As long as there’s a fiddle onstage

Posted on: 8th May, 2018

Category: Music Box

Contributor: Gary Hannon

Gary Hannon DJs a music show on AtlanticRadio.ie. He plays with the Clonakilty Jazz Collective every Monday night in the Emmet Hotel and once per month on Sunday afternoons in De Barra’s, both in Clonakilty.

As the festival season truly kicks off, it is worthwhile bearing in mind that many festivals do not make it to a second year.  Whether it is Cork County Council, the Arts Council and local businesses, as is the case with the Ballydehob Jazz Festival (on May 4-7), or large sponsors such as Guinness for the Cork Jazz Festival, all festivals rely on sponsorship to survive.  But how do you strike the balance between transnational corporate sponsorship and staying true to your vision — especially in West Cork, which prides itself on being a less capitalist part of the state? The answer lies with the successful festivals that continue to get it right.  One of the longest running in West Cork is the Baltimore Fiddle Festival, so I spoke with the main organiser about how he keeps it going.

The founder, and continued organiser of the Baltimore Fiddle Festival — among others — Declan McCarthy is as enthusiastic as ever 26 years after the first festival. That was held back in his family’s pub, McCarthy’s in Baltimore (now rebuilt as the Waterfront).

It all started with Nigel, Declan reminisces, “Back in 1992, I heard that Nigel Kennedy was on holidays in West Cork, so I wrote a letter to EMI, asking if he would come and play in our bar, and we would start a ‘fiddle festival’ to make it more enticing for him. That’s how the festival started”.  It didn’t come to pass, but the festival took off and continued annually, sometimes lasting up to ten days, right up until the bar was sold in 2004. “We wondered if we would keep it going. We tweaked it a bit and it became what it is today, which is a four day festival of eclectic music in multiple venues around the village.

“Our ambition is to become the friendliest festival in Ireland,” continues Declan. “My mom bakes bread for the bands. If people buy a ticket, they get a personal email from me, which takes a lot of time, but a little bit of a personal touch goes a long way. On the last night, as people leave, I stand at the door and say ‘Thanks for coming’, as they leave.” This friendly, cosy atmosphere works for meeting people. “My sister met her husband at the festival and they have two lovely children now. There are many ‘Fiddle Festival babies!’”

It is about building trust too. “The audience trusts us at this stage, and since we’ve gone to the four days, I can count on a few fingers how many disappointing gigs we’ve had.”

It is truly an international festival too: “We did a survey a couple of years ago and 53 per cent of our audience came from outside Ireland, and 30 per cent came from outside West Cork. There are four couples that come every year from Liverpool. There is a Japanese man who has come all the way from Japan especially for the festival the last five years. They are a great audience!”

Better but not bigger

The Fiddle Festival has become very popular and well-known in trad and folk circles, among musicians and the public. For future festivals, does Declan have any dream guests? “Obviously Nigel Kennedy! On our 20th anniversary in 2012, coincidentally Nigel was playing in the Opera House in Cork, and we nearly got him to play, but it didn’t work out. He sent us a lovely message congratulating us on the ongoing festivals and saying that he would love to play another time.  I would also love to get Alison Krauss.”

Has he any plans for the festival? “I’d love to have a fiddle fair night in London or Dublin.  We’re kind of limited in that we want to keep it small. We don’t want it to get bigger — just better! We don’t want to lose the intimacy, which is what it’s all about. This year we will have sessions on a boat and bring them on a cruise around the harbour and a few sessions on Sherkin and Cape Clear”.

Any must-see act at this year’s festival? “This year, if I was to pick one standout show it would be Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi. She is the most amazing singer you’ll ever see in your life! Francesco is an incredible pianist of all genres — from early music to contemporary jazz. Summarising his attitude to the music, Declan concludes, “I don’t like the term ‘trad festival’ — any genre of music is welcome, as long as there’s a fiddle onstage.”

The Baltimore Fiddle Festival is on from the May 10-13 and further details are available at www.fiddlefair.com

My gigs of the month
for May are:

Best free gig in West Cork: Lauren Guillery’s debut album launch in De Barra’s in Clonakilty on May 25 at 9.30pm. Free entry!

Best paid gig in West Cork: Liam Ó Maonlaí on the May 4 at the High Tide Club in the Sarah Walker Gallery, The Pier, Castletownbere.  Tickets are €16 and available online at www,sarahwalkergallery.com

Best paid gig in Ireland: Brad Mehldau Trio in the National Concert Hall, May 8.  Tickets from €27.50 from nch.ie

If you have any comments or events, you can contact me by email gary@westcorkpeople.ie.

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