Day No. 2 of the 35th edition Dublin Irish Festival awakened by dark clouds and threats of thunderstorms. In the early afternoon it calmed down a bit and like clockwork the crowds came out. The popular summer festival was back in full force after a year off due to the pandemic and then last summer’s abbreviated event.
The well-organized festival was ready for all, offering seven live music stages with four other spaces for workshops and cultural events, not to mention several large groups of merchants, artisans and a myriad of food options.
Integrating everything was impossible; catch all the interesting, intimidating musical acts.
For example, if you showed up at the main entrance in the late afternoon to catch Skerryvore on the Celtic Rock stage, you had to walk past the other three larger stages. I had a hard time walking past the huge Dublin stage without sitting down for a moment to hear Slide, an Irish dance group that featured fiddler Daire Bracken’s manic dancing. (His inventive acting was also smoking.)
The Trinity Stage has hosted much of the story of Rory Makem and Donal Clancy, sons of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy respectively, whose partnership in the early 1960s defined Irish music around the world. The Sons had a nice balance to their vocals, with Makem’s softer, lyrical singing tempering Clancy’s strong, proud voice.
Passing the Irish Thunder Stage without lingering was difficult, unless you weren’t reacting to the sound of an army of bagpipes. The Great Lakes Pipe Band moaned like a herd of animals from the stage in front of a bowl-shaped lawn filled to the brim with spectators.
The Celtic Rock stage takes place in a huge field away from the rest of the stages for a reason. It offers electrified, mostly loud Celtic music that appeals to a wider audience. Yet Skerryvore was not so far from the traditional dance groups playing on the small stages, only the crowd was so large that it overflowed the huge 30ft tent at the back as well as the sides.
The six Scottish musicians launched a frenzied rhythm with “Walk With Me”, a wonderful mixture of Celtic and Cajun dance in two parts. Highlights of his set featured fierce instrumental duels, frequently involving the Highland pipes. Traveling without drums, the band made do with bass drum pedals and a special guitar attachment that allowed the guitarist to play simple bass lines. The drum part, in particular, got a little annoying after a while. Skerryvore was buoyant enough on his own to forgo the extra boost.
We Banjo 3 got their high-energy dance tunes going without these trappings. When the band made their festival debut nine years ago, this reviewer was very impressed with their modern update on the tradition and influence of Appalachian music. Not only did the still young band stay true to those qualities this weekend on the Celtic rock scene, but they also managed to attract a huge following.
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Coming back to the main group of steps – across a bridge, past lines of ethnically diverse fast food tents and avoiding the temptation to watch dart-throwing pros at the darts bar – made the meet the next hard-to-meet group.
The special tent for the “Irish In Film”, in fact, was too much to resist. It was filled with dozens of press photos of Irish Hollywood stars and directors, original film posters from the era of silence, newspaper clippings and essays in tribute to many of them.
Who knew Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck and John Cusak were all Irish? Among the actors, of course, were the obvious, like Brian Dennehy and the ubiquitous – apparently in almost every small Irish film of the past 25 years – Colm Meaney. It was nice to see director John Ford get noticed with two large panels representing his work, as well as John Huston, with a bio and a nice poster of his latest film ‘The Dead’, even though he wasn’t also well represented during making many better known films, including “The Maltese Falcon” and “African Queen”.
Getting to the next destination became even more difficult, passing the Trinity stage where Connla held court with a stripped-down trio of Irish harp, whistle and the little Irish Uilleann pipes, the sound of which can be alternately an incredibly sad or rowdy dance accompaniment.
But Dervish called next door at the Dublin Stage. The classic Irish traditional band are stronger than ever after 33 years, and their performance on Saturday night did not disappoint at all. Lead singer Cathy Jordan broke hearts with ballads, sang dance tunes and played a mean bodhran (Irish hand drum). The ferocious violin, flute and accordion solo was backed by Jordan’s mandola, bouzouki and skillful percussion. A few more sets were then balanced out by ballads and chants before diving back into the fray. “A Fair Maid,” from the band’s 1992 debut album, was a highlight, with Jordan strumming a ukulele.
Next door, Socks In The Frying Pan has found a passionate following after appearing at the festival three years ago. The trio built considerable energy, to the delight of the crowd of fans, with just guitar, accordion and violin. The unison lines with violin and accordion were a marvel of musicality.
All of the acts in this article, except the Great Lakes Pipe Band, will reappear on Sunday, when the Irish festival ends, and Eileen Ivers will also perform on Sunday.