirling - but very definitely a ‘cultivated taste’ to the ‘foreign’ ear. The crowds are ecstatic - they have travelled far for this moment.

Munster specializes in superb Céilí bands and Set-Dancers, it seems to me. Connaught, produces slow air geniuses and Leinster provides dancers and a wide variety of gifted instrumentalists. ‘Every cat has his own way o dancin’. Comhaltas is a ‘broad church’. Of course, this isn’t water-tight segregation - every region delightedly sends performers in all the Gaelic arts . .but Ulster has the marching bands pretty much to themselves, apart from overseas competitors - and they, I would guess, are fostered by expatriates.

Just up from the Cathedral, I notice a thatched cottage and my curiosity is roused. It turns out to be a sod house, (raised in 17 hours!) in the wretched style our ancestors were forced to adopt in dreadful famine and eviction days. This is the brainchild of local vet Tom Horkan and his vivacious wife Máire - a ‘Famine project’. It is superbly carried out. Some timbers had been taken from a 200 year old house and windows were ‘glazed’ with a mare’s ‘clearings’ stretched over a frame - which was, apparently the authentic substitute for glass in those days. Inside, the turf fire smoke swirls around before exiting over the rear half-door. Máire tells me that she baked a cake at the fire and visitors were fascinated and had returned to sample the baking delightedly. ‘If we don’t re-create, we’ll forget our past!’, a well designed pamphlet tells us. I find it immensely moving. Máire shows me a few drills of potatoes which had been planted out the back. Amazingly, blackened stalks show they have been stricken by blight. Could authenticity go further! Ballina and the Horkans deserve tremendous congratulations on their achievement. I have never seen anything to touch this.

Over the road, a fisherman has hooked a salmon. He plays it up and down the shallows and an enormous crowd of spectators applaud enthusiastically. He waits till his catch is safely in the landing net and bows to acknowledge the tributes, raising his hat and the fish aloft. A superb O Riada mass celebrates our coming together in this friendly, historic little town, and the final day of the Fleadh passes far too quickly. It will not be my last visit to Ballina. I enjoyed myself and was not alone in my delight.