Oireachtas na Samhna will draw thousands of people to Co Kerry this weekend for the Gaelic social event of the year, writes Pet O’Connell.
There was a time when hosting Oireachtas na Samhna in Kerry meant sound-proofing a school hall with blankets so that Ireland’s top sean-nós singers could be heard competing for the Corn Uí Riada.
Nowadays, the popularity of this multi-million euro enterprise means Ireland’s National Events Centre in Killarney is required to accommodate the exuberant dancers, the actors, poets, singers, and musicians, amid the 10,000-plus who come to celebrate Irish language and culture — or just soak up the atmosphere.
Attendance at the Oireachtas, which began as a Dublin-based event in 1897, has boomed in recent years, its appeal now spanning all generations, backgrounds, competencies and ethnicities of Irish speaker.
The smallest of children take their first tottering steps on stage to perform agallamh beirte dialogues and sean-nós dances. When the language debates end and the reverential hush of the singing competitions — all 19 of them — is broken, those with energy to burn hup, hop, and bop to the feral beats of Pádraig Ó Sé and Pólca 4 at the late-night Club na Féile until their steps too are tottering ones. It is the Gaelic social event of the year.
The Oireachtas now has a nomadic existence, moving to towns and cities across the country, though Kerry remains one of the festival’s spiritual homes and Killarney plays host this week for the sixth time in eight years.
It was the coming of the Oireachtas to West Kerry, however, that marked a turning point both for participation in the festival and for the area’s cultural heritage.
This Thursday, the Oireachtas turns back the clock 30 years with a concert celebrating the festival’s visit to Dingle in 1987, which is credited with helping to rekindle the vibrancy of the traditional arts in Corca Dhuibhne.
Dún Chaoin native Micheál de Mórdha, former uachtarán an Oireachtais and member of its organising committee, was involved in the local planning for the 1987 festival, which he regards as a seminal event. “Before that there were very few people going from West Kerry to the Oireachtas,” he says.
“Because of the Oireachtas in Dingle in 1987, people on the Dingle peninsula got really interested in what was going on at the Oireachtas. Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne [heritage organisation] took up the mantle of promoting singing and the agallamh beirte, the dreas cainte speaking competition, recitations — and storytelling was one of the major successes. I think the Oireachtas of ’87 was the catalyst for all that.
“At the time, the Oireachtas was much smaller but it was a 10-day event and our major task was to find the necessary venues for the competitions,” Micheál recalls.
“The Corn Uí Riada even then would be the major competition and the last event of the Oireachtas, and a crowd of 1,000 people would not be uncommon. The only venue capable of taking 1,000 people was the Christian Brothers’ secondary school sports hall, but the acoustics were terrible.”
Enter “the late great Jed Bowler” from Ballyferriter, an FCA member who had served with the army in the Congo, and was “the chap who orchestrated the Oireachtas coming to Dingle”.
“It was resolved that Jed would go into the Ballymullen barracks in Tralee and get a lorry-load of army blankets that would cover the high walls in the hall,” says Micheál.
“We got another chap who was a very good handyman and very involved in the Oireachtas and every cultural event — Aloysius Ó Ciobháin — and he put batons on the walls and by the time they were finished you could actually hear a pin drop in the hall, the acoustics were so good.”
The Oireachtas returned to Dingle twice more, in 1992 and 2001, but it was becoming clear that its days in smaller venues were numbered.
“I remember the last Oireachtas in Dingle in 2001 and the dancing competition in the function room at the Dingle Skellig Hotel,” Micheál says. “It was so packed and well attended it was amazing. And that was when it was realised that towns like Dingle could not host the Oireachtas any more because of the facilities needed for 2,000 attendees.”
Thursday’s concert, an “oíche thar oícheanta”, will reunite those involved in the 1987 Oireachtas and celebrate those of their number who have since passed on, including Micheál’s own cultural soulmate, the late Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé, author, musician, and father of TV presenter Dáithí Ó Sé.
“Myself and Maidhc Dainín hardly missed an Oireachtas since the early ’70s, the two of us, and there was one wit there recently called us the Podge and Rodge of the Oireachtas.
“He’s a great loss and I miss him terribly,” says Micheál of his friend’s death in 2013. “The first year after he died I felt like Oisín i ndiaidh na Féinne.”
Maidhc Dainín’s son Caoimhín will perform on flute at the concert, which will likely feature tunes synonymous with his father, such as the slide ‘Jazzin’ with Mag Leary’.
“The best of talent from West Kerry will be there,” Micheál promises, the participants ranging from schoolchildren to the likes of Róisín Ní Chéilleachair, the Begleys, and Mná an Oileáin Áine Uí Laoithe and Eilín Ní Chearna.
In what is likely to be not just a night’s entertainment but an “oíche go maidin” seisiún, presentations will be made to the wives of the late Aloysius Ó Ciobháin and Jed Bowler in honour of their husbands.
The future of the Oireachtas is not looking too bad either. “It’s a great social occasion for old fogies like myself. But the thing that’s different today is the interest of the younger generation in all aspects of the Oireachtas, and with the huge success of the sean nós dancing competition that is broadcast live by TG4, the attendance has increased exponentially.”
Blaiseadh den Oireachtas (A taste of the Oireachtas)
Oireachtas na Samhna, Killarney Nov 1-5. See: antoireachtas.ie
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