July 1, 2015
Young local musicians hoping to play at Ireland’s biggest traditional music event are getting a helping hand from one of the Boston area’s most famous Irish pubs – and one of its most celebrated comic personalities.
Realta Geala, whose nearly 20 members range in age from 8 to 15, finished first in the under-15 Grupa Cheol competition at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Fleadh held during May in New Jersey, earning an invitation to the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann – the All-Ireland Fleadh, a week-long festival of competitions and other special events held in August.
So, Realta Geala (Gaelic for “bright stars”) and its adult supporters launched a fundraising campaign to send the band to Sligo, the site of this year’s fleadh. That campaign has received a major assist in the person of comedian, actor, and satirist Jimmy Tingle, a Cambridge native. Tingle, who has appeared on HBO, MSNBC, CNN, “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and elsewhere, will headline a benefit concert on July 1 at The Burren in Somerville’s Davis Square. The Boston2Ireland Trad Youth Fundraiser, hosted by Colin Hamell of Tir na Productions, also will feature performances by Realta Geala along with local band Free Shipping and Amo, a Roscommon-born singer-songwriter. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/1756529.
Another Boston2Ireland fundraiser will be held on July 25 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Melrose, where Realta Geala and many of its members’ teachers, mentors and parents will perform.
Achieving success after hard work brings a sweet taste – all the more sweet when that success is unexpected. Formed only a few years ago through the music school of Boston’s Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Realta Geala approached the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh as a building experience, something to provide both an individual and collective focus, according to co-director Sean Clohessy. The fleadh’s Grupa Cheol competition, he explains, is a demanding event in that it requires eight minutes of arranged music, with a variety of rhythms and tempos. “It’s more than just the jigs and reels,” says Clohessy, whose co-director is Kathleen Conneely. “We included a slide, slow air and a beautiful waltz composed by the great Scottish player Phil Cunningham. There’s a lot of variety, and it’s really important that everyone knows when they are playing and when they are not, to really work together as a single instrument, almost like an orchestra.”
Realta Geala was established with a deeper purpose than winning competitions, though. “We were interested in engaging a group of kids with a focus more on playing musically than the technical aspects of playing any one instrument – to create an interaction amongst the players,” says Clohessy. “This helps them understand how different instruments work and how they have to play differently and then also how to play together.” Though pleased with the band’s dedication and hard work during the past year or so, Clohessy and Conneely did not anticipate winning in its division at the fleadh.
“There are several groups throughout the Northeast, particularly in the New York and New Jersey area, that compete every year and often go to Ireland,” says Clohessy. “So we were really thrilled that we had managed to rise to that level of musicianship and been able to perform at that standard with such little experience.” Clohessy is quick to praise the efforts of not only Conneely but also previous teachers Cara Frankowicz and Christian Stevens, as well as the advice and encouragement from other teachers or musicians connected with the CCE Music School, including Pat Hutchinson and John Coyne.
The families of the Realta Geala members come in for some high praise, too – and, most of all, so do the members themselves. “We have to meet regularly, work through tunes, decide on arrangements and harmonies, and then perfect and polish our performance,” he says. “It’s been great to see them come together and progress not only in their musical abilities but also in development of musical friendships that extend beyond the classroom walls.”
The friendships go beyond the musicians, in fact, Clohessy notes, and include the teachers and parents. “It has really brought everyone together in a very positive way. Now, with several of the fundraising efforts we are championing to help offset costs, even more of the community can get involved. We like to think that for everyone who helps us by turning up to events, buying raffle tickets or supporting with donations and prizes for various raffles that they also become invested and part of our group.”
And if one might wonder about the benefits of that investment, Clohessy is more than happy to elucidate. “I have always found playing music to be such a privilege. It has brought me to places that I would never have anticipated and helped me to meet so many wonderful and interesting people. Realta Geala is about something more than just learning music; it’s about engaging with everyone around you through your music, and working in the group itself. You understand that you have to pull your weight and perform not only for yourself, but also those that are in the group with you.
“It’s a real voyage of discovery for all of us. I think that everyone –students, teachers and parents – has learnt something over the last year or so as we have pulled all of this together.
Kathleen and I have had just the best time working with this group, and we always try to get the kids to understand that while it’s important to play in a correct way, it’s just as important to have fun while you do so. In fact, having fun with it is often more important than being perfect at it.”
The All-Ireland Fleadh will be an awfully big stage for Realta Geala, but Clohessy says the objective is clear: “We want to perform to the absolute best of our abilities and show everyone in Ireland what we are doing and how vibrant and alive Irish music is here in Boston. The standards are extremely high, so the experience alone will be an eye-opener, and hopefully provide plenty inspiration for our young musicians. It will also enable them to understand first-hand the kinds of aspirations that we as teachers have for them, what we believe they can achieve.”
For information about Realta Geala, including details on the two fundraising concerts and how to make donations, see the website realtagealafleadh.weebly.com.