‘Fiddles and Faeries’ competition reaches climax

I am both delighted and proud that ‘Fiddles & Faeries,’ an international fiddle-playing competition I launched, has proved so successful, with ‘Awards for Excellence’ being presented at a most enjoyable event at Leo’s Tavern, home of famed Celtic group, Clannad, and singer, Enya, in west Donegal this past weekend.

While not a fiddle-player myself, I am an aficionado of traditional culture and this competition allowed me to highlight in a modest way the wonderful talents of so many musicians worldwide, younger and older – including a schoolgirl just 12 years old and a farmer and retired plasterer in his ‘70s – many of them from Donegal, the beautiful northwestern Irish county I now call home.

People from different countries including England, the US, Ireland and Australia celebrated fiddle-playing.

From so many different countries including Iceland, France, Canada, Ireland, the US, England and Scotland, the participants all had one thing in common – a passion for music – with the fiddle being their instrument of choice. 

There were some who told me the ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ project would never work. That it would require too much effort and organisation. And to an extent they were right. There was a tremendous amount of work involved, more than I ever anticipated, both for me and for my wife, Columbia, over the last nine months. 

But if we all simply gave up on projects – especially those projects close to our hearts – because others said that they couldn’t be done, sure maybe we’d never try anything.

Aside from the naysayers, there are a number of people I’d like to thank individually for their advice and support, without which I might not have gone ahead. Among them are Mícheál Ó hÉanaigh, chief executive of Údarás na Gaeltachta, and his colleague, Meadbh Seoighe, who trusted me to succeed to the best of my abilities; Colm Ó Baoill at Foras na Gaeilge in Donegal, a musician himself, who offered sound advice; the wonderfully tireless Mary Coyle, manager at  Ionad Naomh Pádraig Community Centre in Dore, who helped me host a launch event last autumn with Donegal musicians and poets, even though her husband was suffering symptoms of Covid; and Bartley Brennan and Sean Mac Ruairí who worked closely with me for the enjoyable ‘Awards for Excellence’ event at Leo’s Tavern last Saturday. 

Hopefully, pandemic permitting and financial support available, the ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ event will be a prelude to my proposed Guinness World Record breaking fiddle-playing attempt, an event that would bring much positive national and international attention to this little, economically marginalised, culturally-rich corner of Ireland. I found out that such a world record, which requires having the most fiddlers playing in one place at one time, has never been tried and promptly paid the dues necessary to do so. I am fearful, however, someone else, somewhere else, may organise it before I do. 

In preparing for the Guinness World Record breaking attempt last year, I conducted a lot of research on fiddle-playing. Within Donegal, communicating with such people and organisations as Rab Cherry at Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí, a non-profit friendship or association of fiddle players formed in the early 1980’s to support and promote the art of fiddle playing in the Donegal tradition and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan fame. But also outside Donegal, in Sligo, meeting with people like John McGettrick, manager of The Coleman Traditional Irish Music Centre, a living musical museum dedicated to Michael Coleman, a legendary fiddle-player who emigrated to America many years ago; in Wexford at the home of brilliant fiddle-player Colm Mac Con Iomaire, one of the founding members of dynamic traditional band, Kila, who also plays with The Frames alongside Glen Hansard; and in Kildare with Marina Guinness, descendant of the famous brewery family who has selflessly helped many struggling musicians over the years.

Sean meeting with Colm Mac Con Iomaire, renowned Irish composer, fiddle-player and founding member of The Frames and Kila, at his Wexford studio

My time on the project amounted to well over 100 hours of work and travel. And then, just as the world record attempt was beginning to take shape, Covid struck again last year, forcing me to shelve my plans.

Meeting Marina at her Kildare home – (l to r) Columbia Hillen, Sean Hillen and Marina Guinness.

But the unique idea of establishing such a world record is still out there in the ether, waiting for the right people at the right place at the right time. And with its strong tradition of fiddle-playing through the generations and over the centuries, it seems to me Donegal is the perfect place to do it.

If you know of a vibrant community centre or a music school to partner with on such a fabulous, albeit challenging, musical project, please get in touch with me.

And now all that’s left for me here is to have the honour of congratulating all participants in the inaugural ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ competition. For their initiative in entering it, the musical pleasure they gave to so many people and the hours and hours and hours of practice every day, every week, they’ve put in to become as talented as they are. 

In addition to those musicians in the videos above, other finalists included Ty Kelliher from Connecticut; Steve Blake from London; Charlotte Slater from Aberdeenshire in Scotland; James Timothy Plattes from Minnesota; and Jamesie Wray and Meghan McGinley from Donegal.

Go raibh maith agat – Thank you – to everyone involved in this cultural project.