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It’s in the blood! A short history of the Kilfenora Céilí Band by their leader, John Lynch

It’s in the blood!

100 Year Band – The Kilfenora!
A band celebrating 100 years on the road. How often does it happen? Kilfenora is a small agricultural village in the Burren, that unique rock-desert in the west of Ireland. It's a quiet place with a reputation for small scale farming and Gaelic football and, in many ways, an unlikely setting for a musical saga.

To generations of Irish traditional music devotees, the village is known as the birthplace and home of Kilfenora Céilí Band.

Enduring many peaks and troughs since its formation in 1909, the group has almost died many times but rose phoenix-like from the ashes. This resilient group of musicians have managed, many times against the odds, to keep a culture not just alive - but alive and kicking. 2009, in particular, proved to be frenetic, what with an entire festival in their honour in March, the issuing of a new landmark album called Century, and numerous high profile events including their documentary on national television.

Background
What has set the Kilfenora apart is their longevity. While others adapted or followed fashionable change much to their own detriment and ultimate demise, the Kilfenoras have continued to perform and tour sporadically since their formation almost one hundred years ago.

The Kilfenora motto in the early years was ‘you don't play to be listened to. You play to be danced to’. That is the distinctive aspect of Kilfenora music. It's all about lift and rhythm.

The earliest newspaper reference to a band in the area was made in The Clare Journal, 1888 which reported on the ‘Kilfenora Band’ who played outside the courthouse in Ennis as an expression of solidarity for a group of local land activists who were being tried for a raid during which a constable had been killed. This fife and drum band gradually evolved into a more serious brass and reed band and eventually, in 1909, these military-style ensembles spawned the first Céilí band which had a residency in the local school house for nearly ten years, playing mainly fund-raising gigs for the renovation of the local church. This was very much a dance band. They were also often engaged for organised events in hotels or in ‘big houses’, some of which had their own private ballroom.

Following the civil war, a more inward-looking puritanical mood began to grip the clergy and in 1935 the Government introduced a public dance hall act that adversely affected the practice of holding dances in houses. The Kilfenoras embraced this change while remaining true to their origins and continued to enjoy great popularity both at home and abroad during the late 1940s when locals would gather around the one radio in the village to hear a live broadcast.

By the 1950s the band was in such demand that pianist, Kitty Linnane assumed the task of secretary and grew into the role of leader of the band for the next forty years. But the popularity of the band reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s when céilí bands competed against one another at fleadh ceoils around the country where the electric atmosphere was akin to that of an all-Ireland hurling final, with supporters cheering on the home side. Friendly rivalry between bands such as the Tulla and the Kilfenora Céilí bands is now the stuff of folklore.

In 1958, 1973 and 1974, The Kilfenora recorded two albums but by the late 1970s people began to desert the poorly-lit and badly heated barns of dancehalls for the comfort of the pubs. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a set dancing revival had swept the traditional music world. From 1993 to 1995, a younger generation Kilfenora Céilí Band replicated the three-in-a-row All-Ireland winning feat of the 1950s band and since the mid-nineties, a further four albums have been recorded by them.

2009 marked the centenary celebration of The Kilfenora. Not only was this an historic milestone for the band itself but a reminder that Irish culture and traditions are thriving and have survived the test of time.

The Kilfenora Céilí Band
The Kilfenora Céilí Band. Photo © Anthony Quigley

The ten-piece band features three fiddles (Anne Rynne, Pat Lynch and Annemarie McCormack), two flutes (Anthony Quigney and Garry Shannon), two sqeezeboxes (Tim Collins and his wife, Claire Griffin), banjo and leader (John Lynch), drums (Sean Griffin) and piano (Fintan McMahon).

The current lineup has been together by and large for 17 years under the leadership of John Lynch. With the previous generation advancing in age, the band was going through something of a hiatus in the early 1990s, and then John emerged. He proved quite conservative to begin with and they confined their activity to rehearsal and competition. However they took on some gigs and the bug took hold. They couldn’t believe it when they were being invited to Britain, France, America and elsewhere, but within a few years they were taking it in their stride. They often play for dancers but in recent years have moved further towards concert performances and this has proved successful. Their forte is instrumental music with some harmony and a driving rhythm. They also have profitably collaborated with vocalists and invariably include a singer or two in concert.

The formula has enabled them to travel extensively to many lands, including cruise tours of the Mediterranean. They have sold out the Irish National Concert Hall in Dublin and are regulars at the major festivals such as Glastonbury and Milwaukee Irish Fest. The typical show has a big screen back-drop featuring iconic images from the hundred years through which they survived. It juxtaposes the global and the local with imagery and video clips which greatly enhance the audience experience. In July 2009 the band played in the Swiss National Stadium in Berne for 48,000 people in aid of the Manuela Riedo Foundation.

The current crop are gradually introducing younger blood to the lineup and thus aim to perpetuate their success. Whatever the future holds, the object of the present band is to continue in the style of their predecessors. By staying true to traditional instrumentation and repertoire and applying some judicious innovation, they are determined to cement their tradition and secure the future and while so doing reach yet another generation of audiences.

As they say themselves, ‘It's in the blood’.

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