Athy in recent years has started to establish for itself a reputation for innovative and interesting weekend festivals. We have just had the Canal Festival which brought colour, excitement and an array of interesting vintage canal boats to the town which owed much of its development in its middle years to the coming of the Grand Canal in 1791. In October we will have the Shackleton Autumn School, now in its fifth year, which brings to Athy each year a veritable galaxy of writers and lecturers from overseas as well as from Ireland. In between these two festivals comes the longest running Athy festival, now in its 14th year. Athy’s Bluegrass Festival is a truly international occasion which each year brings to our town musicians and singers from the American continent.
The first Bluegrass Festival to take place in Ireland was held in Athy in 1991. What you may ask is Bluegrass music and what connection has it got with Athy. For the answer to the first question I have to go to the Oxford Guide to American Culture which describes Bluegrass music as “a type of country music of the Southern States of America with fast strong rhythm played on stringed instruments, especially guitars and banjos.” Those in the know explain Bluegrass music by reference to the work of Bill Monroe, the son of Scottish emigrants to America who sixty years ago began to fuse Blues music with jazz, folk music and most of all with Irish and Scottish fiddle music to create a sound he called after his home state of Kentucky. “The Bluegrass State”, as it is known, gave us the name Bluegrass music which is generally played by musicians with five stringed banjos, fiddles, mandolins, guitars and base fiddles.
For the link between Athy and Bluegrass I go back 20 years when Martin Cooney from Bray, just outside the town, started a Bluegrass band which he called “Woodworm”. Martin is an exceptionally fine banjo player who has graced the Irish traditional music scene for many years. His musical tastes are not however confined to the ancient airs and rhythms of Celtic music. The experimental range of Bluegrass music provides an interesting contrast with Irish traditional music where melody and rhythm are paramount and the Woodworm Bluegrass Band soon became fine exponents of Bluegrass music. Before long they found an appreciative audience for what was, to Irish ears at least, a new and exciting musical sound. Wordworm included, in addition to Martin, Liam Wright and John Joe Brennan, all of whom played together for about four years. After Woodworm came the Flint Hill Boys comprising Martin Cooney, Dick Gladney from Carlow, Gerry Madden from Waterford, Tom Poole of Newbridge and Athy’s Clem O’Brien. Regular Bluegrass sessions were played in the Smugglers Bar which at that time was being run by the energetic and enterprising Dave Henshaw and his wife Pat. Dave is never one to turn a blind eye to an opportunity to develop the social and cultural horizons of his adopted town and before long the Bluegrass Festival was born. In its infancy it was the child of Dave, with the help of Robert Redmond and John Luttrell, who encouraged and assisted by the local Chamber of Commerce organised the first Bluegrass Festival in 1991.
In the intervening years it has had many different venues, ranging from Athy’s largest venue, Dreamland Ballroom, to a pub venue courtesy of Smuggler’s Pub and in more recent years to the G.A.A. Centre at Geraldine Park.
Over the years Athy has played host to many of the top names in Bluegrass from both America and Europe. Names such as Butch Waller and High Country, Homer Ledford and Cabin Creek, the Blue Velvet Band, Bob Paisley and Southern grass and many many more, too numerous to mention, have all graced the stages of various Bluegrass music festivals in Athy since 1991. As for the local musicians whose early sessions led to the setting up of the festival, Martin Cooney has returned to Irish traditional music, while Clem O’Brien and Dick Gladney are now part of the Niall Toner band. Clem has also been playing for the past year with The Chieftains lead by uileann piper Paddy Moloney. Ireland’s most famous musical ambassadors, The Chieftains, have been on the go since 1963 when the first group came together to record an album for Claddagh Records. There are a number of interesting Athy connections with The Chieftains apart from Clem O’Brien’s present involvement with the group. Paddy Moloney’s father lived, or indeed may have originated from the Castlemitchell area. I am not quite sure of his exact connection with that area but do recall hearing of it many years ago. One of the original members of the Chieftains and of the earlier Ceoltoiri Chualann formed by the late Sean O’Riada was flute player Michael Tubridy, brother of Eddie who retired some years ago as a teacher in the local Vocational School.
Bluegrass music is popular all year round in Athy and the local Bluegrass band, “Woodbine” features Tony O’Brien, Liam Wright, Nicola O’Brien, Paddy and Robert Chanders.
The Bluegrass Festival takes place on the weekend of the 14th to 17th July with three top American bands flying into Ireland to play here in Athy. Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike will be joined by another American group, Potomac Crossing and the appearance of Gary Ferguson and Gail Wade is awaited with interest. Irish Bluegrass musicians who will be featured during the festival includes Athy’s own Woodbine, Carmel and the Rover, Kevin and Geraldine Gill, Prison Love and The Niall Toner Band. On the opening night, Thursday, 14th July, the music of The Southern States will be heard in the recently opened Clanard Hotel and on the following three nights of the festival, Athy’s Rugby Club provides the venue.
It promises to be a great music festival. If like me you know nothing of Bluegrass music, then now is the opportunity to hear modern exponents of this relatively new music genre over the weekend of the 14th to 17th July. Tony O’Brien and Robert Chanders Senior are now the driving force behind the Bluegrass Festival and have managed to keep it going despite the many financial difficulties over the years. The Bluegrass Festival is an extremely important event in the social life of our town and is fully deserving of whatever support the townspeople of Athy can give it.