Online platforms for annual Comhaltas competitions


Paddy Callaghan

IN TRADITIONAL music, one of the key mechanisms in aiding education is to involve competition. Since 1957, Comhaltas have been running Fleadhanna (Festivals) which centre around a network of competitions held regionally that feed into national and then a worldwide championship—the All-Ireland Fleadh held every August in Ireland.

Whilst for some, competition may be about the opportunity of winning, Comhaltas are clear that: “It is not intended that competitions should be merely a means by which a competitor may gain a prize or defeat a rival, but rather a medium in which these competitors may pace each other on the road to excellence.”

Without doubt the focal point of the Comhaltas calendar each year is ‘Fleadh Season,’ where those based in Scotland enter and compete in the ‘Scottish Fleadh’—traditionally held on the last Sunday in April. In 2020, due to Covid-19, the Scottish Fleadh was cancelled for the year—as were all Fleadhanna the world over—which left a gap in the educational development of many musicians, singers, dancers, storytellers and linguists. One key element of the competition process is the feedback from adjudicators delivered to all participants through the medium of a written adjudication sheet.

Individual approaches to adjudication vary, but what is certain is that adjudicators are experienced exponents of traditional arts in their own right and bring lots of knowledge to their role. Adjudicators are encouraged to share some hints with competitors that may help them improve, and a bit like having someone proof-read a document, having other experienced eyes taking a look at your performance, they can often spot something that has slipped under the radar which can be easily worked on.

With the Covid-19 pandemic rumbling on past its first anniversary, Comhaltas in Britain were determined that ceoltóirí would not be deprived of a second Fleadh season in a row, so the decision was taken to devise the OCC’s—Online Comhaltas Competitions for 2021.

With entries closing recently, it’s been amazing to see such a big uptake in the competitions from across the age ranges, from the youngest just starting out their journey in music and song, to those who are proud to add their first virtual fleadh season to scores of conventional ones which have gone before.

You may ask: ‘How does a virtual competition work?’ Well, there is a simple answer and a much longer answer to that question.

To put it simply, the biggest difference is that instead of travelling to a location and performing alongside all the other competitors before an adjudicator, you record your performance via video from your own home and these are all appraised by an adjudicator before the results are collated and broadcast at a later date.

What that has meant though, is a massive undertaking in creating new infrastructure, and a whole new way of working in what is quite a bold approach for an organisation known for holding on to its traditional ways.

What has absolutely shone through, though, is the importance in affording the opportunity to receive crucial feedback from adjudicators, giving particularly younger musicians, singers and dancers a focus—something to aim for and, of course, showing the resilience to find a way to keep going through the most troubling of times.

Reflecting the traditional Comhaltas structure of Fleadhanna, there will be four OCC competitions happening across Britain throughout April and May. In Scotland the SOCCs—with the results being broadcast live on facebook on April 25—in Northern England the NOCCs, the Midlands having the MOCCs and finally London with the LOCCs. These are all feeder qualifying rounds to an All-Britain event taking place at the end of June called the BOCCs.

The All-Britain BOCC will be part of a wider event called FÉILE 2021 which will be based in the UK City of Culture for 2021, Coventry, and will form a cornerstone of their cultural celebrations featuring a concert, workshops, a world-record attempt and a traditional disco thrown in for good measure.

Comhaltas as an organisation have proven that there are different ways to do things. Just because something happens a certain way each year, doesn’t mean that it has to happen this year as normal, or else it’s not worth doing. That isn’t the right way to approach events. If you have a need and a desire to make something happen, then you find a way to make it work. It may mean re-writing the rule book and thinking completely out the box, but at least come the end you can say ‘we did it!’

For more info on the OCCs please visit

Paddy Callaghan is the Scottish Region Development Officer for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. You can follow him on Twitter: @paddy_box and Instagram: paddy_box