THE oldest and largest branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Britain showed why they are a jewel in the crown of the Irish community in Scotland with a series of show-stopping performances to mark the diamond jubilee of their foundation.
Glasgow’s Irish Minstrels—which was the first branch of the organisation dedicated to the promotion of the Irish music, song, dance and the Irish language formed outside of Ireland—performed a special anniversary concert in the Couper Institute, enjoyed a celebratory dinner in the Kerrydale Suite of Celtic Park and played a sold-out show
at the Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections 2017 (above).
Founded in January 1957 by the ballad singer Eoin Kelly and fiddler Jimmy McHugh, the Scottish branch has gone from strength to strength and now boasts a membership of 200 musicians who represent the vibrant Irish community in the greater Glasgow area in the best manner.
The Irish Minstrels hold weekly classes in St Roch’s Secondary School led by 20 talented tutors and overseen by Musical Director, Frank McArdle, during which their knowledge is passed onto the next generation of traditional musicians. In addition to this, a Winter School weekend is held in January where expert tutors from around the world hold master classes culminating in a showcase concert that is fast becoming a world-renowned event. The branch also participates in Fleadh Cheoil (music festival) competitions at regional, provincial and world level and has celebrated a number of successes from its earliest days right up until the present.
Both the anniversary dinner and Celtic Connections concert, featured a stunning performance of Macalla 1916, a suite of music composed by Michael Rooney, one Ireland’s greatest modern composers and orchestral conductors. The suite reflects on the seminal event in Irish history, but also places The Easter Rising in the context of Ireland’s story from the Great Hunger to present times. The Scottish branch performed extracts from the suite at both events under Michael’s guidance.
“To say the Macalla Suite—performed by our folk orchestra of 38 musicians—was awesome would be an understatement,” Frank McArdle enthused. “It was out of this world. I was immensely proud of my weans on stage, and in particular, Roisin Anne Hughes and Paddy Callaghan for what they achieved. Maura Currie and Cara Kelly were outstanding with the narration as were our singers, Roisin Chambers and Tadhg Maher. Michael Rooney, TG4 Composer of the Year 2017, is an inspirational man. We have to say thanks to him for making all this possible.
“We continued our 60th anniversary celebrations with a sell-out concert at Celtic Connections and what a night that was too. The first half had the branch’s own talent on show, along with guests Michael McGoldrick and John Doyle, June McCormack and Michael Rooney, while second half was another outstanding performance of the Macalla Suite.”
Danny Boyle, a musician with the Irish Minstrels, who has won All-Ireland solo and group titles as a member of the branch, was similarly passionate when reflecting back on the Celtic Connections concert.
“It was one of the best gigs of the festival and one of the best Irish gigs ever to happen in the city,” Danny said. “We had a full 40-piece orchestra of Glasgow Irish musicians: strings, percussion, backline, woodwind, the lot. Then you add in the guest artists. It had never been done before and was a massive achievement in a sold-out concert hall venue.
“In 60 years we’ve gone from the Gorbals to the Concert Hall. That gig will go down in history. It was the first time it had ever been done to this extent and that’s testament to the work of so many people over the past six decades.”
Paddy Callaghan—who is project officer for Comhaltas as well as being an Irish minstrels’ member and tutor—gave a personal insight into the sense of community the branch has managed to generate down through the decades, to the extent that many within the group consider each other as family.
“The dinner/concert was absolutely incredible,” he said. “It’s hard to put in to words. I was on stage greeting like a wean! It was simply stunning. I’m so proud that we managed to do such a special event and it was all in-house.
“I love being a member of the Irish Minstrels. Just getting to play music with friends—that are actually more family than anything now—means the world to me. We’ve grown up together we know each other inside out and get to play music together. It really is a beautiful thing.”
That sense of community created by the branch was even recognised in the Scottish Parliament where Bob Doris, SNP MSP for Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, lodged a motion congratulating the branch on its anniversary celebrations just which was supported by a number of his fellow MSPs.
The motion paid tribute to Frank McArdle and the tutors, who it said ‘offer invaluable work that continues to foster multiple generations of young Irish musicians and others in Glasgow and Scotland.’ It noted that many of these musicians had ‘represented their city and nation with distinction at the annual Fleadh cheoil na héireann by winning multiple All-Scotland, Britain and Ireland championships in solo and group competitions.’
Tribute was also paid ‘to the commitment of the many volunteers over the 60 years, the current committee of Moira Callaghan, Brian O’Neil, Margaret McManus, Margaret Gallagher, and others, including long-term supporter, Fred Sweeney; welcomes the vision of the founding committee, of Jimmy McHugh, Annie McGrath, Donal Boyle, Eoin Kelly and Anne McHugh, whose intervention in 1957 established the first branch of the organisation outside of Ireland.’
The motion lauded too ‘the ongoing efforts of Glasgow’s Irish community and others in providing and enjoying dynamic music that it believes has become part of the city’s folklore, past, present and future,’ before offering its best wishes ahead of the sold-out Celtic Connections concert and ‘continued success in the months and years ahead.’
The celebrations continue this month with the annual Comhaltas in Britain Convention taking place in East Kilbride. The main focal point of the convention will be a showcase triple-bill concert featuring some of the finest musicians from both Britain and Ireland. The convention, which sees members from 26 British Comhaltas groups come together, will also play host to a number of other performances from as well as musical workshops.
“The 60th anniversary Comhaltas in Britain convention will be a real celebration of what Comhaltas have achieved, but will also have a real focus on building towards the future,” Paddy said. “The workshops on offer are being led by tutors at the highest standard in their field and have been chosen to help inspire the next generation to push on and develop their talents to their full potential. The showcase concert will be a real highlight, particularly with the incredible Mulcahy family making their first appearance in Glasgow. With the addition of a trad-disco, we have really covered every part of the traditional music spectrum.”
To find out more about The Irish Minstrels visit their website: http://www.glasgowirishminstrels.com