At just 11 years old, Eimhear, from Rockchapel in North Cork, is the youngest competitor in an otherwise adult line-up of finalists for tomorrow’s Seán Ó Riada Gold Medal Competition.
Already an accomplished composer of traditional music herself, Eimhear is accustomed to sharing a stage with senior competitors, and earned honours at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann last August with a self-penned tune.
But it is her tin whistle playing that earned Eimhear a place in the final 15 of the Ó Riada contest, which is confined to a different group of instruments each year; on this occasion it focuses on whistle and flute.
The current All-Ireland U12 whistle slow airs champion, in addition to playing piano and concertina, Eimhear is unfazed by performing not just for judges and audience at Cork’s Rochestown Park Hotel, but listeners to the competition broadcast live on Raidió na Gaeltachta.
“She’s very relaxed about it,” says her father, Martin Flannery. “It doesn’t really bother her; she just gets on and plays her music.”
Eimhear first picked up the whistle aged only two, when her older sister Caoimhe — now All-Ireland U15 fiddle champion — started learning the instrument at school. Eimhear “took to it like a duck to water and when she went to school herself it just accelerated”.
A pupil of Scoil Mháthair Dé in Abbeyfeale, Eimhear is by this stage a nine-year whistle veteran and, living in the heart of Sliabh Luachra country at the convergence of counties Cork, Limerick, and Kerry, she gets to play in exalted musical company.
“She was playing the other week with Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly in Scartaglin,” says Martin, adding that it was a fellow Sliabh Luachra exponent, from Brosna, who inspired Eimhear to enter for the Ó Riada medal. “Darragh Curtin had won it last year on the fiddle. She’s played with him a few times, and she said she’d give it a try herself.”
The contest, in which finalists are selected ‘blind’ by expert adjudicators, based on the “spirit and musicality” of their playing, offers a €2,000 prize as well as the gold medal.
But Eimhear will again be in lofty company among fellow finalists drawn from as far afield as the US, plus three more Cork musicians: Bantry’s Eibhlís Ní Shúilleabháin, Mairéad Carey of Aughadown, near Skibbereen, and Joanne Quirke from Cork City.
The competition operates via the RnG programme of Ó Riada’s son Peadar, who believes his father would have approved of the idea of new generations of traditional musicians gathering at an occasion named in his honour. “He would have enjoyed himself greatly, and he would have been tickled by the fact that he had become such an iconic figure,” says Peadar.
A new element is added to the weekend’s events in memory of Seán Ó Riada, who as well as being influential in the 1960s traditional music revival with Ceoltóirí Chualann, left a legacy of orchestral, church, and choral work, and film scores including Mise Éire.
This year’s Ó Riada Gold Medal Weekend includes a Musicians’ Congress on Saturday afternoon, when industry representatives from the likes of IMRO, the Arts Council, and Gael Linn will discuss topics ranging from grant schemes and US visas to digital downloads and CD sales. “The objective is to help musicians, in my father’s memory. It’s a musicians’ working session where they can bring up issues and find out about things such as copyright, royalties, publishing, marketing, and insurance,” explains Peadar.