Rarely is traditional Celtic music heard in movies. When it is, it usually serves as background music — albeit excellent background music that enhances the mood, as in “Rob Roy” starring Liam Neeson and “The Last of the Mohicans” starring Daniel Day-Lewis — so a movie about traditional Irish music is a true delight.
“The Boys & Girl From County Clare,” a comedy/drama set in the late 1960s, takes place at the national Irish traditional music competition at the height of the Beatles’ success. It follows the attempts of two ceili (pronounced “kay-lee”) bands to win the ceili band competition, showing each band at home at the beginning of the film practicing for the contest. (A ceili band combines traditional fiddle and flute playing with modern adornments, such as drums and bass.) I don’t remember if the movie used the name of the competition, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (Festival of Music in Ireland), but it’s clear that that’s where it takes place.
Organized every year since 1951 by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Éireann (Gathering of Musicians of Ireland), according to the website, http://www.fleadh2008.com/, “The goal of the Fleadh Cheoil has been to establish standards in Irish traditional music through competition. The Fleadh has developed as a mainly competitive event, but it also includes showcases of concerts, céilithe, parades, pageants, and street sessions.”
Musicians who place in the Fleadh are called All-Ireland champions, and that title is plugged on CDs, in books and in performance announcements. “All-Ireland” is an advantageous title to put on one’s calling card and has been earned by many musicians in this country, such as Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll, who I’ve heard spent some time at Hiram College in Ohio, New York City fiddler Eileen Ivers, and Pennsylvania mandolin and banjo player Seamus Egan. The bulk of the winners by far are Irish, but the children of Ireland have preserved their heritage in America and carry the music back across the sea each year to compete and commune in the common music of the homeland.
The film nicely portrays the competition, showing snippets of youngsters competing on tin whistle, harp and fiddle and a bit of the socializing in pubs and music sessions taking place during the week of competitions. It’s a good introduction to the music for many and an inspiration to the player of traditional music. The movie offers a good story that will introduce Irish music to the uninitiated, and several scenes accurately portray traditional musicians, such as the Uilleann piper who is constantly tinkering with his reeds and drones; Jimmy MacMahon, played by Colm Meany, giving his flute player an f-word-laced tongue lashing for jazz-style improvisation on the melody — “I was playing the tune,” says the flute player. “No you weren’t; you were playing around the tune. There’s a difference. Stick to the melody.” — and the discussion between John Joe, played by Bernard Hill, and his accordion player about playing music from other parts of Ireland: “Why do we only play Clare tunes?” asks the accordionist. “Why can’t we mix it up a bit?” “Because we’re musicians from County Clare,” is the patience-taxed reply. The accordionist plays a few notes of “Egan’s Polka” and says, “Does that mean we’re not gonna play any polkas?” “You do,” says John Joe, “and ...” (I can’t print this part). “Let’s just stick to the sets we know; leave the Kerry tunes to the Kerrymen.”
That’s a common attitude even in this country — musicians favor a certain style, derived from a particular region, and will vehemently berate a person who tries to push them beyond their chosen musical borders. “County Clare” is about the music, but it is also about family relationships gone bad and the attempts to repair them, and it’s an enjoyable look at an obscure but thriving style of music in the 1960s.