By Nicola Hoey, an avid wanderer of the Wild Atlantic Way, sharing her experiences at wildatlanticwanderings.com.
I’m vegging out here in front of the Rose of Tralee on RTE TV after a ‘Fleadh-tastic’ week in Sligo. As the Fleadh Festival comes to a close the Rose of Tralee Festival kicks off in the south of the country but if anything, Sligo truly came to the fore and blossomed beyond recognition as the host of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2015, showcasing its true potential as a unique tourist destination as it drew in crowds of up to 400,000 to what is now known as ‘The Biggest Traditional Irish Music Festival in the World’.
A Town Transformed
As the week progressed, streets that regularly rumble with traffic soon took to the beat of shoes as the centre became completely pedestrianised. Shop and pub fronts now had windows and doors where none existed to serve the masses directly at street level. Alleyways I never knew existed opened up and picnic tables appeared. Pop-up shops and pubs took up residence in dormant premises. Colourful flowers, posters, bunting and banners draped the streets. An incredible army of 2,000 purple-shirted volunteers worked relentlessly through the thronged streets, helping out every way possible.
For a town that I know so well, it slowly transformed throughout the week to a town where the crowds swelled and flooded the banks of the Garavogue; so much so that the foot-bridge across the Garavogue descended into a one-way traffic zone for pedestrians flowing into Stephen Street carpark to catch the big acts performing at the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) Gig-Rig. The crowds even brought the footbridge to a close at one stage, something we’ve never seen happen before!
To me, it was like the fairy-tale of Cinderella where the organising committee, artists, musicians, local volunteers, Comhaltas members, community groups, local businesses and local agencies were Sligo’s very own fairy godmother transforming the town into something spectacular for the week long activities. If only it was as easy as a flick of a wand! Behind the scenes these groups spent months of planning and organising to ensure that Sligo would be prolific in its staging of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2015.
How to Plan your Fleadh Week
Last year I only took a nibble and sampled a taster of the Fleadh not really knowing what to expect but it’s addictive and this year I decided I was hungry for more and prepared for a feast of Fleadh. There are those that take on the full week of festivities and there are those that swing by for a night or two. For me, I opted for the former. For anyone sitting on the fence, here’s why I recommend taking the full week on (even though you will feel like another holiday just to recover from the Fleadh).
We went for the ‘Stumbled-Upon’ approach. This way you can expect to find the exceptionally unexpected but you may also miss out on the extraordinary too. With so many venues offering a variety of gigs there’s no point getting bogged down with programs and it’s a risk worth taking. We had a brief glance, noted a couple of gigs we didn’t want to miss out on and ‘Stumbled-Upon’ everything else.
First thing’s first, we are by no means raving trad music fans with the height of our exposure being to the tin whistle in third class of primary school, the recorder in first year of secondary school and the odd trad session in a few local pubs or strummed up in the wee hours of the morning at a wedding. It’s with a tinge of regret and abundance of admiration we witnessed a wealth of young talent take to the streets safeguarding our musical heritage. For many of them, their eye was on the prize as they competed for a host of prestigious all-Ireland titles in the Fleadh Competitions. We didn’t manage to attend the competitions but from reports, the level of talent coming through is unprecedented which we can easily verify from the displays and performances on the streets.
What to expect at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann
The big venues included The Riverside Hotel, The Garavogue, The Hawkswell Theatre, The Knocknarea Arena, The Model and 5th on Teeling to name a few where most gigs were free but some required tickets.
We planned for Cathy Jordan and Friends at the Hawkswell Theatre; Téada, Seamus Begley, Keiran Quinn, Seamie O’Dowd and The Dartry Céilí Band at the WAW Gig-Rig; and Rackhouse Pilfer and Oddsocks at 5th on Teeling. My parents made it out to the Transatlantic Connections concert which celebrated James Morrison’s incredible legacy as a major music, dance and Irish language figure. It was a hugely successful performance and they thoroughly enjoyed it.
We stumbled upon Ruaile Buaile at the Garavogue, Moxie at Furey’s, The Banjo Boys at the Snug, a random French backpacker guitarist rocking it out upstairs at the pop-up bar, An Seisiún, trad sets at The Glasshouse, Tabby Callaghan at Tricky’s McGarrigles, The Shandrum Céilí Band All-Ireland Champions at the WAW Gig-Rig.
We started up our own little session in The Snug, the barman passing a guitar out to Jumpy and the bodhrán made its rounds with us aimlessly tapping away out of synch. Surprisingly we didn’t clear out the place but had another guitarist join in, along with a chorus of punters, everyone enjoying the craic agus ceol.
We sampled a locally brewed beer ‘The White Hag’ on recommendation from the barman in another pop-up bar, The Dáil II Bar. (Ancient Irish Mythology has it that the White Hag was a witch, a chameleon creature and even Mother Nature herself). It gets the thumbs up from us.
We feasted on burgers (Best Burgers Award goes to Hargadons), curries (Best Curry Award goes to Kate’s Kitchen), kebabs (Lets not go there!), pizzas and bolognaise (Best Bolognaise Award goes to Casa Mia), and a good dose of detox with a healthy coconut noodle bowl from The Sweet Beat Café.
We popped into numerous pubs along the way including McLaughlins, The Bourbon, Kennedys and McHughs. There was something happening everywhere!
A worthy mention goes to Shoot the Crows (or ‘Shoots’ as it’s known locally). We ventured in early during the week to three Dubliners singing it out and enjoyed the little space this place has to offer. As the week progressed you were lucky to even get a spot on the street outside the door. Our friend, JP, was on a mission to get a proper ‘two-part-pour’ pint of Guinness served in anything but those cheap, festival, plastic pint glasses and Shoots was one of the very few places that had special Guinness plastic pint glasses for the occasion. He was one happy punter as he marched back across the Garavogue with Guinness in hand, catching up with us again.
Party with the growing crowds
The crowds grew and grew so much each day that by Saturday night we opted to soak up the atmosphere on the streets as the pubs were thronged. So if you prefer your breathing space get to the Fleadh earlier in the week!
We managed all this in a week. The list on what we missed out on is far bigger though. There was Céilithe (Irish Dance), Scoil Éigse (music, singing and Irish language school), talks and readings, exhibitions, the marching bands and more.
We met folk from far and near but we loved seeing the flocks of Sligonions returning to their hometown supporting the Fleadh. It was a Christmas meets Cinderella fairy-tale and everyone was invited to the ball! And what’s a fairy-tale without a good ending? The rain disappeared and the fireworks rocketed and danced over the Garavogue bringing Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2015 to a spectacular close.
Make the Most of the Wild Atlantic Way
When you are this far don’t miss out on what the Adventure Capital has to offer. Recover from the pulsating Fleadh Festivities by wandering along the Wild Atlantic Way. Catch some recommended wanderings in my next blog on Sligo Town and County Sligo.
Sligo, who knew eh?! #sligowhoknew #adventurecapital (two hashtags associated with Sligo) and #WAW – a hashtag following the adventures and travels of many along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Where to next for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann?
The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann takes place in the picturesque town of Ennis in 2016 and is regularaly on the move landing in some of Ireland’s most popular towns and cities. Known as the All-Ireland Fleadh to so many, for fans of traditional Irish music, dance and culture, this a festival that everyone should experience at least once.
You can find out more about the 2016 Fleadh Cheoil by visiting www.thefleadhdowninennis.com.
To view the latest deals for hotels in Sligo click here.