Arriving half an hour before the Friday night concert should start, the way to the bar of the festival café gave already a wonderful indication of the treats to expect during this November weekend: Several mighty sessions in the rooms of the café, the atmosphere was great, the Guinness was flowing; and there was a special kind of cosiness that the Danish would probably call "hygge" - classicist rooms with comfortable armchairs, lit mainly by candlelight. And yes, it was a very comfortable weekend with loads of great music.
Denmark's Copenhagen is the host of this yearly feast, and as a festival visitor you would suggest that Copenhagen must be full of Irish people and Irish culture. A wrong impression, as Martin O'Hare, director of the festival and one of the few Irish people living in Copenhagen, states. Besides the Copenhagen Irish Festival, there are not many professional Irish events happening. Yet Copenhagen has a very healthy musician and session scene. Martin supposes that the best jam sessions in Scandinavia are in Copenhagen, highlighted in the mighty sessions in the Bloomsday every Sunday afternoon.
Ireland has become bigger in Copenhagen since the opening of many Irish pubs, the oldest of them being only nine or ten years old. "The Irish pubs made it easier for people who live abroad to stay abroad", says Martin. "But things are very good in Ireland, the economic situation is very good there, so people they stay in Ireland, and a lot of people abroad go back to Ireland. So emigration is going the opposite direction."
Martin himself has been over in Denmark for 22 years, the same time as the
Copenhagen Irish Festival started. Yet he is involved in it only since 11 years.
A band called Scrumpy started the festival as a Scottish-Irish festival in a
smaller club in the environs of Copenhagen. This band was one of Danish people
playing mainly Irish, but also Scottish and English music; and today's festival
organisers are still in touch with these founders of the event.
When Martin got involved in it 11 years ago, the festival got a major face-lifting, being merged into the centre of Copenhagen, also using larger venues, getting overall bigger. He took the festival over only because Scrumpy had enough to do all the work related to the festival. The initial idea was to get another band in to organise the festival; but already after a year, this band was also fed up with the amount of work for it. "So the next year, just to keep it going, my wife Maire and me had done it one year. To keep it going and to find somebody else for it. But it's too much work - nobody wanted to run the festival, but everybody wanted to go to it."
So Martin sat together with some friends, deciding to form a committee to organise the festival. And this committee concept was successful enough that ever since the festival was carried out by a committee of people. "I am the only Irish in the committee, but there is a Welsh girl, Helen Davies, plays the harp. So I suppose Helen and me are the foreigners."
They always tried to keep the festival small, and have the idea of working
as an umbrella organisation for people who want to do Irish events that same
weekend, with those events being part of the whole programme. The committee
itself organises mainly the concerts and workshops. This year's successful festival
saw two concerts with top Irish music, plus the Thursday night concert of the
On Friday, Sliabh Notes played a brilliant set of traditional Irish Music from the South-West of Ireland. Fiddler Matt Cranitch, accordionist Donal Murphy and guitarist Tommy O'Sullivan - the latter having been for some time resident in Copenhagen - could be found very often in sessions throughout the weekend, securing a very high standard of the "informal" music part of the festival. For my taste, the second act of the Friday concert did not fit too well into this traditional Irish festival: Finbar Furey came up with his radio-friendly ballads added by a couple of tunes on pipes and flutes. He was over with Gary O'Briain, and to my personal surprise, the concert was a full success; the audience obviously loved it. A lot of people had just come to see him, although Finbar had not been in Denmark for some 20 years.
Saturday saw a quite perfect concert in the Pumpehuset. Starting off were flute wizard Cormac Breatnach and guitarist Martin Dunlea, impressing with their stunning mix of traditions and jazz. Absolutely faboulous. Headliner of the festival were Patrick Street, a band that is literally unknown in Denmark. Still, the Copenhagen Irish Festival has the reputation of presenting only quality Irish Music, so the hall was packed with people enjoying the superb trad music of this legendary band and the witty comments of Kevin Burke.
Looking at the programme, I thought that the festival was in its core a trad
music winter school, with the amount of quality workshops happening. I was surprised
to hear from Martin that only during the last three years workshops have become
an important part of the festival. "We tried it before, but nobody came to them.
But there are more people playing these days, so there are more people going
to the workshops. We had the harp workshop first time three years ago, and there
came 26 harpists to that; that was amazing to see 26 harps walking in..."
This year, there were something like 10 bodhran pupils grouped around Mel Mercier, the harp workshop by Helen Davies and Aibhlinn McCrann was visited by ca. 9 musicians. About 10 singers joined also Len Graham and Pádraigin Ní Uallacháin for the singing workshop, and at least 25 took part in the Step Danicng classes of Cecilie Karnil. "It is more difficult to get people to the workshops for flute and fiddle, because not as many play, so that is difficult. But we are still working on that." With teachers like this year's Dermy Diamond (fiddle) and Tara Bingham (flute) it is definitely worth also for these workshops to come to Copenhagen. Speaking of the committee acting as an umbrella organisation, the Irish Festival's Set dancing workshop is organised by the Copenhagen Set Dancers, and has been well visited, as could be seen on the final Ceili on Sunday night.
The Danish-Irish Society of Copenhagen has their own traditional part of the
festival, running on their own a Gaelic mess on the festival Sunday at 1 p.m.
Martin: "There is also music, I think there was even dancing this year. Step
dancing on the altar - it is quite an unusual mess..."
Then there is the film festival, as part of the festival where the committee is not responsible for. It was run this year the second time, showing seven different Irish films, old and new. The film organisers are happy with the result, and promise to hold it again next year. Besides all these official events, there is always the possibility to join a session as musician or just as a listener.
The festival café offers great facilities from 12 noon until late in the night, and usually there were musicians who took advantage of this, providing mighty sessions, featuring both Danish musicians and booked Irish artists. And there are the Irish pubs that organise also live music during the weekend.
The visitors of the Copenhagen Irish Festival are to a big extent Danish - obviously, as it is held in Denmark's capital. Still, it draws also quite a few people from Sweden and Norway - especially since this year's opening of the ěresund-Bridge from Copenhagen to the Swedish town of Malmö, that highly supported cultural exchanges in this newly formed region. Additionally, there are also quite a few Irish guests.
The festival is financed purely by the committee itself, without consistent sponsorships. "We finance the festival ourselves, and we loose money ourselves, it's our money. Any profit goes into the next festival, but it's very rarely a profit. If it pays itself we are very lucky. It really depends on how well the festival café goes. If it goes well, than it's OK. Because the venues can't pay themselves, that's impossible - bands like Patrick Street are too expensive to get the money on the door, the venue costs a lot as well. So it's only good will - if people come to the bar, having a drink and a good time, they are getting something for their money, and we are getting some money, and that helps the festival."
The festival is only a part of what Martin O'Hare does in the Copenhagen Irish Music scene, also organising the Copenhagen Folk Club, held ca. monthly, and plays in two Irish bands in Denmark, Ashplant and Trad Lads. "The festival is all volunteer basis, nobody is paid for anything. It's just like a baby; you can't throw it away. We adopted it, and so we have it, the adopted festival. It won't leave by itself so... maybe when it gets older it will leave. But it is 22, and it doesn't look like it's leaving." And there are a lot of plans to give the baby an additional taint, like for the next year pub theatre, making Irish theatre more accessible than this year's theatre play "Catalpa" in a concert hall was.
"One of the outstanding celebrations in Europe of the Irish Tradition in Music" - this is how the Irish Ambassador of Denmark, H.E. James Sharkey, describes the festival. And indeed it is, as it not only provides formal concerts and workshops, but also the informal side of the music, as it bridges Irish Music with continental musicians, as it offers the opportunity to learn the music from some of the masters. The Copenhagen Irish Festival is an event with a lot of love in the detail, and it feels still fresh and lively, as you would expect it of somebody being sweet twenty two.
"I have looked forward to it with the keenest anticipation since I became Ambassador to Denmark in 1997", Sharkey says about the festival. May there be many more edition of this wonderful festival that he can look forward to!
Photo Credit: All Photos by The Mollis
The Continental Celts is an irregular FolkWorld series, presenting regularly the best of Irish folk on the European continent.
Already featured bands: Shantalla (B), Orion (B), Drones & Bellows (DK), Dereelium (D; this issue).
Events: The Gaelfest near Frankfurt (D).
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