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THE 23RD ANNUAL FEILE CHOIS CUAIN (THE LOUISBURGH FESTIVAL) - 28 April - 1 May 2017

Situated in Co Mayo, Louisburgh lies on the Western seaboard of Ireland in an area with a rich history in the traditional arts, and has enjoyed both a cultural and economic boost since the inception of the Feile Chois Cuain. The “Celtic Tiger” may have been subdued by the financial crash of a decade ago, but there are definite signs of a re-emergence of its former vigour. In the hamlet of Louisburgh the evidence is all around - from the extensive menus in smart cafés and restaurants, the modern independent bookshop which serves as a site for book launches and literary talks, and from the vibrancy of the music curriculum, exhibited by the school pupils who are part of a host of home grown performers. It’s like a microcosm of the land of plenty - a prosperous, exciting wee place to be.

It was not always so. Louisburgh stands just seven miles away from a valley that witnessed one of the darkest incidents of Ireland's Great Famine. On a bitterly cold day in 1849, up to 600 starving people gathered in its streets seeking food or a ticket to the Westport workhouse. They were directed to Delphi, 10 miles away, and struggled in icy rain through mountains and rapidly swelling streams to their destination. When they got there, Poor Law officials made them wait until they had finished eating, eventually condescending to address them with a brusque refusal and admonition not to return. On their way back to Louisburgh, no-one is certain how many died by the wayside of cold, hunger and exhaustion. Some were buried where they fell, and this black episode is marked by a monument in the form of a cross erected at the head of the Doolough Pass to the memory of the hunger victims.

What would have been a savage, unforgiving landscape in those dire times, is now (rightly) marketed as an area of great natural beauty, and numerous examples include lush fields dotted with sleek sheep and their fat lambs and an opalescent sea that separates the mainland from the nearby Clare and Achill islands. Dramatic Atlantic rollers hurl spume high in the air, and what was once a famine victim’s hell is now a surfer’s paradise.

For lovers of traditional music this festival provides a parallel paradise. It’s a festival of small venues, (the biggest, the Parochial Hall, seats about 200), fine quality concerts, masterclasses from legends in their fields, very VERY ubiquitous sessions, and a warm welcome from all and sundry.

Whilst many festivals market themselves as ‘the friendly festival’ with varying degrees of accuracy, this one is the ‘real deal’. Its unspoiled nature is reflected in the fact that whilst many of the performers are recording artistes, not a single one mentions, let alone tries to flog you, their latest offering. A small thing you may think, but one I think that underlies the authenticity of the event. Not a CD table in sight - astounding!

Friday's opening Youth Concert featured different combinations of school-kids stepping up to do their turn on fiddles, flutes, concertinas and dances, with nary a glimpse of the more ‘Johnny -Come –Lately’ instrument to this part of the world, the guitar. Some of the kids were obviously just starting out and were kept to short contributions. Though some of them showed obvious signs of trepidation, they left the stage wearing big grins in the manner of the Nativity Play performer who has just realised that they've pulled off the role of Third Sheep in front of proud parents and others. The outstanding performance of the night was an unaccompanied version of For Ireland I'll Not Speak Her Name by a girl whose age I thought might be at the upper end of the Primary School range called Ciara May. Already the recipient of singing award(s) it is easy to imagine her going on to great things - she's already halfway there.

I divided the main part of next day between two masterclasses. One was on sean nós singing, tutored by Caitlin Ni Chualin. With a huge fan base on the sean nós scene, Caitlin shared skills with a group of widely differing abilities and still managed to impart value to the experienced and the novice alike. Next door, Orlaith Keane used printed set pieces for her ballad class, gradually allowing individuals to spread their wings in other directions when they and she agreed this appropriate. With a delivery where her lips barely seemed to move, yet with that unmistakable Keane family sound, she provided a fascinating class. Whilst two masterclasses were all I could meaningfully cover, I did however gather that the fiddle class tutored by Liz Gaughan and Breda Keville was challenging but, in the long run, rewarding.

The pubs were awash with sessions. The fact that they were predominantly instrumental may have lain behind the notice (pictured) which among other things prohibited “novelty acts”. I'm not sure I've ever seen a novelty act on the scene (Yodelling unicyclists? Seals parping Carrickfergus on car horns?) but could see sense in creating an oasis for singers.

Although not on the programme, traditional cookery was a highlight for me. The owner of the Louisburgh 74 café had great informative craic about traditional cookery and a way with a seafood chowder that had me making this place a home from home - a mature lady who now adds wine to the recipe, she assured me that in times past “before wine was the thing it is now”, she used poteen. From humble beginnings serving food from a room in her house, she now, with her daughters, presides over a bright cosmopolitan café which I joyously frequented for four days.

A programmed highlight was the concert entitled Music And Love. The programme announced that “love and music go hand in hand! This concert features couples who are musicians and have met through their music.” No sub-section for online dating was noticeable and it was funny how many of the couples mentioned the jig, I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave! Outstanding contributions included John and Jacinta McEvoy who provided a sparkling set carried along on a good natured personal chemistry, a nice combination of local set dancers supplemented by tutors Padraig and Roisin McEneary (from the delightfully named town of Termonfeckin), and musicians James Lanagan and Christine Heneghan.

And the couple who closed the show are already fairly well known but I predict that they'll go even further as their reputation inevitably grows. They play. She stepdances. All tremendously. Ladies and Genn'lemen, I give you – Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Ciaran O' Maonaigh. He was nimble, sensitive and eloquent on fiddle without being flashy. Her concertina playing at times incorporated a combination of chords and sustained notes and the melody line simultaneously, in a way that was breathtaking and innovative. The Japanese Hornpipe in their hands both embodied the tradition yet sounded as fresh and exciting as if it were written yesterday. And still the goodies continued to pile up as Caitlin threw herself into a step dance that was fast, furious, precise and exhilarating - never missing a beat nor losing her smile as the audience showed every symptom of losing their minds. Wisely, the organisers had programmed them to close the show, so no poor unfortunates were obliged to follow.

Another scheduled event in the form of a Set Dance Social followed later, and apparently the streets were still a bit lively at 5am, though I'll have to take the word of others. I did, however, witness the sessions spreading into the streets the next day, with an ever rotating coterie of musicians showing no signs of slowing up as they occupied a circle of chairs that materialised outside the town's pharmacy as the festival, for me at least, drew to a close.

I mentioned a monument to a 19th century event earlier. This festival, and those who organise and participate in it, could be regarded as a 21st century monument of a happier time - a monument to the resilience of local people and the capacity for joy that is represented by their annual Feile Chois Cuain. Many thanks for a special time.

Hector Christie