There is a definite feeling of optimism in this burst of Spring weather. Turf cutting, lambs leaping, the heady smells of coconut from the bright yellow furze bushes wafting in the air and sparkling sunrises. “Scread na Bealtaine”- the final scream of Winter which is (hopefully) the last storm, is behind us and now we await the call of the cuckoo to herald the arrival of better weather and long summer days.
Today two special visitors will come to Árainn Mhór island to start their artist residencies. One a young dancer, bursting with energy. Edwina McGuckian has put traditional dance on a new vibrant stage in Leitrim and nationwide. This weekend we welcome her to Árainn Mhór to meet some of the older people who remember the great dances in the hall; highlands, the Maggie Pickins and the wild fiddle music of Neily Boyle.
Zoé Basha, a musician, composer, carpenter will also join us on the island. Drawing on influences from the US, France, Ireland and the music of jazz, sway, Appalachian songs and traditional Irish music, we are excited to see her interact with singers on the island, particularly the younger generation, to breathe new life into some of the old songs from here.
Both Edwina and Zoe and our other artists will create a dance piece/music pieces or opportunities for islanders to engage in a new way with their heritage and then bring these new connections and energy back to the island for the Féile Róise Rua festival in May 19th.
‘Féile Róise Rua was set up in 2018 as a voluntary community based festival to revive the local music and song tradition on Árainn Mhór island, in particular the music of local singer and song collector Róise Rua or Róise na nÁmhráin (Rose of the songs). Róise was a lady who lived a simple life in terms of worldly riches but had a wealth of song, story and natural/spiritual health “cures”. Róise’s life represents a richness that is still evident in islanders today who often are not aware of the richness of story, culture and memories that they possess. The festival aims to recognise that rich cultural heritage and reignite the memories that people in this area have. The huge response to the festival in the first year took everyone by surprise. The festival was sold out rapidly. Many islanders who attended found themselves in tears at the pop-up archive of recordings from islanders who have now passed away, or the concerts and talks.’
The following year Covid 19 hit. The festival plans changed dramatically and we had an online festival of sorts, with video contributions from locals and our festival artists and in the process raised over €7000 for the local community centre. The community centre (CFFAM) is a hub of cultural and social activity on the island, a co-operative organisation which is essential to the life and soul of this community and which was in danger of closure without face to face activity and economic activity. The public appetite for the cultural festival activity and the support of the community centre was very clear. We would have to find a way to keep this new music and arts festival alive despite the pandemic.
The next year, still in the midst of lockdowns and social distancing, a new important connection was created. Following meetings with the Arts Council and other funding bodies, our friends in Other Voices and Tiny Ark prepared, with us,our first live stream festival. Local graphic artist Jesse Smith (@blackroguedesign) again created stunning digital artwork for the screen and print. Renowned artists including Steve Cooney, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Radie Peat, Brían MacGloinn, Thomas McCarthy, Brían Danny Minnie, Nia Byrne, Bridge Chaimbeul and the island’s own Anna Gallagher entertained viewers from all over the globe, in an intimate live music session. We streamed live to over 45 countries around the world and an audience of over 32,000. The internet connection for this live stream was thanks to the broadband on the island, brought about through a partnership between the local Island Council and Three Ireland. Myles O Reilly, an amazing film maker created a beautiful film piece as part of the production introducing the viewers to the artists and some local island characters; Ellen Nappy and Hugh Nancy chatting and singing in the yard of Ellen’s house in Athphort, Anthony Donnelly doing work on the bog and around the lighthouse, Aoife NíGhloinn singing one of Róise Rua’s songs magically, at Donnelly’s hut as the sun set behind her, Jerry Early fishing. Viewers from around the world got an intimate look at life in Arainn Mhór and a chance to sit in a unique traditional singing and music session with some of the best traditional artists at the Glen Hotel, Arainn Mhór.
This year the festival returns to face to face activity. The festival theme is the Maighdeán Mhara- mermaid, ethereal being, shape shifter. The story is one that has been represented in story and song and poetry from Disney to Seamus Heaney to the local seanchaí or storytellers. The song of the Maighdean Mhara is one of the oldest known folk songs in Western Europe and widely known and sung in Donegal. Eithne Ní Ghallchobhair tells the story with a note of caution to the listener to never leave sight of your “craiceann rón”- your seal’s coat, the essence of who you are. The story is one of identity and lost identity or the search for your true self. It is a story of women, a story of loneliness,a story about yearning for home, a story of power and the misuse of it, a story of love, a story of family, a story of the sea. Eithne ends the story telling the reader about death. According to lore, every person has three deaths. The first death when the breath leaves the body. The second death when the body turns to soil. The third death when that person's name is spoken for the last time. Through song, story and the arts we strive to keep alive the memories of those people gone before us. Keeping alive the identity of the place. This life breathes anew in the next generations,,a link between the old and the new, the person and the place, our unique island culture and heritage, our craiceann rón.