Traditional Music in the Glens of Antrim

Traditional music and culture survived well in the Glens of Antrim because of their remoteness

Traditional culture survived well in the Glens of Antrim because of their remoteness. The Irish language was in daily use around Cushendall until early in the twentieth century. Feis na nGleann was founded in Glenariff in 1904 under the inspiration of the celebrated Belfast folklorist and historian FJ Bigger. There were competitions in language, traditional music and dancing as well as athletics and hurling. The Feis was maintained by the Gaelic League, Connradh na Gaeilge, which fostered the twentieth century revival of national culture throughout Ireland.
This enthusiasm for traditional culture has survived into modern times and there are many notable singers and musicians associated with the area. One of the finest ballads in Irish, ‘Airde Cuan’ by Sean McCambridge, was written about the Glens of Antrim, in the middle of the nineteenth century. McCambridge’s song imagines how he might leave his native Glendun, perhaps to escape the potato famine, and settle in Ayrshire where he could ultimately die pining for the hills of home. His song tells of his love for the ‘cuckoo glen’, Glendun, and of playing hurling at Christmas on the ’white strand’, the beach at Cushendun.

Traditional Music Venues
At the northern end of the northern Glens, around the large resort town of Ballycastle, there is a thriving clutch of musicians and singers who congregate every Thursday night in McCarroll’s Bar, as the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. This family-run public house was established in 1856 as a coaching inn. Today it has become one of the most famous pubs in Ireland.
The heart of the Glens is undoubtedly Cushendall and it is here that some of the best traditional entertainment is to be found. The locality has always been rich in musical talent, particularly singers like the late Archie McKeegan, who released his first tape of traditional songs to wide acclaim at the age of 85. There are informal sessions in McCollam’s Bar most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year, plus most other nights during the height of the tourist season in July and August. McCollam’s is also known locally as ‘Johnny Joe's’ or just affectionately as Joe’s’, after its former owner Johnny Joe McCollam.
Another great venue for traditional music is the Skerry Inn in the mountain village of Newtown Crommelin between Ballycastle and the inland market town of Ballymena. Under the encouraging eye of landlord Barney McKeown, many fine musicians and singers from a wide area of Co Antrim come here for a session on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year.
Traditional Music Groups
Cushendall is frequently the venue for the Antrim Fleadh Cheoil, held annually in June. This event has been particularly successful in the town and is also the base for a new local initiative, established to promote traditional music, singing and dancing in the area. The Antrim Glens Traditions Group was founded in 1991 and promotes traditional singing, set dancing and the teaching of various instruments.
The Traditional Singers’ Club meets on the last Friday of each month in McCollam’s Bar, Cushendall. Traditional instrument classes in fiddle, accordion and tin whistle are held in St Aloysius’ secondary school every Friday evening, September to May, and these are very well supported, especially by the younger generation. Regular set dance evenings are run by the group in Cushendall, as well as classes in set and ceili dancing. These activities are managed by a working committee of nine and are funded mainly from the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Seán Quinn