County Westmeath normally keeps a pretty low profile. A few tourists do manage to discover this gem in the middle of Ireland, but most stick to the more well-known destinations such as Dublin, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Cork. But this August, the eyes of Ireland – and Irish music lovers everywhere – are on Mullingar, a town in County Westmeath that is hosting Fleadh Cheoil 2023.
Pronounced fl-aah key-ole, the event is an annual celebration of Irish traditional music. Ireland’s first decades as an independent nation saw a huge push to revive the culture and language, and trad music is really the heartbeat of Irish culture. It’s one of the most beloved Irish gifts to the world, as evidenced by the number of musicians and dancers who travel here for the Fleadh Cheoil every year.
In 1951, a group of Dublin trad musicians travelled to Mullingar to meet up with their County Westmeath counterparts and address an apparent decline in the popularity of Irish traditional music. They set up an organisation now known as Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann to promote trad music, and the first fleadh was held in Mullingar in 1952.
When the fleadh is on, it is everything. The streets are lined with performers day and night, and the fields around the town are used for parking and camping. Pubs overflow with customers and music spilling into the streets – which are pedestrianized for the week of the fleadh. Formal competitions are held in venues around the town, while larger acts play in ticketed venues. But the heart of it is on the streets – young children playing junior sized fiddles, new trad bands seizing the opportunity to be heard, ordinary middle aged people dusting off Irish dance steps learned in childhood and older folks showing everyone that talent and love of music are ageless.
What Else is Mullingar Known For?
If Mullingar sounds familiar, it might be because it is the hometown of singer Niall Horan of One Direction or because you are lucky enough to own one of the beautiful Irish gifts made by Mullingar Pewter. Singer Joe Dolan, who topped the charts in Ireland for decades while North America remained largely unaware, is another musical Mullingar native. Fans of The Dubliners will recognize the town from their song The Rocky Road to Dublin. James Joyce lived in Mullingar briefly.
The town is surrounded by gorgeous lakes, including Lough Derravarra, which is the setting for the Irish myth The Children of Lir. (A statue depicting the swans in the story is a focal point of Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance.) The Royal Canal winds through the town along with the River Brosna. A short drive from Mullingar lies the tiny village of Fore; the extensive ruins of Fore Abbey are arguably one of Ireland’s best-kept tourism secrets.
The fleadh is held in different locations, but in years it is held in other towns, Mullingar and County Westmeath are home to a thriving music scene with trad, rock and pop bands performing in pubs. It’s a haven for creativity and heritage – the two essential ingredients of all Irish gifts.