Frankie Kennedy Winter School offered shelter from the storm of life

“THIS festival has been a beacon in the traditional music calendar,” said traditional fiddler Paddy Glackin on Monday night at the last Frankie Kennedy Winter School in Donegal.

“But everything has its cycle…”

Bouzouki player Donal Lunny was less philosophical: “Maybe they’ll change their mind.”

They won’t. Last night’s concert in Ionad Cois Locha, Dunlewey was the final Altan concert of 20 New Year’s Day Altan concerts as part of the Frankie Kennedy Winter School. This morning the little venue between the mountains and beside the lake is silent. The Frankie Kennedy Winter School, a unique festival of learning and performance in traditional music, is no more, though a local community group An Chrann/og will run their own winter school in the same venue.

The festival was set up in the couple of months following the tragic death from cancer of flautist Frankie Kennedy, at the age of 38. I was there. I had been there the year before when Frankie played his first and last concert at Ionad Cois Locha.

“Caithfidh go bhfuil tusa iontach bródúil”, the woman beside me said to a woman in front of her. I remember her exact words — “You must be very proud” — because I hadn’t often heard Irish spoken before among native speakers. I remember, too, how the woman in front of her replied: “Ar chuala tú ár dtrioblóid”? “Did you hear about our trouble?”

I had heard about their family’s trouble. Frankie had bone cancer and nine months later he was dead. But he had already agreed that the group would play at New Year’s the following year, the concert which became the first Altan concert of the commemorative Frankie Kennedy Winter School.

I made the pilgrimage every year. The year I was pregnant with twins, motorists were advised to travel only in an emergency. I looked at my husband and we both said, “It’s an emergency.” We drove safely until the mountainy end, when our transit van was dug out of a snow drift by fiddler Paul O’Shaughnessy.

Dunlewey has the draw of a holy place, the conical Mount Errigle towering over the deep, dark, valley of the Poison Glen. Long ago it was said that the glen was created in a struggle between Lugh Lámh Fhada and Balor of the Evil Eye. In more recent times, monks settled beside the lake, and the remains of their beehive huts and a Greek cross incised into the rock still tell of their presence.

For the last 20 years, the pilgrimage has been for music in the name of a lovable young Belfastman who left behind a beautiful, bereft widow in singer, fiddler and Altan co-founder, Máiread Ní Mhaonaigh. Personal highlights include a New Year’s afternoon in the company of the Clare fiddle maestro, Martin Hayes and his American guitar fellow Dennis Cahill who played and played as snow fell softly on the dark landscape; Liam Ó Maonlaí’s drop-dead gorgeous Irish version of ‘Carrickfergus’; being played off Tory Island by island King Patsy Dan’s accordion.

I remember a New Year’s afternoon which brought together three Donegal divas, Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Moya Brennan. Ní Dhomhnaill chose the Winter School as the best frame in which to reform in 1997 and 2005, the legendary Skara Brae, which she formed in the 1970s with her sister, Tríona, her brother Micheál and the Derry-born guitarist, Daithí Sproule. With its application of Beatles harmonies to old Donegal songs, the band set the stage for Micheál and Tríona’s later experiments with the Bothy Band, and also for the early music of Clannad.

The Winter School was always about the past, like all pilgrimages. It was always about the present and the future. One of the loveliest events at this year’s Winter School was Monday’s launch by the young Friel Sisters of their eponymous first CD. Anna, Clare and Sheila, on flute, pipes and fiddle, are Glasgow girls and their accents tell a tale of emigration and cultural cross-over. Their sibling, unison singing reminds me of Galway’s Rita and Sarah Keane, particularly when they sang their Granny’s song of longing for home, Tír Chonaill. They said they had looked forward to the Winter School year after year since they were girls because it was “better than Christmas”.

I agree. Without the school, my years will have busted hinges. But why should the grief of the Kennedy and Mooney families be made to serve my needs? The decision to end the school was taken last year on St Stephen’s Day and was unanimous. The work was overwhelmingly voluntary and the families need their Christmas back.

They need their grief back too. “Every time I pick up the fiddle I think of Frankie,” says his widow Mairéad. The event was originally born out of grief and has always featured many of Kennedy’s friends and comrades in music, such as fellow Belfast musicians Dermy Diamond, Tara Bingham, Gary Hastings, down to West Cork sisters Nollaig Casey and Máire Ní Chathasaigh who played this year as the Heartstring Quartet with their partners Chris Newman and Arty McGlynn. This year’s Director, Conor Byrne, was taught by Kennedy as a lad. But that generation is getting older and now people are coming to the Frankie Kennedy Winter School who know nothing about Kennedy or hi s music.

“Let Frankie rest”, says Ní Mhaonaigh. Her brother Gearóid Mooney — who is married to Frankie’s sister Ann — says he wants to find other ways to commemorate him, such as exploring the intertwined Orange and Green flute band traditions, which interested Frankie.

INDEED, his friend, Belfastman Gary Hastings is a Church of Ireland rector and I remember probing clumsily at an early Winter School, “An interest in traditional music wouldn’t be that usual, would it, for someone from, eh, your tradition?”

He shouted to a friend at the next table, “How many are there of us musical Prods?”

His words lie now somewhere among the yellowing press cuttings in a cardboard box which is the Winter School archive. My fresh-faced byline picture stares out of them from a world before the internet.

In the 20 years I have been coming here I have gone from youth to middle age and the school has counted time to the major events of my life.

The year I turned up with two more babies. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh looked at us in amazement and said, “Someone watered the plants.”

The end of the school marks a recognition by the founding generation that they are getting older. So am I. Annual pilgrimages shelter us from the harsh reality of the turning years but my best shelter is gone.

The brightest lesson learned from the final Frankie Kennedy Winter School is the importance of embracing change. But it comes with a darker lesson about the small span of our little lives against a landscape of wild mountains which know no time.

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