Traditional Singing in Armagh

Paul Flynn is a regular attendee at the Slieve Gullion Festival

I suppose I was the black sheep of my family. My mother is a traditional singer and my grandmother, I recall, used to give us her rendition of 'Eileen A Ruin' when I was a kid.

I fell in love with the fiddle in my mid-teens after a stormy relationship with the instrument in my earlier years. In fact I got through secondary school in Crossmaglen without my music teacher actually knowing I was a dab hand on the thing. I was scared stiff of my fellow pupils finding out as they might doubt my manliness or knock my melt in.

However, after initially being dragged to music lessons with Rose O’Connor in Dundalk every Thursday evening, my parents made the big mistake of bringing me to a Fleadh. It was here that I immersed myself in a blend of exciting music and craic and discovered Guinness and girls.

By the 1980s South Armagh and Mullachbán in particular had a reputation of having good traditional music. In reality there were a few great musicians and singers in the region but apart from the Tuesday night Comhaltas session in Forkhill there was very little happening.

It was in about 1981 that a few traditional singers from the area got together and decided it was time to promote and preserve the great wealth and talent of song and story that existed around Sleive Gullion and invited a few friends from around the country for a session.

The Sleive Gullion Festival of Traditional Song was born and has been going strong in some shape or form on the first weekend in October ever since. From that initial handful of singers who turned up, the festival now expects hundreds of people from across Ireland, the British Isles and beyond.

There is a couple who travel from Australia each year specifically for the singing. Even when it officially decided to miss a year the festival still happened.

The original team are still singing and are at the forefront of the festival's organisation. Jim and Patricia Flynn, Gerry and Rita O’Hanlon, Mikil ‘Ned’ Quinn and Brian Murphy are responsible for resuscitating the tradition in South Armagh and the area around the Ring of Gullion is now renowned once more for its song, lore and music.

Each October, judging by the car registrations alone, the festival attracts singers from the four corners of Ireland which grants a perfect mix of regional style and variety in both the English and Irish languages.

The festival has a regular group of singers from Scotland and England particularly John Waltham from Dorset whom I remember first trundling into Mullachbán on a Harley Davidson in the early 90s. Not exactly sex, drugs and diddle-dee but it raised a few eyebrows. Chris Miles comes each year from Scotland as did Derek Williamson until he met and fell in love with his wife and now lives in Donegal.

Probably the most avid fans of the festival who head north on their yearly song pilgrimage are a motley crew of balladeers from Dublin known as the Góilín singers. They have a weekly singing session in Dorset Street and include such personalities and fine singers as Luke Cheevers, Barry Gleeson (brother of the film star and fiddler Brendan Gleeson), Gerry O’Reilly and Jim McFarland.

The late Frank Harte, singer, collector, broadcaster and national treasure was an integral figure within the Góilín Traditional Singers Club. He was renowned throughout the British Isles and beyond as an authority on traditional singing in the English language, mainly from Ireland.

He has made many recordings from And Listen to My Song with Donal Lunny in 1975 to his particular fondness for songs on Napoleon Bonapart and My Name is Napoleon Bonapart, again with Donal Lunny.

At his funeral in Chapelizod last year I heard Christy Moore remark afterwards to a gathering of fine and famous artists gathered outside the Chapel, ‘Who are we going to go to for songs now?’

At the crematorium later that morning I witnessed one of the strangest and most intimate ‘concerts’ as, in front of about 50 or 60 friends and family, Paul Brady & Mick Maloney, Altan and Tony Mc Mahon celebrated Frank’s life with memories and fine music and song.

Frank came to the Sleive Gullion Festival of Traditional Singing religiously each year. His encouragement and humility as well as his authority on traditional song were an inspiration to musicians and singers alike throughout Ireland and Britain.

I remember one Sunday morning of the festival in Mullachbán GAA club in the mid 80s as a singing session was doing the rounds, three gentlemen, a Dub and two Drogheda men, were called upon for a song.

They sang the Robert Burns song 'Ode to Autumn' now universally known as 'Westlin Winds'. Their beautiful harmonies captivated all present and we knew it was the start of something special.

This was the first public performance by what evolved into The Voice Squad featuring Phil Callery, Gerry Cullen and Fran Mc Phail, who have performed throughout the world and featured on Philip King's 1990s documentary series Bringing it All Back Home.

Although harmony singing did not exist within the Irish tradition and was more akin to the English tradition and style, The Voice Squad were an instant success and proved that different traditions could blend and have a positive influence on each other.

There have been some very memorable weekends around the foot of Sleive Gullion. There have been many fine artists who descend on the singing festival each year from across Ireland, the British Isles, the US, Australia, Brittany, and Holland.

Cara Dillon, the folk/pop phenomenon used to travel up as a young girl from Dungiven with her mother and sister. In the 1980s the traditional singers and song collectors Padraigín Ní Uallachain and Len Graham moved into Mullachbán and added to the fine base of traditional artists in the area as well as lending their support to the singing festival.

The best thing for me is listening to the local singers who now have a platform to share their songs and listen to others they otherwise would never hear, was it not for the foresight and endeavours of those handful of people who started the Sleive Gullion Festival of Traditional Song.