City of Culture media director Garbhan Downey gives the inside track on Saturday’s momentous Fleadh announcement......
I genuinely didn’t think we were going to get it.
For a start, the Comhaltas Executive were so kind and considerate, and seemed so genuinely interested in Derry, that several of us were certain they had decided to let us down gently. (Not our chair, Martin Bradley, I hasten to add, who is an eternal optimist and had previously predicted that we would resolve the railway debacle.)
The vote was to take place at Cultúrlann na hÉireann in Monkstown on Saturday morning, so Team Derry was invited to the CCE headquarters on Friday night to lobby the 31 voting members at a pre-match buffet.
And in fairness, the Derry contingent couldn’t have been better placed to answer every question or assuage any remaining doubts. Every key stakeholder was there. And the abiding message was simple: the city, county and the North as a whole want the Fleadh for Derry, and we are committed to delivering the best event ever. Yes we can, is féidir linn!
Comhaltas members Eibhlín Ní Dhochartaigh, Brendan Molloy, Gerry Ó hEara, Willie McCorriston, Anne-Marie Gallagher and Siobhan Molloy were able to speak with assurance on the strength, depth and organisation of the traditional music sector in the city.
Mark Durkan MP, Junior Minister Martina Anderson and DFM special advisor Paul Kavanagh talked confidently about the huge political backing for the project (North and South) and the cross-party support they had received from the highest levels of unionism.
Council chief executive Sharon O’Connor asserted that local government would pull out all the stops to help co-ordinate the Fleadh preparations in a thoroughly professional manner.
PSNI commanders Stephen Martin and Chris Yates provided a clear and authoritative assessment of the city’s security profile. Jim Roddy of City Centre Initiative pointed to our recently-acquired Purple Flag, which establishes us as one of the safest cities on these islands.
Aideen McGinley and Caoimhin Corrigan of Ilex explained why Derry’s physical infrastructure would be ideally suited to the Fleadh, while Odhran Dunne of the Derry Visitor & Convention Bureau promised that our rapidly-developing accommodation sector would not be found wanting.
Philip Gilliland, of the Londonderry Chamber, avowed that the city’s business community were entirely behind the Fleadh and primed to meet the demands of 300,000 additional visitors.
And finally, Culture Company representatives Martin Bradley, Shona McCarthy and myself outlined how the Fleadh would be a vital element of our game-changing year in 2013; a year which is ultimately aimed at developing a vibrant cultural economy for the region.
The lobbying was informal and conducted over a delicious coq au vin hot plate, laid on by Comhaltas. And the fact that one political party scoffed most of the grub, forcing another to share a piece of chicken has long since been forgotten...
After dinner, we were delighted to discover that the eminently-hospitable President of Comhaltas, Seamus Mac Cormaic had been a student at Magee in the 1980s – and had actually been taught by this writer’s mother. We were a little less delighted to discover that it was Seamus’s home Comhaltas branch, who were proposing the Sligo bid. But, like everyone we met that evening, he was never less than genial and gracious towards us.
By the end of the evening, we’d heard a rumour that the third team in the race, Ennis, would be pulling out of the competition the following day, which could only be good news for us. And we’d also received word that the Irish government, while in no position to lobby, would be very supportive of a bid to take the Fleadh north of the border for the first time.
It was all shaping up too well. So at about eleven, we repaired to our digs in Leopardstown to study all the permutations and read the runes over a quiet lemonade.
Few were daring to put our chances any higher than fifty-fifty, while wet blankets like me were already resigned to an honourable second place. I even had Shona McCarthy’s line ready for TG4: “Tá muid iontach brodúil - ach cinnte go dtiocfaidh muid ar ais aris... (We are very proud – but certain that we will be back...)”
Then it was early to bed, as we intended to be back in Monkstown for the vote, which began at 10.00am.
The Comhaltas HQ is situated at Belgrave Square South, just around the corner from Eaton Square. But did you know there are TWO Belgrave Squares and Eaton Squares in County Dublin? You do now...And our chairman’s sat-nav, naturally, brought us to the second one, in Rathmines, about six miles off course.
Mark Durkan was following us in a separate car, but there is absolutely no truth in the suggestion, as mooted later, that we deliberately got him lost so his political opponents could nip in and get all the credit when the balloon went up.
As it was, we – and the Foyle MP – over-rode technology with the assistance of a Dublin taxi-driver and arrived in plenty of time, at about 10.30. I saw a single magpie flying over the square as we got out of our car but was very careful not to mention it to anyone...
So, we got to sit about in the restaurant for the next hour and three quarters, drinking tea with our Sligo colleagues and tormenting one another with unfounded predictions. Luckily, I knew I’d probably have to do an interview as gaelige so had plenty to occupy my mind.
Then further torture. At about midday, word reached us that the voting members were going to break for lunch and reconvene for further discussions afterwards.
But, thank God, that rumour was unfounded. And at about 12.15pm, the Comhaltas Director, Senator Labhras Ó Murchú bounded down the stairs and invited us all into their amharclann (theatre) for the big result.
You could have heard a pin drop as we entered the room and sat down in the seats. I noticed a couple of the team, who wouldn’t be known for faint-heartedness, starting to shake. Martina Anderson shook my hand as we went in and whispered we would be magnanimous win, lose or draw. None of the six-strong panel facing us were giving anything away.
The senator, however, is a true statesman and was keen to put us all out of our agony.
After a brief preamble, made just that bit more agonising as he wrestled with a dodgy microphone, he looked up with a slight smile and uttered the words that turned the atmosphere electric: “We had two applications and either of those could be hosting Fleadh Ceoil na hÉireann, 2013. But on this occasion, for 2013, the Fleadh will be hosted by Derry...”
The roar of surprise, relief and sheer joy from the Derry team nearly lifted the roof. A mass hug broke out in the centre of the room as the tension and uncertainty of the previous couple of weeks evaporated. There was shouting, laughing and grown men pretending it was just dust in their eye.
Cynics can say what they will, but it was quite momentous. For the first time ever, Ireland’s biggest festival would be hosted in a Northern city.
“Lá stárúil atá ann, (it’s a historic day),” declared Derry Culturlann CEO Gerry Ó hEara. Mark Durkan, always the man with the apt phrase, agreed. “The rhythm of history is with Derry,” he declared.
The announcement, as Senator Labhras – who has been such a true friend to Derry throughout this process – reminded us afterwards, is only the start. Now comes the hard work.
“But be sure and go off and enjoy it for a couple of weeks first,” he told us. “You deserve it.”