The Festival That Starts With 'The First Delivery of Bread’
‘The template’, says guitarist Gearóid Ó Maonaigh, ‘was that you started the Winter School on the 27th or the 28th, whenever the first delivery of bread arrived in Gaoth Dobhair after Christmas. There’s no point starting it any earlier.’
It’s 24 years since Ó Maonaigh, with family and friends, instigated the first Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy (‘Frankie Kennedy Winter School’), following the death of the Altan’s flute-player in September 1994.
At the funeral that autumn, Fintan Vallely, who was writing about it for the Irish Times, was one of the people who suggested to Ó Maonaigh that it would be a good idea to do something in Kennedy’s memory. In October, a discussion took place as part of a meeting of the Donegal fiddle-playing association Cairdeas na bhFidléirí, of which Kennedy was a founding member, and plans started to be put into place.
From family to community ownership
Gearóid Ó Maonaigh’s sister is the renowned fiddle-player and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, who was married to Frankie Kennedy and together they formed Altan, but Gearóid is also married to Anne Kennedy, a sister of Frankie. The festival has always been deeply associated with the Ó Maonaigh and Kennedy families. Five years ago, after almost twenty years running the festival, they decided to put the winter event into community ownership. It is now run by the local co-operative and is called Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair. The director is the flute-player Conor Byrne.
The decision to remove Kennedy’s name was a difficult one, but it was decided that once it left the family that it should start anew as they would no longer be taking decisions on the festival. And yet, as Ó Maonaigh explains, ‘everybody still calls it “The Frankie Kennedy”!’
Gearóid is hoping to commemorate the flute-player’s music in different ways now, including gathering recordings of him, and by people who learnt from him, or taught him, and lodging them with the Irish Traditional Music Archive so they are available to the wider public.
A session at the first Scoil Gheimhridh Frankie Kennedy in 1994, with, from left, Luka Bloom, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Méabh O’Hare and Tara Conaghan.
Gearóid will give a talk at this year’s festival, telling the story of the event over 24 years. The Christmas and New Year timing of the winter school – which makes it quite different to the many summer festivals – has its origins in the local musical culture of the area.
‘It was a tradition that there would always be sessions and concerts around New Year’, he says. ‘That goes way back to some time in the mid-70s’.
Ó Maonaigh’s father, the late fiddle-player Francie Mooney (Proinsias Ó Maonaigh), used to write pantomimes that would be performed at Christmas, and there would always be a convergence of musical families into the area around that time – people such as the Glackins and Lunnys, and groups from the local area and from Belfast. Sessions would usually take place in his father’s house on New Year’s Eve. When the idea for the Frankie Kennedy Winter School emerged, Christmas and New Year seemed a natural time.
Fiddle-player Francie Mooney (Proinsias Ó Maonaigh), a significant influence on music in Gaoth Dhobhair, who died in 2006.
The first festival over the Christmas and New Year period of 1994/95 was a small affair, with a combination of classes and concerts. It was meant to be a one-off event, but it started taking on a momentum of its own. In later years, Ó Maonaigh recalls, when he was taking credit-card bookings for events, 80% of the bookings were from outside Ireland, in particular the USA. ‘The Winter School is as good as a week in July to hotels, bed and breakfasts and pubs… but we always looked at it as something more.’
In concert at Scoil Gheimhridh in recent years: Ciarán Ó Maonaigh (Gearóid’s son), Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Dermot McLaughlin, Kitty Uí Mhaonaigh, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Moya Brennan.
The highlight for Ó Maonaigh every year is the sense of Frankie Kennedy’s presence. ‘I always felt Frankie’s presence… it didn’t matter what was happening. Others would have felt it too.’ One of his other fond memories from the festival’s many events was a ‘Mol an Óige’ concert, which included every recipient of the TG4 Young Musician of the Year award. A lot of the musicians had visited the festival over the years. ‘It was a great thing to be able to say they had all come through here and it was brilliant to be able to sit down and listen to that quality of music.’
The New Year’s Eve session at Scoil Gheimhridh.
This year’s festival will be opened by fiddle-player Dermy Diamond on 27 January and events over the six days will feature Na Casaidigh, The Conifers, Noel Hill and Liam O’Connor, Tríona Ní Domhnaill and Helen Diamond, Jimmy and Peter Campbell, Pólca 4, sessions for beginners and advanced players, sean-nós dancing, and a singers’ sessions with Ciarán Mac Fheidhlimidh. Gearóid Ó Maonaigh’s talk on the history of the festival will take place at Bunbeg House on 31 December at 3pm.
For more on Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair, visit http://scoilgheimhridh.com.
All photos courtesy of Gearóid Ó Maonaigh.