OVER THE past three years Headford’s Eric Cunningham has been staging concerts and performances showcasing the best of Irish trad and Celtic music through his World Fleadh festivals.
Co Kerry played host to the first World Fleadh in 2006 and brought together the most celebrated performers of Irish music, song, and dance. In 2007 and 2008 the festival moved to Portlaoise and was generally considered an outstanding success.
Eric always harboured the ambition of bringing his music extravaganza to his home province and next week he makes that dream a reality when the World Fleadh takes place in Castlebar, Co Mayo.
From Friday July 31 to Saturday August 8 the Royal Theatre Castlebar will play host to The Saw Doctors, Moving Hearts, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Frankie Gavin, and American country stars such as Randy Travis, Martina McBride, Hal Ketchum, and Georgette Jones.
Growing up in a very musical family Eric was steeped in Irish traditional music from an early age. He performed throughout Europe, the US, and Australia in his teens and was exposed to a whole world of new music.
In 1992 he was awarded a scholarship to study music at NUI Cork, and as a musicologist contributed to the publication of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. In 2000 Eric began to compose and produce his own musical productions.
“I grew up with music around me and I spent years playing with my father’s band,” Eric tells me. “My interest in getting involved in producing and promoting was when I travelled the world with people like Frankie Gavin playing music.
“I’d always watch what was happening at major music events and try to figure out how it was being done. I thought if all these great events were happening overseas then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be happening in Ireland as well.
“From the word go my hope was to replicate events such as the America’s Milwaukee Irish Fest, the Inter-Celtic Festival of Lorient in France, and Scotland’s Celtic Connections Festival to showcase Irish traditional and Celtic music in Ireland.”
Through his impressive entrepreneurial skills and thorough attention to detail, Eric has produced shows such as Dance Of Desire, the Dubai Irish Festival, Women Of Ireland, and Bryan Adams at Pearse Stadium. Still in his twenties, he was awarded Young Person of the Year by Junior Chamber Ireland and a mayoral award from Galway City Council in 2005.
“I don’t really think about the age thing,” he says. “The way I look at it is that you’re only as good as your last gig. Every time I take on a new project I strive to raise the bar. The way the music business is though it’s often hard to cater to the tastes of everyone or to make a production work.
“There are always challenges – such as inclement weather conditions or the economic situation at the time – when you decide to put on an event. The World Fleadh was set up as a transient event to move from location to location from one year to the next.
“It started in Kerry and then moved on to Portlaoise and I’m delighted to be bringing it to the west of Ireland this year. The first class facilities at the Royal Theatre and the fact that Castlebar is such a great location were big plus factors in
bringing the event to Connacht.”
The World Fleadh
The programme at this year’s World Fleadh has a distinctly west of Ireland feel to it with Sharon Shannon and Dessie O’Halloran taking part. The festival will also see legendary Galway group De Dannan re-launched with a new line-up.
“It’s a great privilege to be able to re-launch Frankie Gavin and De Dannan at the World Fleadh,” says Eric. “The concert on August 5 at the Royal Theatre is a celebration of the past with some of the best-loved De Dannan members such as Dolores Keane and Mairtín O’Connor taking part.
“The night will also see the group moving into the future with the launch of the new line-up. Both groups of people from the past and future will perform together as Frankie Gavin and De Dannan.”
The World Fleadh will embrace the links between Irish traditional music and American country music with the Ireland Music Awards and the Irish Country Music Awards taking place on August 1 and August 6, respectively. The latter will be attended by leading lights from Nashville such as Randy Travis, Martina McBride, and Hal Ketchum.
“In the last year I’ve begun to branch out the World Fleadh to include American country,” says Eric. “The programming for this year’s event occurred at a time when the Midlands Country Music Festival was no longer happening and so I felt there was a void there to be filled. The inaugural Irish Country Music Awards will feature a wide variety of Irish and international country music stars.”
The Royal Theatre is Ireland’s third largest venue and the largest venue outside of Dublin. In recent years it has played host to Tom Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, and Belinda Carlisle. Eric hopes to one day bring acts of that calibre to his home city of Galway.
“The Royal Theatre is known as a place where people go to for concerts and a night of entertainment,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that Galway is lacking in facilities and the only place you can stage large-scale concerts in the west is Castlebar. Galway is lauded around the world for the arts but it is dragging its feet in some respects in terms of facilities. I would love to be able to bring big concerts to Galway.”
The beginning of August will be an exciting time for music enthusiasts in the west of Ireland with the World Fleadh bringing together many big names under one umbrella. The events kick-off tomorrow night with The Saw Doctors and their manager Ollie Jennings is in an upbeat mood about their performance and the festival.
“It’s great that a festival such as The World Fleadh is coming to the west because I think it’ll flourish,” Ollie says. “I remember a big festival in Castlebar many years ago that featured acts such as Madness, Ian Dury, and De Dannan and that was a big success. The Saw Doctors always love playing in Mayo and we hope to celebrate our latest visit with a Top 10 with our new single She Loves Me.”
Tickets available by phoning box office on 0818 300 000.