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How Ireland's 100-year-old céilí band stays relevant in 2020

We talked to its oldest and youngest members.

Image: Key Hideki NAKAO

HOW DOES AN Irish céilí band enter the 21st century? By never losing sight of the past – or the present.

Ahead of the Kilfenora Céilí Band’s upcoming St Patrick’s week gig at the National Concert Hall on 12 March – the venue itself showing how the band does things differently – its leader John Lynch and cellist Sharon Howley spoke to about how they make things work.

People who aren’t familiar with the band might think that they trade in what you’d typically associate with traditional Irish music.

But the Kilfenora Céilí Band are open to doing things differently – in their live sets are interpretations of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Their live gigs include dancers and singers, which further widens their repertoire and appeal. 

They’ve also performed at various festivals across Britain, Northern Ireland, Europe and the US, including headlining at Glastonbury’s Acoustic Stage. Their regular gigs at the NCH give the band an opportunity to meet a new audience, and break down misconceptions about trad music.

“To take traditional music into a venue that is mainly known for classical music and especially to take a céilí band to perform a concert there to an audience that normally attend there… it’s superb,” says John Lynch. The band usually sell out their NCH gigs.

“It is such a famous venue and we are from a small village in Co Clare. To take the music and play in the National Concert Hall, personally it gives me great satisfaction.”

The band all hail from the small village of Kilfenora, and typically have grown up playing traditional music. It’s a “very special” thing to play at the NCH, says cellist Howley.

Lynch and Howley say that music knows no boundaries. “We are from a trad background and are very proud of that background,” says Lynch. “We also push out the boundaries to include what might not be strictly termed traditional music. Music is about fun, concerts are about fun.”

That’s why they decided to rearrange Michael Jackson’s song Smooth Criminal – and though they intended it to be for just one gig in Ennis, they ended up playing it on the Late Late Show after a Facebook video went viral.

“What I was trying to do was make our music relevant for the younger people, younger audience,” says Lynch.

Howley adds: “It’s an exciting time for Irish music because you do have to move forward to stay relevant. Merging that with the tradition of Kilfenora, I think that’s what audiences liked, the fact it’s linked to the past.”

‘Old Ireland did not embrace modernity’

Howley’s membership shows how open Kilfenora is to evolving – the cello is not an instrument typically associated with the céilí.

There are also a double bass and viola in the band, giving the sound a lower end than you’d typically find in such a group.

olympus-digital-camera Source: Key Hideki NAKAO

Lynch believes that traditional music has a “magical currency” that helps us examine who we are as people. He says the band see themselves as being part of a cultural phenomenon in traditional music, like the Gloaming, the traditional-influenced band who regularly sell out gigs at the NCH.

“When I was coming up, trad was frowned upon in the 60s and 70s,” says Lynch. “It was linked to an old Ireland and an old Ireland did not embrace modernity and change.”

He says that the Kilfenora band is about change – it used to be a dance band, then evolved into a competition band, and now has evolved again. Moving to bigger venues and wider audiences made them reassess what they were doing. 

“We had to expand our repertoire and the band for a concert,” explains Lynch – that’s because the concerts have seated audiences. The music, lights and dancers all have to add to the show. 

olympus-digital-camera Source: Key Hideki NAKAO

“If you take our band, it started off originally in 1909, a few of the musicians got together in the local schoolhouse to play for socials that raised funds to renovate the church,” says Lynch of the group’s origins. “That was a band that was part of the people and doing something for the people, so was connected socially as well.”

His grandfather was a member of the band. In the 1920s they moved beyond the locality and played for céilís in Galway. As it got towards the 1950s, the emphasis tended to be on taking part in competitions. Then things moved on again.

“Society was moving and the social times were moving, and because of winning the All-Irelands in the 1950s the band were requested to go play all over the country,” says Lynch.

Emigration was high, which meant that the band found willing Irish audiences in the UK. And while bands like Stockton’s Wing and Planxty were ploughing their own furrow in traditional music, the Kilfenora band kept going.

‘Our motto is you have to evolve’

But by the 1980s, Lynch was “afraid the band would disappear”. He decided to put the band back in for competitions as his father had done, and from their success with this came requests for them to gig in new venues. 

“All the time we are evolving – our motto is you have to evolve and make it relative to the times we live in.” The music is varied, including jigs and reels, and the arrangements are tweaked accordingly. 

“If you are playing for a céilí everyone plays full belt,” explains Lynch. “In a concert situation you are more focused on how you are playing the tunes. It’s more about the music than the dancers. Not everyone would be playing at the same time. There are different tune timings as well, which makes it more interesting for a listener. We love jigs and reels but in a concert situation it needs to be varied.”

The 13-piece band has seven men and six women – Lynch is the oldest member and Howley is the youngest. “I can go into a session and I am an old man and I can sit down and play with Sharon who is a young lady… you don’t notice the ages,” says Lynch.

He says that he sees himself as “a cog in a wheel”, and hopes that “when I’m too old to play that I have an audience left for Sharon and the younger members. They are super and they are super musicians, they bring such energy.”

Were there people who criticised their Smooth Criminal cover? “You are always going to have people who raise their eyebrows, but equally there were people who understood it was a novel piece and we are more than just one piece,” says Howley. “It was just in a concert situation – it’s one thing. It was fun, we enjoyed doing it and it was lighthearted. You’ll always have the purists – there’s room for those and there’s also room for [the opposite].”

For me there’s a lot of personal satisfaction and enjoyment in exploring new things with the band.

Adds Lynch: “The secret is music knows no boundaries. The secret is if you are going to do something, do it well. Even if it’s outside the genre, if it’s done well I think it’s appreciated as well.”

When it comes to their live gigs, the pair say that the band doesn’t just attract the hardcore céilí fans. “When we come to the concert hall about 50% of people there might not even like traditional music,” says Lynch. “When you go out afterwards people say ‘we came not knowing what to expect but we love the show’. That’s a lovely perspective to get.”

They have a rule in the band that when someone leaves, the person coming in has to be younger than the youngest. Most of the members have jobs outside of music – Lynch himself is retired – and so can only play a certain number of gigs a year. But as Howley puts it, this “keeps it fresh for us as well”.

Howley joined in 2010, when in school. “I initially joined for concerts and would only come in every now and then and would join for some pieces.” As she grew as a musician, she played more, and then she became a full-time member.

“I was only delighted – I grew up listening to the band and have great pride playing with them,” she says. 

The band plays around 26 times a year. What would they say to people curious about their music?

“We would say come to our show, enjoy our show and make up your mind afterwards,” says Lynch. “When evolving from a strictly dance band competition my biggest problem was breaking down the preconceived idea of what a céilí band is.

“Some think it’s 10 musicians sitting down on stage and playing jigs and reels all night – I can assure you that’s not what the Kilfenora Céilí Band is.”

The Kilfenora Céilí Band – with singers Edel Vaughan and Jerry Lynch, dancers Laura Minogue, Deirdra Kiely and Michael and Matthew Gardiner – play the National Concert Hall on 12 March. For tickets, see here.

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