Fiddler's Green International Festival

Traditional music and lyricism celebrated in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains until July 27

'The Town of Rostrevor', by the late folk singer Tommy Makem, is sung from the point of view of a soldier from the County Down village who didn’t much like being in the army, despite his initial excitement about wearing a 'fine coat of scarlet' and carrying a musket. Ultimately, he serves his time and can’t wait to get back, to 'stay there forever, in the town of Rostrevor with the girl I do adore'.

Makem’s inspiration was clearly not real-life soldier Major General Ross, who hailed from Rostrevor. Ross fought in the American War of 1812 and ordered his troops to burn to the ground both the White House and the Capitol in Washington, DC. Instead of a song, a rather fine obelisk on the road just outside of Rostrevor on the Warrenpoint side of town stands as a monument to this famous, if almost forgotten, son.

Other notable names connected to this usually sleepy village include Ben Dunne, founder of Dunnes Stores, former Irish President Mary McAleese and the pop-star-turned-politician Dana. Current residents of the village include members of the Sands Family Folk Group: Tommy, Colum and Anne.

This neatly connects back to Tommy Makem, as he is credited with discovering the Mayobridge-born family troupe and bringing them to America for their first international exposure to the Irish music scene.

And 'international' has been the word in Rostrevor for the past 27-years come the end of July, as the population swells by several hundreds of visitors, many from across Europe, America, England and Scotland.

Their reason for making what can legitimately be called a pilgrimage to the shores of Carlingford Lough each summer is the Fiddler’s Green International Festival. Quite a few of these visitors have been coming for years and years – making them, in the eyes of the locals, almost like family.

The festival began, as it has continued, from inside the community. There is no sense of a big, promoter-ridden event being imposed on the place. The programme traditionally includes a duck derby, for heaven’s sake, and very popular it has been, too.

There are art exhibitions, coffee mornings and a ‘dander’ up to Fiddler’s Green, an actual place on the mountainside above the village. That event, always occurring on the first official day of the festival, defines in many ways what this festival has that many others lack: a true sense of place.

Percy French might have had Newcastle, County Down, in his mind when he wrote the immortal lines 'where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea', but the heart of the song sits easily in the mountain-sheltered, sea-edged environment that Rostrevor village so gracefully inhabits.

It is a place apart; different from the nearby city of Newry or even Warrenpoint, which are both much larger and somehow more ambitious places. The Rostrevor festival, however, punches well above its weight, in terms of the artists it attracts and the international visitors who plan their yearly holidays around this week.

Central to the festival – which this year runs until July 27 – is the Hall of Fame Award, given each year to an artist or group that has made a significant contribution to the cause of Irish music and culture.

The award was first presented in 1987 to the fiddler Sean Maguire. Other recipients have included Tommy Maken, the group Altan, Mary Black and The Sands Family. This year, the award goes to American/Irish super group Cherish the Ladies (pictured above), who will performed at the Hall of Fame concert on July 25.

Another accolade, the Creative Arts Award, was inaugurated in 2000 to recognise a slightly different style of artist: writers, poets, composers and musicians who make their mark in various other ways. The first recipient was Seamus Heaney, followed by artist John B Vallely, broadcaster Tony McAuley and musician and author Liam Clancy. This year’s recipient is playwright Martin Lynch.

This award will be formally presented at an event known as 'The Music of Healing', during which a number of the week’s performers will ‘do a turn’ and social, political and musical personalities mingle. There are many opportunities during the festival to hear and see local and international artists in venues of all sizes and shapes, dotted throughout the village.

It is as if a song, dance or story is waiting to emerge from every doorway along Church Street or from behind any tree in the Fairy Glen. It is entirely fair to say that Rostrevor is a gem of a place, with a gem of a festival. Fiddler's Green creates its own mystery; the community spirit frames everything that goes on during the festival, which includes many free events and open-air performances.

It draws a large and loyal European crowd partly because many Irish artists have greater success ‘across the water’ than here in Ireland, but those visitors also appreciate the friendliness and safety of the place, and the utter beauty of the setting. Though music is the backbone of what happens there, the Rostrevor community and the place itself provides the flesh and blood of the Fiddler’s Green International Festival.

Fiddler’s Green International Festival runs until July 27 in Rostrevor, County Down.