Fleadh Memories

By Garry McMahon

Having the Fleadh in Newcastlewest this year brings back many pleasant memories of a County Fleadh and a Munster Fleadh, which were held in the town in the years 1963 and 1965 respectively. I came to West Limerick in 1961 and within a few months convened a meeting to found a branch of Comhaltas in town. Sylvester MacConmhaighe and his good friend Connie Ryan from Cappawhite came to our first meeting to provide us with support and advice. Sylvester was a wonderful character and a man who had a deep love of our language and music as well as being one of the early National Presidents of Comhaltas.

They say that bad ink is better than a good memory so it is no harm, perhaps, to enumerate some of the early supporters and founder members of this now defunct branch. Michael Lynch, Manager of the Provincial bank (the red brick building on the eastern side of The Square going towards Bishop Street) was a tremendous enthusiast and lover of Irish music and introduced me to O’Neill’s and also to the violin which at one stage I attempted to learn without any great success. I might add, as I had little staying power.

It was reputed that if things were not going too well in the Bank, Michael would retire to the back room and find solace and escapism by playing a few tunes on the fiddle. The late Padraig Collery and Eddie O’Connell, teachers at the Technical School, proved to be enthusiastic supporters and indeed all our early sessions were held there. It proved to be a very suitable (rent and aclohol free) venue.

My good friend Dominic Aherne, a native of Tournafulla and a tremendous organiser and supporter, was always ready and willing to give of his considerable talent in the organisational field of all our activities. Other early members and supporters were Donnacha O’Brian TD, Maureen Raleigh, Jim Hackett, Pat O’Connor, Timmy Sullivan and John Joe Hartnett of Strand, Patneen Aherne, Jim Brosnan, Sean Magner, and of course the inimitable Sheehy brothers, the undisputed kings of the bodhrán. Tá siad go léir imithe are shlí na firinne anois agus ag seint cheoil ins na Flaithis.

I have been trying to wrack my brain to know if there are any others alive today who were part of that early hardy band and I can only think of Seamus Hunt, Ned Dwyer and Jim O’Brien of Templeglantine as well as Ned Dore all of whom are happily still with us. The Cussen family of Feohanagh were also to the fore at the start. I have little doubt but my failing memory has blotted out many other of the early pioneers of the Newcastle West branch of Comhaltas and no doubt following this article it will be pointed out to me. The only excuse I can offer is advancing senility!

I was the Secretary of the branch and of the Fleadhanna and it was on my suggestion that we held the first All-Ireland Bodhrán playing Championship in the town. My late father, Bryan McMahon, judged the County Limerick Fleadh in 1963 and as far as I recall it was held in the Courthouse in the town. It was won by Mick Sheehy and his brother Jim (Rory) filled the second place.

In 1965, in conjunction with the Munster Fleadh the competition was held on a platform erected in Nash’s yard alongside the Desmond Castle on a glorious sunny Sunday. Excitement was at a fever pitch when the adjudicator (none other than the late Seán Ó Riada) reversed the order from the previous Fleadh giving first place to Rory and second place to brother Mick. Fraternal love was not evident when the result was announced!

The prize winner’s concert that night in Nash’s Hall was memorable indeed and Rory gave a speech from the stage which to this day remains engraved in my memory. “I could drum anything from the seven deadly sins to the litanies.” He declaimed.

I well remember two underage winners of that Munster Fleadh, they were Matt Cranitch and Seamus Connolly of Killaloe now Professor of Music at Boston University. Both of these violinists made it to the top of their profession.

The fairs were still being held in the streets at that time and it is a story often told that ‘The Dubliners’ paid us a visit on the Sunday of the Fleadh. Some of the group who slept overnight in cardboard boxes under a platform in the Square were rudely awakened on Monday morning by bellowing cattle with the fair of Newcastle in full swing around them!

I make no apology for the nostalgi evoked in this little article as I feel that tribute should be paid to those people who stood by their tradition and espoused Dúchas at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. Under the Comhaltas aegis standards have happily improved to an extraordinary degree, as exemplified by the mastery displayed by the youth of today on a variety of instruments, so much so that it can be said that the future of Irish music is assured forever - buíochas mór le Dia.

Ar aghaidh leis an gceol agus rath Dé ar an bhFleadh!