Food and Folksong

Award-winning chef Emmett McCourt brings out the forward-thinking flavours of Derry's new music festival in a night where the menu matches the performances

St Kentigern’s Irish Social Club is in Fallowfield, Manchester. I went there one Sunday afternoon, to watch Tyrone play the final of the Sam Maguire Cup. The place was packed. Everyone was squeezed into one jersey or another – mainly Tyrone and, probably, Kerry, but most counties were represented. It was more than likely the same in the Bowling Green in Chorlton, and at Pogue Mahone in Liverpool, not to mention clubs and pubs and bars in London, Glasgow, New York, Boston, Sydney, Melbourne…

I read somewhere that Tayto sell over a million packets of crisps a year in Ireland, just to people who send them to relatives overseas. Culture is art and literature and sculpture and history and sport and it’s also what goes into people’s mouths and what comes out of people’s mouths.

Food and Folksong is subtitled 'A Worldwide Irish Legacy', and presented by Emmett McCourt, chef and award-winning author of Feast or Famine. The audience are invited to sample food prepared by McCourt’s team, while enjoying a selection of Irish folk songs performed by Brian Mullen, The Henry Girls, Daoirí Farrell, Mary Dillon, Kathleen MacInnes, Alan Burke, and Kate Crossan.

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It is a night of old and new, departure and return, exchange, experience, tradition, and innovation. It is culture – not static and set, but fluid and malleable.

The songs are emigrants’ laments. They remember leaving Derry’s harbour, bidding farewell to old Ireland, voyages to Van Dieman’s Land. There is plaintive yearning for lost loves and homes never to be seen again and lands that only existed in memory, and of drinking and fighting and dying.

The performances are uniformly beautiful. Mary Dillon’s voice is intense and brooding, with a sense of danger and threat. The Henry Girls’ harmonies are clear and pure and passionate. Alan Burke and Daoiri Farrell sing with gusto and humour; Kate Crossan and Kathleen MacInnes with poignancy and bite.

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It's honest, and they mean it, but there is more to it than that: the musicians treat the music with respect, but regard it from a modern perspective. Some of the songs come with a twist, with new and surprising arrangements. If the music is about staying away, the performances are about coming back. In that way it complements the food, which looks both ways too.

The food is big and dainty. There are buttermilk shots! There is corned beef and boxty bread, pork belly and Boston beans, whiskey and moonshine-cured salmon, oatcakes, lumper potatoes, buttermilk, injun meal, seaweed and samphire. But everything comes on slate sheets, mouthfuls on sweet little forks, Irish amuse-bouches.

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This is a modern night. It isn't a maudlin indulgence in misty-eyed memories of the auld country. This is all about the new country, a proud assertion of a rich identity. It doesn't slump or apologise or mumble; it just glances back and steps forward, confident, assertive, holding and shaping its own resources, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and going toe-to-toe with anywhere.

The venue is telling – a beautiful, much-admired modern building; not a museum, but something bold, alive, and vibrant. And the ingredients tell the same story – new products taking the best of the old – Northbound Beer, Broighter Gold, Dart Mountain Cheese. This is a wonderful, proud evening that's all about heritage and future.

For forthcoming events and news from Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin and the Derry International Irish Music Festival visit