A German town with a diverse population and an Italian mayor is going to be hosting the qualifying rounds for the world’s biggest Irish music festival. That’s what Terry Healy, an organizer for the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil, told everyone at the village council meeting Monday night.
Yes, the weekend of June 25-27, Forest Parkers will have the chance to hear some of the best Irish music in the world at the Fleadh – rhymes with “ma.”
For lovers of Irish music, the festival is comparable to the qualifying rounds of the World Cup for soccer fans. Those who place first and second in each category will proceed to the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, the All Ireland traditional music championships, which will be held this year in County Cavan, north of Dublin.
Sandra O’Connor, who came from Ireland seven years ago to manage Molly Malone’s, says that the fleadh is a big deal in Ireland. Cavan, a town of about 6,000 residents, will be flooded with 250,000 music fans during the festival. “The competition,” she says, “makes or breaks people’s careers.” It’s been referred to as “the Olympics of Irish music.”
Why is such a big deal being held in Forest Park when the other North American competition is being held in New York City?
Healy, a co-chair of the fleadh and co-owner of Healy’s Westside, says that, up until now, the fleadh has been held in hotels or schools in such big cities as Cleveland, Detroit or Denver. The problem was that although the public was welcome, the fleadh was more or less out of sight and out of mind.
Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the Irish musicians union sponsoring the competition, wants to promote Irish music and culture through the competition. According to Healy, that’s why they jumped on the idea of having the fleadh in Forest Park. In many ways, he says, Forest Park closely replicates the small Irish towns where the finals are held and will make the festival much more accessible to the public.
Above all, this is a family event.
“I’m in the beer selling business but the festival will be selling no beer,” Healy said. “We’re going to be having 12-year-olds competing.”
He smiled and added, “If you are listening to music in Constitution Court and you can’t find a place to have a beer, you are just not very creative.”
An estimated 2,000 people are expected to be coming to Forest Park for the festival. Restaurants and taverns, of course, hope to increase their business during the week, but other merchants are doing special promotions.
Augie Aleksy, for example, at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, is making a window display featuring books on Irish history and mysteries by Irish authors. At Old School Records, the Gianakopouloses will put out all their Irish and Gaelic music. Sandra O’Connor at Molly Malone’s will serve an Irish breakfast on Sunday complete with rashers, Irish sausage, white puddin’, black puddin’, baked beans, grilled tomatoes and fried eggs.
Kell Chole, Fleadh’s other co-chair, reminisced about good times she has had over the years in the friendly Irish towns hosting the competitions. She said that a town of 6,000 does not have hotel accommodations for a quarter of a million people, so residents open up their homes. “When they found out that I was in the competition as a flute player,” she said, “they wouldn’t let me walk to town. They drove me.”
She remembered getting to know one of men she would be competing against. “I am familiar with the song you’ll be playing,” he said, “and I have a variation you might want to use.” Chole told the story to emphasize that in important ways, the music and the friendships formed around it are more important than winning. “This guy,” she said, “gave me something to help me succeed in the competition in which he was trying to beat me.”
Chole also spoke about how impressed she is every year with the younger musicians. “All of these kids are winners,” she said. “First of all, they have the guts to get up in front of a room full of people and a judge who sometimes their hero, like Liz Carroll or Jimmy Keane.”
There will be a gig rig (stage) in Constitution Court, on which some of the judges and contestants will perform all day. The gig rig is free.
“Don’t be surprised if musicians spontaneously start playing on the sidewalk or even after breakfast in a restaurant,” Chole warns.
Amy Malina contributed to this report.