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Michael Curran: Today’s Irish Youth in the Trad Scene

  Micheal Curran talks about Cavan Fleadh, playing traditional Irish music and the over all joy of gigging!

A stereotype would have been created around the old fleadhs and festivals, suggesting that it was only old people who used to go to them, and that there was very little to do but play music. But modern festivals have evolved and now include events for people of all ages and interests.

Today’s interview is unique. Not only that it highlights the musical culture of the Irish youth but it also gives us the in depth observation of what happens to music festivals from someone who has been playing in these events for years. Between college dissertations, teaching at workshops, Celtic Connections -wow talk about being busy, Michael was able to work with me in these questions. His responses are very informative and he is a fine writer himself.

1. How does it feel to share the space with other talented musicians in the field of traditional Irish music?

Playing Irish music has totally shaped more or less everything I do; it is like a religion, a way of life. I suppose if you were to ask the same question to any young ‘trad head’ like myself, they would give you the exact same response. I feel that playing music has developed me personally and nurtured me into the lad I am today, but if you were to ask any of my non-musical friends they would just say I am absolutely crazy, and they are probably right! Music has been a great outlet for me ever since I started playing when I was around 10 years of age; it is a fantastic pastime, hobby or whatever you would like to call it.

But apart from all of that, I think the most rewarding part of playing Irish Music with others is the friendships that I have built up over the years. Playing music has opened many doors and introduced me to so many wonderful people; having created countless friendships that last a lifetime. Music has given me loads of brilliant opportunities to travel all over Ireland and further afield, bringing my box and my music wherever I go.

In a way the space shared with other talented musicians is quite a small knit one, like a little community all with the same shared passion and interest. Music can break barriers for people and is like a language, many people from different nationalities from all over the world can play together as one. With thanks to modern technology, the internet and in particular social networks, the small knit community of Irish trad can develop on a global scale; we can stay in regular contact with musical friends all around the world, and music online is available at our fingertips. It is without a doubt, an interesting and enjoyable scene to be part of.


2. You aren’t part of a band yet and you aren’t working on an album right now. But what do you have in mind this year?

Even though I am not working on an album right now, it is something that I have not ruled out, and I would hope that in the not too distant future I will get the opportunity to put some tracks down to record. I personally feel that I am not ready to record just yet, within the last few years I feel my style of box playing has changed and developed into a more distinctive and personal style, but then again I feel it can develop even more in the next few years, so there is always room for improvement!!

When it comes to recording, I think patience is very important. Money and financial gain should not be a motivator and one should take the time to play and record music they are happy with. Time and time again I have heard other musicians who have recorded albums say that on hindsight they would have did things differently, such as not rush into recording, do more research and gather more knowledge. I will not rush into a recording studio just yet, I will when I feel the time is right, but most importantly, when I feel my music is right.

I am currently in my final year of civil engineering in Queen’s University, Belfast, so recording has not even entered the equation at the moment. Because of a hectic and intense study schedule, I find I do not have as much time to play as I would like, but fortunately at the weekends I teach at home in my spare time and go to local concerts and sessions when they are on. Also in the coming months before the Fleadh season kicks off in the summer, I have been asked to play and take workshops at various different festivals throughout the country, including the James Morrison Festival in Riverstown, Co. Sligo, and the Trad in the West Festival in Clifden, Co. Galway to name but a few.

3. Tell us about your big involvement with the Cavan Fleadh, and if possible give us an in depth look at the scene and the things that happen during these gatherings.

Being from the North, and only a short forty minute drive from Cavan Town, I have been very fortunate to meet and befriend many great people from that area within the last ten years. One such person is the widely known Martin Donohoe, virtuoso button accordion player, and a big influence on my own playing. I remember going to his house with my father when I was around 14 for a one off lesson, and I suppose it was a turning point for me, in the sense that he opened my eyes to the big bad world of trad, as it made me recognise the huge scene that is out there and one that I could get involved in.

Currently Cavan have hosted the last two All-Ireland Fleadhs and we will be back there for the third year in a row for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2012. The Fleadh is one of the biggest music festivals in Ireland, and one of the biggest Irish Music festivals in the world. Basically the Fleadh is a week long plethora of music, song and dance, with concerts, workshops and numerous impromptu sessions happening on a regular basis. Thousands of people descend onto the Fleadh’s chosen venue every year to meet old friends, make new ones and just generally have a good time.

Although probably for a lot of musicians and seasoned listeners of music, the Fleadh is about the competitions. Every year a new All Ireland Champion in different age groups are crowned, depending on their instrument. To compete at the All-Ireland, one must firstly gain qualification through their local County Fleadh, and then do likewise at their Provincial Fleadh, before they perform on the big stage. In August 2011 in Cavan, I was fortunate to gain 2nd place in the Senior Button Accordion competition. It was a great achievement which I was delighted with, and I suppose that is where my involvement lies!


4. You were in the Glasgow Comhaltas two weekends ago. Now you are back in Scotland. What are your schedules?

Yes, before Christmas I was asked over to teach the box at the Glasgow CCÉ Winter School of Irish Music, along with some other musicians and friends from around the country. The organisers always have the workshops in January as it coincides with the world famous Celtic Connections festival, Scotland’s premier music festival, spanning a period of three weeks. I had just finished some of my college exams days before I was due to fly out so I thought the weekend would be a nice break. The workshops took place on the first weekend of the festival, and we were given the opportunity to attend some of the major concerts and also to the famous ‘festival club’, which had a range of different genres playing until the wee hours, accompanied by a late bar…music and beer, ‘What more can a man ask for?!!’. This was my first time at the festival; I loved the atmosphere and enjoyed it that much that when I got back home to Ireland late on the Sunday night, I immediately booked flights back to Glasgow for the finale weekend….a decision I did not regret!

I have no set schedule when it comes to playing music. I have a simple motto, ‘If I can go, I will go’. There are always sessions and concerts on regularly around my area and I like to try and get to as many as I can, although as I mentioned earlier there are a few festivals and workshops that I have been attending for the past few years, so there are always set around the same time annually.

5. You mentioned about Civil Engineering as your course.  I noticed that most Irish musicians have double careers, one that is musical and then otherwise. It seems like music doesn’t have to get in the way of your other career path as the case of most musicians I read about. Is this a common thing over there?And the winner is....

Yes I suppose it does seem quite common in a sense. However I feel that being a student has massive advantages. If you look at some of the savage up and coming young bands on the scene at the minute, Éalu, Goitse, JPTrio to name but a few, most of those guys are around my own age and are still studying, in particular music related courses. A lot of these bands were formed through music projects; maybe they got the opportunity to record and put a show/tour on the road as part of an assignment, and of course the main luxury for students is the extensive time off, meaning that they can afford the time to partake in such events.

As for the well known bands and musicians who have been on the road for years and who hold down a full time professional career away from the music, they probably have managed to establish a system that works both ways, so they have the times/tour dates etc set months in advance to accommodate their full time jobs.

I know from my own personal experiences that time management is very important when planning to play music and studying/working. For me I try to treat playing music as a hobby but there are times I have found myself travelling and gigging quite extensively and it sometimes feels like a job in itself! I try to find the right balance between the two so the enjoyment always remains. There have been times when I have had to miss out on some gigs and turn down invitations due my studies, but I suppose that cannot be helped. On the plus side any time I am away on a long weekend playing, I do not have a boss to answer to on a Monday morning if a few lectures are missed!!!

6. What do you think are the things responsible these days in bringing people to get into these musical events?

There is no doubt that Irish Music has had something of a revamp over the last 15-20 years. It is cool for young people to play music nowadays, and with so many festivals, fleadhs and other regular gigs on they are spoilt for choice. Modern technology has also played a huge part in this change. Long before televisions and computers tunes would have been swapped with older musicians at house parties and ceilis, passed on from one generation to the other. Nowadays all a young learner has to do is go onto websites such as YouTube and TheSession.org in order to get tunes, as well as online tutorials and tune books etc.

A stereotype would have been created around the old fleadhs and festivals, suggesting that it was only old people who used to go to them, and that there was very little to do but play music. But modern festivals have evolved and now include events for people of all ages and interests.

Personally I have always enjoyed going to these events to meet new people, as well as the many old friends that were made in previous years. The swapping of stories, playing of new tunes and just the general craic element is hard to beat. The people who go to these festivals are kindred spirits; they have the same interest as I do for the music and craic, and that is what I think are some of the things responsible for getting people involved.

7. What actually happens behind the scenes at these festivals? And what are your preparations whenever you are attending these events? How do you get along with other musicians and also deal with curious Celtic music enthusiasts?

As I mentioned earlier, the main emphasis at a Fleadh would be the competitions. Held over a weekend, they normally take during the day on a Saturday and Sunday in specific venues and locations chosen by the organisers. In the evening time sessions would take place in the local pubs of the town including local and visiting musicians, as well as some of the competitors who want to relax and join in. Some fleadhs also run concerts, dancing or singing sessions as well.

Festivals I feel are more relaxed particularly as there is no competition element to worry about. Most of the festivals I have been to have to have similar structure, again taking place over a weekend period. Usually there is an opening concert on the Friday night, with local and visiting musicians, and afterwards everyone descends on the pubs in the town for music sessions. On the Saturday afternoon workshops take place with all the different instruments, giving young musicians a great opportunity to learn from master players in a close proximity. The Saturday night and Sunday afternoon usually concludes with more sessions, which give all the local and visiting musicians to swap tunes and have fun in a relaxed atmosphere. If I am playing at a concert or taking a workshop I usually like to prepare by having a set list of tunes made out prior to the performance, and also have recordings and photocopies of music notes ready for the workshops.

It is very easy to deal with other musicians and enthusiasts as we all have the same shared interest, and possess the same affection for the music and song. The love of the music is what brings the people together; you will hardly ever meet a ‘bad’ person in the Irish Music scene. For those interested in the music, my advice would be to go and experience it first hand; head to a fleadh or festival and soak up the atmosphere, listen, play, make friends and most importantly have fun!!!

For Michael’s next scedules, refer to the post below:

Brochure for Clifden Trad Fest 2012, 13-15 April

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