Hundreds of Irish music devotees, their ranks swelled by generations of emigrants to England, converged on Camden Town at the end of October for a powerful affirmation of Irish music and culture. Based around the London Irish Centre, the Return to Camden Town Festival celebrated its twelfth year in style - and in a very successful new format. The first weekend concentrated on concerts and sessions, with the ever-popular céilís and set dances scheduled a week later.
In these days of reduced funding and dwindling disposable income, it's hard enough to fill two weekends without keeping the festival going for the days in between. As festival director Karen Ryan told me, "We've tried to maintain the quality this year, without losing too much of the quantity of audiences or entertainment. That was the main reason for separating the two weekends into music and dancing. This way we're not trying to please both crowds at the same time, and many people will want to attend both weekends." It certainly seems to have worked: concerts and dances were sold out, venues were packed to capacity, and there were many new faces among the stalwarts of the London Irish scene.
In Ireland’s present straitened economic circumstances, perhaps we’ll see a Return to Camden Town of another kind: a repeat of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with Irish people emigrating to find work in London. If so, they’ll probably be drawn to Camden, and to this blooming festival. Such is the attraction of RtCT that it already pulls in punters from all over Ireland, crossing the sea to meet friends old and new, to enjoy the craic, and to experience a concentration of world-class concerts and céilís which can't always be found at home. And it's not just the Irish who appreciate this opportunity: Germans, Italians, Americans, Eastern Europeans, and even a few English people spoke to me at sessions and workshops, with the main concerts attracting a much wider cross-section of London's cosmopolitan population.
So why might that be? Imagine you're a flute-player, for instance: what does RtCT offer you? Well, the 2010 opening concert presented Dervish, Sligo's finest with Liam Kelly on the old timber tuba. Saturday featured a flute workshop with Louise Mulcahy, followed immediately by a concert combining The London Lasses (fluter Elma McElligott) with the superstar trio of flute icon Matt Molloy, John Carty and Arty McGlynn. I can tell you, Matt has lost little if any of his prodigious panache and power: his solo rendition of The Moving Cloud was breathtaking, and his slow air Staker Wallace even brought a hush to the adjacent bar. Sunday afternoon started with a close-up chat and masterclass from Molloy, Carty and McGlynn, and ended with a sparkling concert performance by the Mulcahy family featuring the lovely Loiuse again on concert flute.
For fiddlers, of course, there was even more to enjoy. Dervish were supported by banjoman Brian Kelly's band The Groove Hoovers, with Glasgow's Jamie Smith and London’s Sam Proctor on fiddle. Dervish brought fiddler Tom Morrow back to his roots in Camden, joining North London luminaries such as John Carty, Reg Hall, and of course the twin fiddling of The London Lasses. Mick Conneely was in fine form with The Old De Danann on Friday night, pumping out old favourites with Alec Finn, Derek Hickey, Brian McGrath and Ringo McDonagh. Con Cassidy's from Donegal, The Killavil Fancy from Sligo, The Devils of Dublin, The Monaghan Jig (always a popular choice with me) and even humble old Father O'Flynn, all were driven on by bow, bouzouki, bodhran, button box and banjo. The warm-up for these lads was a rare treat in itself: Edel Fox, young concertina diva from Miltown Malbay, teamed up with Connemara sisters Liz and Yvonne Kane for some gorgeous trios, duets and solos. The Letterfrackers are well known for their interpretation of fiddle music by prolific composer Paddy Fahey, but on this occasion there was less of the distinctive muted minor cadences of countless Paddy Fahey's and more of the meaty heart of Irish fiddle music.
Plenty to choose from on the string-scraping scene, and I haven't even mentioned the fiddler I most wanted to see at this year's RtCT: Tony De Marco. Something of a living legend, this man learnt his fiddling at the feet of the great New York Irish players of the twentieth century. Tony De Marco's music is the music of Coleman, Morrison, McGreevy, Reynolds, McGann, Wynne, and many other Sligo fiddlers who lived in and around New York. It was also shaped by Paddy and Johnny Cronin, emigrant Kerry fiddlers, as well as by American old-time music, and it is a wonderful thing to behold. In addition to the grand old Irish melodies recorded in America, Tony delivers complex and at times flamboyant variations, drawing on the styles of Killoran, McGann and their like to embellish the tunes. Tony's workshop, session and concert appearances were a clear highlight of the 2010 festival.
Flute and fiddle, the mainstays of Irish music for centuries, were not alone in Camden. There were almost as many concertinas taking advantage of Edel Fox's excellent workshop - over a dozen players of all abilities, juggled deftly by Ms Fox, a big increase on previous classes for this jewel among modern instruments. Mick Mulcahy's accordion masterclass was equally popular, and John Carty swapped his bow for a pick to power his controversial banjo workshop. Even the humble tin whistle was celebrated in style this year, as tutor Peter McAlinden launched his charming debut CD after four decades of practice: recorded exclusively on the lowly Generation whistle, this album was rarely off the PA system between concerts, an easy joyous sound with Pete Quinn's piano underpinning the sweetness of the whistle.
The less formal side of the festival was in evidence as soon as I stepped over the threshold of the London Irish Centre: wall to wall session, in full swing throughout the day. Such London legends as Mick O'Connor, Reg Hall, Teresa Connolly and Luke Daniels were employed to lead the charge through reels, jigs, polkas, and even slow airs. When the workshops and concerts were over, hordes of tune-hungry twenty-somethings repaired to the local hostelries for a few more hours of music: The Cobden Arms, The Golden Lion, The Crown, Keenan's and other cultural oases were full to bursting with instrumental talent. At times there would be so many in the session that different tunes would start at opposite ends of the gathering and meet in the middle with a mighty clash: at other moments, the music would swell in unison from all parts of the pub, louder and louder, faster and faster, a storm of notes with nowhere to break out of the loop.
After a frantic Friday night, it was heartwarming to walk around the festival venue the following morning and see the packed rooms for fiddle, whistle and concertina workshops. All ages, all abilities were catered for. The same was true of the flute workshop I attended in the evening, dragging myself away from one of Camden's many tempting eateries to learn Lady Gordon's Reel and pick up tips on ornamentation, hand position, embouchure and posture. The array of flutes on show was impressive, from full orchestral silver jobbies to unkeyed blackwood by Tracey Byrne and my own Martin Doyle model. All eyes were on a new Michael Grinter instrument, a few weeks' wages at least, played by one of two tremendously talented twelve-year-old lads who will probably pop up again.
RtCT is certainly family-friendly, with a great tolerance for youngsters at all events, many sessions accessible to children, and a general understanding that the tradition should be passed on, children are the future, and the little beggars will be noisy sometimes. One wide-eyed toddler in particular caught everyone's ear, grisling at the start of Saturday's main concert, handed a tin whistle to keep her happy during the interval: within minutes she was hitting the high notes with piercing precision, and she didn't want to stop just because the main act came on stage. When she dug the shiny feadóg out of Mammy's bag for one last toot, just as John Carty was limbering up for a reel, she got nothing but indulgent smiles from the stage. As I remarked to her mother later, there's not many girls that age who can say they've played the whistle at a concert with Matt Molloy.
Nobody could attend all the events at RtCT, there was just too much going on. I missed Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and several other performances in the singing strand of Irish music, as well as showcase concerts by Waterford band Caladh Nua, Cork brothers Diarmaid and Donncha Moynihan, and too many good sessions to mention. And of course there was a whole weekend of dancing to follow, while I was still recovering from late nights and clapped-out hands: workshops with renowned teacher Anne Keane, followed by evening dances to the famous Templehouse Céilí Band from Dublin, and the local McNamara Céilí Band featuring Karen Ryan and Pete Quinn again. It's true, some people do manage both weekends! Maybe next year.
Photo Credits: (1) Return to Camden Festival Logo (from website); (2) Dervish, (3) Louise & Michelle Mulcahy, (4) Tony DeMarco, (5) Matt Molloy, John Carty, Arty McGlynn, The London Lasses & Pete Quinn (by Sean Corrigan).