Celtic Fusion

Frankie Gavin and the New De Dannan headline the traditional music festival in Castlewellan

The pub serves Dead Crow beer. A stuffed fox with prey in mouth is frozen in time above the door. A poster advertises a boxing extravaganza sponsored by a funeral director’s.

It could be a scene from a Colin Bateman novel, but Mullhollands pub and restaurant is the convivial venue launching Celtic Fusion’s three days of traditional Irish music and frolics in the picturesque town of Castlewellan in County Down.

Celtic Fusion began 12 years ago in Castlewellan Forest Park against the spectacular backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. It has since relocated to the warmth of the town’s pubs, where reels and jigs keep the feet tapping and the beer taps running.

Musicians have gathered from the four corners of Ireland, with legendary Galway fiddler Frankie Gavin topping the bill. There are bands from Scotland and Canada, too. As is traditional, the festival gets under way with a pub session.

Fiddles, uilleann pipes, banjos, whistles and guitars merge in heady harmony in a corner of Mullhollands, with 13-year-old hometown piper Ruairí Howell catching the eye. Howell has 200 tunes in his head. 'But that’s nothing,' he says. His teacher, Padraig McGovern, who comes up from Monaghan once a month, has 2,000.

The four Ulster boys of Reel It In have a fair number of tunes themselves. Fiddler Niall Murphy, concertina/whistle player Ciaran Hanna, guitarist Niall Hanna and bodhran player Eamon Rooney open the evening program in The Lodge with one foot in the door of tradition and another outside. Waltzes, strathspeys, polkas, jigs and reels are delivered with panache, and the audience is reeled in for the duration.

Singer and fiddler Niamh Dunne is better known as one fifth of Beoga, but the melodies and subtle lyrics of her own finely-crafted tunes are as seductive as the more traditional fair like 'The Beauty of Limerick', 'Eist do bhéal' and 'Shanagolden' that pepper her set.

Dunne’s fiddle flies on the foot-stomping set of reels 'The Cajun Buck', and she’s lent gutsy support from bassist Trevor Hutchinson, guitarist Ed Boyd and accordionist Sean Óg Graham. The Limerick lass signs off with a crowd sing-along on Joe South’s 'Games People Play'.

The first day ends with the JP Trio in Mullhollands, where the prize for most original instrument goes to percussionist Paddy Hazelton. His cajon is fitted with a bass pedal and is flanked by jazz-style cymbals. With Jos Kelly on box and Ted Kelly on banjo, the trio launch into a fevered take on 'Tico Tico' that fairly rages above the pub’s din.

Informal trad sessions in Mullhollands and Hillyard House begin day two, before the main evening gigs in The Lodge, where Derry~Londonderry singer-songwriter Niamh McGlinchy brings a touch of county-tinged folk to the festival. Her delicate guitar playing and lush vocal harmonies with guitarist Dermot Mulholland are a gentle delight.

Frankie Gavin and the New De Dannan mix dizzying reel sets 'The Wild Irishman' and the hornpipe 'Golden Eagle' with 19th century ballads and Edith Piaf staples, beautifully sung by Michelle Lally. The contrast between Gavin’s breathtaking technique and Lally’s melting lyricism makes for a memorable performance.

The late session in Hillyard House sees All-Ireland bodhran champion Sean O’Neil, piper/flautist Chris McMullan and guitarist Paddy Donagher in feisty form. The boys are up for it, and their corker of a session ends the day on a high note.

Castlewellan’s upper square hosts the final day of Celtic Fusion 2013. The sun and clouds play their own off-kilter set in the skies above, going back and forth, round and round and sometimes arm in arm. The Newcastle CCE sets the tone with a barnstorming version of 'The Lark in the Morning'.

The two most irreverent song titles of the weekend are the Friel Sisters’ 'I Buried my Wife and Danced on Her', and 'I Shot Your Dog', by Canadian band Backyard Devils, whose up tempo Hillbilly bluegrass delights the crowd. The five Armagh teenagers of trad outfit Cúig show musical maturity beyond their years, and seem set for big things in the future.

With the light fading, the Mournes Ceili Band and caller Joe Farrell lead a hearty group of dancers through two hours of sets, bringing an official close to Celtic Fusion 2013. Of course, the pubs have other ideas, and the late-night sessions have the final word.