When organizers of Midwest Fleadh Cheoil, the Irish music festival held in town last weekend, brought the competition to Forest Park, their vision was to replicate as much as possible the feel of the event in Ireland.
David James, a three-time all-Ireland champion and one of the judges, says his favorite fleadh town in Ireland is Listowl in County Kerry. “A little town of 8,000 which claims 52 pubs,” James notes. “The crux of the scene is going from place to place, playing sessions on the corner and having a practice session in which other musicians sit down and join in.”
Madison Street has a lot of Irish bars, but the total is nowhere near 52. Likewise, the estimated 1,000 who took part in last weekend’s fleadh as contestants or spectators doesn’t approach the 250,000 people who will invade the town of Cavan, near Dublin, where the all-Ireland fleadh – rhymes with “ma” – will be held later this summer. Nevertheless, the consensus Saturday was that the local village touted for small-town charm came pretty close.
Laura Romaine, who won the 15-18 flute competition and has been to Ireland three times, said that spreading the competition out into a total of 14 businesses and churches was “kind of an imitation of Ireland.”
Keith Reins, who made the three-hour drive here from his home in Iowa, said, “The setting here is great. It makes me feel normal – walking down the street and everybody is carrying an instrument! There’s Irish music everywhere.”
Sue Campbell, who lives in Elmhurst, brought her 10-year-old daughter Bridgett to the fleadh for the fiddle competition. She echoed the comments of nearly everyone interviewed, saying, “I think it’s really neat that it’s in a small town, because you get to see the different businesses. I like to walk around and hear the music.”
Competition in the fleadh was in 29 categories, among which were fiddle, two-row button accordion, concert flute, tin whistle, concertina, Uilleann pipes, harp, banjo, Irish singing and English singing. Each category was divided into four age ranges: under 12, 12-15, 15-18 and over 18. The first- and second-place winners in each of these qualifying rounds are going to Ireland in August to compete at the international level.
The marquee event, which played to a nearly full house at St. John Lutheran Church on Saturday evening, was the bands competition. Among the bands going on to the all-Ireland competition are the Broken Pledge Band and the Academy of Irish Music Adult Band. Bands from St. Louis dominated the younger brackets with SLIA U12 Ceili Band, the SLIA U12 Grupai Band and the SLIA 12-15 Grupai Cheoil taking first-place honors.
On the one hand, many of the performers felt butterflies in their stomachs as they waited to perform. Tony O’Connell, who plays piano in the Murphy Roche Ceili Band, said that winning the all-Ireland championship for an Irish musician is comparable to getting an Oscar if you’re an actor. Helen Ganon, chairwoman of the group overseeing the event, explained that “there’s a huge profile attached to qualifying. There is tension because you need to get a first or second place.”
On the other hand, Kyle Borley, who came all the way from Winnepeg, Canada, said that winning is secondary. “If I came here and didn’t win,” he said, “I’d still get to play tunes with really good musicians. Just last night we had a really good session at Molly Malone’s.”
Three members of the Akron Hibernian Band, when interviewed before Saturday evening’s competition, confirmed Borley’s comment. “We’ve already decided we’ll be here next year even if we don’t win. It really is about the music.” As it turns out, they came in fourth.
Terry Healy, one of the local organizers, was ecstatic. “Kids are showing a real spirit of cooperation. Young people who are competing against each other are learning each others’ tunes. It’s a terrific family affair.”
Melanie Kincaid lives in Forest Park and attended the ceili dance at Molly Malone’s on Saturday night. After listening to conversations with band members and dancers, she said, “It’s like they’re holding hands with the people of Ireland who came before them. They are celebrating their culture and keeping it alive.”
Laurie Kokenes, director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development, said the festival was fantastic. “We really didn’t know what to expect,” Kokenes told the Review. “Next year we will promote it better.”
Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the Irish group that puts on the event, has made a two-year commitment to Forest Park.