Westmeath Comhaltas founders started a 'musical revolution'
On a sunny Thursday evening last week, a commemorative concert detailing the historic founding of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and its founding members took place in St Paul's Church.
Featuring musical and dance performances, many from descendents of the original committee members, writer, actor and director, Diarmuid de Faoite led the audience back in time to 1951, to the Midland Hotel, where history was made.
A group from the Pipers Club on Thomas Street, Dublin, travelled to Mullingar for a meeting with the Walderstown Pipers.
From this initial meeting, chaired by Cáit Bean Uí Mhuimhneacháin, the organisation that was to become known as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann would grow.
A decision was made to organise an annual festival of Irish music, song and dance and invitations were issued to musicians from all over Ireland to attend the first Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar.
“Their dream was to pass on our music, our heritage and to ensure its survival and enhancement,” stated Diarmuid de Faoite, MC. “That dream has become a reality, a beautiful tribute to the ambition of those founders 70 years ago.”
De Faoite told how there are now 400 plus branches of Comhaltas worldwide, evidence of the extraordinary success of that first meeting.
“Tonight, let us sit back and pay tribute to those music makers, the founders, the volunteers, who kept our music alive and captured the hearts worldwide,” he said.
“They sprouted and nurtured what can only be described as one of the finest cultural bodies in the world today.”
The concert featured audio visual clips of founding members such as Willie Reynolds and of that first Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar.
A clip of Willie Reynolds playing the uilleann pipes was picked up by members of the house band, including Ciarán Gaynor on pipes, on flute Niamh Glynn, and sisters Fiona and Niamh Kelleghan on banjo and button accordion.
De Faoite went on to detail the history of the founding members, among them Willie Reynolds, Cáit and Eamonn Mhuineachain, and Mrs Mullally.
Born in 1916 in Walderstown, Willie Reynolds came from a musical family. His father Jack played concertina and his mother’s family were also musicians.
His own musical career began in 1924 when he first learned to play concertina from his father, before his interest then transferred to the melodeon, taught to him by his next door neighbour, Kate Kerrigan.
However in 1938, at the age of 22, Willie attended a Feis in the Ranelagh Sports Grounds, where he noticed a competition on the Clár called the Senior Uilleann Pipes. This immediately grabbed his attention and from here history was made. He later described the experience:
“I felt a sting, it was as if something was entering my bloodstream.”
Soon after, Willie purchased a set of practice Uilleann Pipes for the grand total of seven pounds, ten shillings.
In 1943, he founded the Walderstown Uilleann Pipers Club to promote the teaching and playing of traditional music throughout County Westmeath, and in doing so he arrested its decline at that time.
Willie Reynolds married Julie O’Dowd in 1950, and had 10 children. He held diplomas for teaching the pipes, tin whistle and accordion. In 1951, in Mullingar, Willie was elected vice-chair of that first ever Comhaltas committee. “He gave his life to Irish music. His work in preserving, promoting and teaching music for the future generations will not be forgotten,” commented De Foite.
The Ó Muimhneacháins
Cáit and Éamonn Ó Muimhneacháin were steadfast in the commitment to the language, the music, the culture, not only to their own family, but also to anyone they came into contact with.
Cáit was the first ever president and Éamonn a member of the first standing committee. Together they had seven children who were involved in Comhaltas from a young age.
Cáit ran the music competitions in the first Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar, and under her guidance, the language, music, song and dance was passed on to subsequent generations.
“It was bare dedication and commitment that helped to spread and promote those musicians to this day,” stated Mr de Faoite.
Descendants of the Ó Muimhneacháin family, accompanied by members of the Reynolds Academy of Dance, performed.
Mrs Catherine Mullally, or ‘Ma Mullally’ as she was known, touched the lives of those she met through the many activities she was engaged in and especially through the 43 years she was associated with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann .
“She loved Comhaltas and all it stood for, and in return she was much admired and loved herself,” said De Faoite.
Born in 1907 in west Clare, Catherine Mullally, then McCarthy, was the only girl of 11. As well as being a concertina player, Catherine also had a beautiful soprano voice. In 1932 she opened a private school and her reputation as a teacher was second to none.
Cathy McCarthy married Phil Mullally from Mullingar in 1937, having first met him at a Fíor Céilí. Phil was secretary to the Feis Lár na hÉireann for 21 years and also served as secretary in the first Fleadh in Mullingar.
They had four children, Philip, Mary, Angela and John and all four inherited their gifts from music.
Mrs Mullally went on to become Leinster secretary and never missed either the Westmeath County Fleadh or an All Ireland Fleadh.
In the winter of 1967, a new command to grow and expand the organisation of comhaltas branches, of county boards, and of fleadhanna came into being as well as ensuring the new comhaltas journey, which was launched that year.
That was to be an exciting time for Ma Mullally because the following year she was to become the first female chair of the Leinster Council and continued on the Ard Chomhairle for 21 years.
Mrs Mullally spread word that any branch “worth its salt”, should be setting up structures and classes to teach the music, the songs and the dance to the youth. “All Mrs Mullally's endeavours were hallmarks of her dedication and resolve,” said Mr de Faoite.
Special performances on the night came from the families of the founding members, the Reynolds, the Ó Muimhneacháin family, the Seerys, McElvaneys, Frank Gavigan and Hubert Magee, as well as the renowned All-Ireland champions The Pipers’ Club Céilí Band.