OPINION: Where has Derry’s fleadh gone?
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Last week saw the 2022 All-Ireland Fleadh (the biggest celebration of Irish music and culture globally) take place in Mullingar, County Westmeath. The Fleadh brings back warm memories to many people in Derry for whom it was the highlight of our 2013 year as the UK’s inaugural City of Culture. Many will also recall the difficulties Derry faced in securing that Fleadh. Any concerns and issues quickly melted away when the event commenced, however, as it became an instant success.
Even though the Fleadh has been running annually since 1951, Derry still managed to clock-up an impressive series of firsts when the event was held here. 2013 was the first time that the All-Ireland Fleadh had ventured north of the border, as well as the first (and still only) time that it has been hosted by a city. Notably it was also the first time that music from the unionist tradition on this island was included, in a symbolic move that organisers Comhaltas continued with in the following years. The Fleadh in Derry also proved to be the biggest ever held – with 430,000 visitors drawn to the event. On the closing night, Comhaltas Director-General Labhrás Ó’Murchú took to the stage of the Céilí Band Final to remark how that particular competition usually attracted only a few hundred people to a draughty church hall, yet in Derry was being held in front of 2,000 people.
Without doubt the All-Ireland Fleadh was good for Derry, and Derry was good for the Fleadh. It was a perfect match, and hopes of the event returning ran high when Comhaltas gushed about the success of holding it here and said there was no reason why it shouldn’t return. Yet almost a decade on there remains neither sign nor word of that long-awaited return actually happening. What makes that all the more remarkable is that since the 1990s every location that has been awarded the Fleadh has automatically had the right to host it for two years in a row (prior to that it was three years). The only exception to that rule has been Derry - as even before the 2013 Fleadh was held here the following two year’s events had already been awarded to Sligo. We had been assigned the status of a unique, one-off ‘flash in the pan’ event before anyone even had the chance to see how we performed as a host.
Since 2013 there have been occasional murmours from local politicians about bringing the Fleadh back to Derry, but none appears to have resulted in any credible progress. Derry’s reputation and ability as a host venue for large scale public events has progressed leaps and bounds since 2013. We can now rightly claim to be the festival capital of Ireland, and no-one would be in any doubt that an All-Ireland Fleadh held in our city now would be an even greater success than it was a decade ago. Yet in amongst the haze of Hallowe’en and Clipper events, we appear to have forgotten about the largest event that has ever been held in our city. It is surely beyond time that the civic amnesia around that superb Fleadh week in 2013 is brought to an end. Our council should convene a meeting of all key stakeholders to begin the process of bidding for the All-Ireland Fleadh to return here at the earliest available opportunity. It is time to address the wrong that was done to Derry. So it’s over to you Councillors, Mayor and Chief Executive. Bringing the Fleadh back to Derry is long overdue and very much ‘Mission Possible’. All that is required is for you to finally choose to accept that much-wanted mission on behalf of the people of this city.
If you agree that Derry-Strabane Council should actively work to bring the All-Ireland Fleadh back to Derry again, then please sign this petition on the issue chng.it/vx9nLVMD74. Or visit Change.org and search for ‘All-Ireland Fleadh Derry’.
*Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve