Bringing It All Back Home, And this is not only the year of The Gathering. It’s also Bliain na Gaeilge and the year in which Comhaltas celebrates its global reach with its own ‘Bliain na Cruinne’.
So it’s with a sense of the apposite that the first non-Irish-born president of this quintessentially traditional Irish organisation approaches his attendance at a Gaeltacht fleadh cheoil.
Armed with his cúpla focal, Birmingham born and bred Vince Jordan is in no doubt but that he is “coming home” next month, when he visits Baile Mhúirne for the first Cork Fleadh Cheoil to be held in the Gaeltacht.
Coupled with the appropriateness of attending a Gaeltacht fleadh during Bliain na Gaeilge, Jordan’s visit exemplifies the notion of The Gathering as drawing the Irish diaspora back home.
The Gathering? “Comhaltas has been doing gatherings for years. It’s what we do,” he remarks. “And for me it’s one continuous gathering, over and back. Home for myself and my wife is always at the other end of a plane flight.”
The son of Irish parents, Jordan shares the lot of second-generation Irish and their own descendants in feeling the pull of the auld sod, whilst being firmly rooted in another country.
His father was from Béacán near Knock, Co Mayo, and his mother originally from Armagh, but it is his wife Ann’s family roots that prompted Vince to take the slightly unusual step of making a ‘presidential visit’ to a county fleadh, which is already being attended by Comhaltas director general, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú.
“My wife’s family are from Baile Mhúirne – they were Caseys from Doire na Sagart,” he says. “There’s no family left there now but we are regular visitors to the old farmhouse. My wife and I were married more than 30 years ago and ever since then we have been going to Baile Mhúirne, so it’s a gathering back again for us.”
Jordan, though not a Gaeilgeoir, finds the traditions still alive in the Múscraí Gaeltacht irresistible.
“My wife’s mother would have been a fluent Irish speaker and although I only have a few words – I can greet people and talk about the weather – we love the rich culture of the place. The music and particularly the singing, are what that part of the world is renowned for. It’s steeped in the tradition.”
A piano accordion player and former All Ireland champion, Vince Jordan is fairly steeped in the tradition himself.
Inspired early on by the fiddle-playing of his father and by his mother’s singing, he’s been playing traditional music since the age of 12.
“I was fascinated by accordions and I was taught by Kathleen Laurie from Roscommon, then I learned from fiddle player Paddy Ryan, also from Roscommon,” he recalls.
Having toured with Comhaltas in Ireland, Britain, America, Canada and China, he helped found the Reel Note ceili band over a decade ago and is an active participant in Birmingham’s flourishing Irish music scene.
The post-industrial city which gave birth to Kevin Crawford and Catherine McEvoy, among other noted trad players, is currently a beneficiary of Ireland’s recession, as a new generation of Irish musicians lands in the English Midlands in search of work.
“The Irish music scene here is very, very healthy indeed,” says Vince. “There are music sessions every night of the week and we’re playing ceilis where you have to buy your ticket in advance to get in – the halls are packed.
“We might have 15 singers turn up for a singers’ night, and with the new influx of people in the last 12 months you might meet four or five musicians that you hadn’t come across before, turning up from Clare or Galway or anywhere in Ireland at a session.
“Ireland’s loss is Birmingham’s gain,” he adds. “We have got young professional people who are coming into the workplace in Birmingham like the generations before them, and they are bringing with them their concertinas, their flutes and fiddles and adding to the music and dancing scene in a new wave of Irish workers.
“There’s this new wave of the diaspora all over the world, and these people are taking Irish traditional music with them wherever they go.”
Having been chairman of Comhaltas in Britain for a decade, Vince became its first non-Irish-born president last year in a move that dovetails neatly with the organisation’s celebration of Bliain na Cruinne or Global Year, aimed at recognising and rewarding “those who having left the shores of Ireland kept our Irish cultural traditions alive in the countries of their adoption”.
His election, relying on nominations from Ireland and abroad, was a milestone for Comhaltas as well as for Vince himself. “I’ve always thought of Comhaltas as quite a nationalistic organisation I suppose, and for all six provinces (including Britain and America) to support a Brummie, just shows how far the organisation has come,” he says.
“It’s a huge, huge honour, and a daunting task, but one that’s so rewarding when you see young people singing and playing music and keeping the tradition alive.”