An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
Seán Laffey calls into the Harcourt Hotel during daylight hours for a spot of lunch with Mary Cashin.
The Harcourt Hotel and Celtic Note in association with RTE Radio1 and IMRO are launching a Nation-wide competition to find Ireland's Young Traditional Musician of the Year. With a total prize fund of £5,000, which includes £1,000 Cash Prize and a £4,000 recording deal from Celtic Note Records, this is a welcome initiative from the private sector. There will be a perpetual trophy as they have plans to make this an annual event. The objective will be to find Ireland's finest young musician and to offer the winner a helping hand towards a professional career. The Competition is non-profit making and is solely organised on a voluntary basis by the Harcourt Hotel and Celtic Note.
The Harcourt Hotel is renowned for its traditional music and in particular the impromptu sessions down through the years. (For a taste of the old days at the Harcourt take a look at the article from Shay McGowan of MacGowan's in Hanover- printed in the Xmas 1998 issue of Irish Music Magazine). This year the Harcourt was justly awarded with the Best Traditional Music Venue Award by the Holiday Ireland Group of Hotels which was presented by Minister for Tourism Mr. Jim Mc Daid T.D. at a Reception in the Burlington Hotel in May. Widely acclaimed as the Home from Home for Musicians far and wide, the Harcourt is always willing to provide help, assistance and a platform for young and up and coming musicians; many of our top players today actually launched their musical career there.
Celtic Note is situated at 14-15 Nassau Street, Dublin 2 and is Ireland's No.1. Irish Music Store. It stocks the largest selection of Irish, Scottish, World and Celtic Music in Ireland. They are also hosts to the well renowned One 0'Clock Sessions, where bands can launch albums or promote tours. Some of the groups taking up this offer have been that Solas, De Dannan, Dervish and Sharon Shannon to mention just a few.
Being involved in traditional music in Dublin, it is inevitable that at least once a moth you'll beat a path to the Harcourt's doors. They have music every night of the week, it isn't all strictly traditional, and there is a varied programme. However, they are rightly famous for their Monday night Harcourt Sessions where the cream of the country's trad acts play, Tuesdays, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons are left for open sessions and you never know who might turn up. The Hotel is a very popular venue for album and book launches, and even when industry events happen elsewhere, trad heads often gravitate to the Harcourt to wind down with a few small glasses and some mighty music.
Mary Cashin, who has been running the Hotel for the past seven years, told me that she first came up with the idea for a competition about a year ago. "We were really surprised at the crowds the young bands were pulling into the Hotel, bands like Delos, Dal Riada, Danú and Kila. It was obvious to me there is so much really good talent around at the moment. Really exciting young players and they have a massive following. Traditional music is booming in the City. And the reports we were getting back from around the country suggested the same was happening all over."
All well and good, but surely with the All Ireland Fleadh and Oireachtas competitions, is there enough space for yet another award? Mary fires back without a moment's hesitation. "We aren't trying to copy those competitions, and I've been to hundreds of them over the years. What we want to encourage with this competition is stagecraft, and performance. There will be no rules laid down in stone, players won't be competing to be the best fiddler or most adept at turning a reel. We are looking for players who have the ability to mix tunes and keep an audience entertained. Of course the music should be traditional, and that means it can be a new tune or set, and we encourage young players to write their own material if they can perform it really well. Obviously we are looking for Irish musicians playing Irish music, but there will be a little leeway. I well remember as a youngster paying a Scottish air at a Fleadh, I was dismissed from the stage very brusquely. I was only a kid at the time and although I understand it now, it could have crushed my playing altogether."
You need only look across the water to see what an effect such a competition can have on the health of the professional scene. The BBC Young tradition awards threw up names such as Kate Rusby, Simon Thoumire and Mike McGoldrick, all of whom have done tremendously well very early on in their careers.
The Harcourt has joined forces with Celtic Note, RTE and IMRO, I wondered just how this arrangement would work in practice?
"The Harcourt will provide the venue for the Dublin heats and the Semi- finals and the Final heat itself. Celtic Note through their record arm will provide a recording deal, to the value of £4000. This should be enough to do a very decent album. The choice of recording studio will be up to the winner, they will be offered as much help as we can give them. Obviously CNR have their favourite studios in Dublin, but if the winner wants to record in Donegal, Waterford, Galway, Kerry that will pose no problem. RTE will record the semi-final and finals here in the Harcourt, and these will be broadcast later. Kieran Hanrahan has been very supportive of the venture, he's given a lot of time and ideas to the project and will be closely involved on the RTE side."
It is good to see IMRO backing the project, as there are some in traditional music who are, shall we say wary of some of IMRO's activities. "Yes and that is understandable, but IMRO offer a great service to musicians, they are in the business of seeing that musicians actually get paid for their work and their compositions. That royalties are collected from broadcasts and that players are treated fairly by the media. Hugh Duffy of IMRO has been behind this project all the way and they are putting their hands in their pockets by supplying us with the main cash prize. We think it important that they are on the side of young players when they are just beginning their careers, this industry is rife with stories of rip-offs and dubious deals. We can't say that is all part of the past, but at least IMRO are there to fight on behalf of the workers!"
So just how will the competition work? " Firstly the ground rules are that the competition is open to solo performers only, and they must be aged between 18 -25. Players will be allowed to have one accompanist only during the events, it is definitely not a band competition. To enter players must send a demo tape to the Harcourt, this will be the first filter, tapes can be done on domestic equipment, you don't have to go to the trouble and expense of going into a studio. There will be heats every Tuesday here in the Harcourt from the end of November until late February. During January and February there will be a series of six regional heats, in some of the best venues in the country, all of which are used to hosting the cream of traditional players. The aim is for the performers on the night to pay three pieces, and we'll plan the events very much like a gig, to give the audience light and shade, we want this to be good music and top-drawer entertainment. The venues have been chosen because they already have great reputations amongst the professional players and they can provide PA facilities that will get the best from the musicians."
Finally who will judge the competitions? "Ah now, that is a bit of a secret, the format will be one very well known professional musician to chair a panel of three judges at each night; let's say the judges will know the business and will know what they are looking for!"
Please support the competitions, there will be no door charges on the nights, so come along and hear some of the finest young talent in the country, but do remember these are listening gigs. Look out for the eye catching posters, that feature one of Christy McNamara's famous Living Note photographs, courtesy of O'Brien press, and who knows one or two names that appear on them could be the stars of the next millennium!
Dublin heats The Harcourt Hotel Every Tuesday from 17th November 98
Belfast (Rotterdam Bar) Tues 19th January
Waterford (Mooney's Bar, Ring) Tues 26th Jan
Cork (Lobby Bar) Wed 3rd Feb.
Sligo (Sheela Na Gig) Tues 9th Feb
Mayo Matt Molloys Westport) Tues 16th Feb
Galway (Roisib Dubh) Tues 23rd Feb
The Semi Finals and Finals will be recorded for broadcasting by RTE Radio 1 and will be held in the Harcourt Dublin in early spring.
Photo Credit: All photos by The Mollis
Second photo: Danú; third photo: Simon Thoumire with Keep it Up
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