Noel at the Ceannródaithe Awards Gala Dinner in Bloomfield House Hotel last night.

Fleadh veteran Noel Battle reminisces

Clodagh McKeon

‘Please God the weather will be good and the music will be mighty,” said 12-time All-Ireland mouth organ champion, Noel Battle, as he looked forward to this year’s Fleadh Cheoil.

Noel is a loyal attendee of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann and after competing in its competitions for so long, he could be considered a piece of the festival furniture. He has fond memories of Mullingar’s first fleadh, in 1963.

“I was working in Dublin at the time. I was thumbing a lift back to Mullingar on the Friday morning and was lucky to get a lift. The person who picked me up brought me the whole way down to Mullingar and when we got close, you could see the whole road was thronged with people walking.”

Noel remembers that the weather was “off the wall warm” that weekend and everyone seemed to be in high spirits.

Music festivals weren’t as popular and as accessible in the ’60s as they are now, so the Fleadh Cheoil was a huge event for people around the country. Many who played traditional music, listened to Irish music or had an interest, would be at the festival. Noel still recalls the buzz on the streets of Mullingar during that fleadh: “There were huge crowds of people.

“I spoke to a retired inspector maybe two years ago, when the fleadh was first due to be here. He told me that he was a guard in Granard in County Longford at the time of the 1963 event. He was sent to Mullingar to keep the area safe, but there were almost 100,000 people there.

“There was no traffic stopped on the streets or anything because it was the first time ever that there were such crowds in Mullingar.

“The fleadh was definitely ‘the in’ place to be during that time.”

A musical genius, Noel gifted people with his enormous talent on the mount organ and added to his mountain of medals.

He mentioned the first Fleadh Cheoil that he ever attended, which was in 1960. It was in Boyle, County Roscommon, and he competed in the U18 All-Ireland championship for the mouth organ.

Noel said that there was a “ballad boom” in ’60s and ’70s Ireland and it grew his love for traditional Irish music.

He said that if you played or sang a ballad then, you would get an even bigger turnout of people than you would now at a pop concert.

“The ballads were so strong. We had a makeshift ballad group here, a non-commercial one, I might as well tell you, but that’s what we were at. We used to play at the fleadh as well as taking part in the competitions.

“There was plenty of sport and craic, people arrived every year and some you would only see from year to year at the fleadh.

Noel has a certain grá for the festival and his town that allows him to remember the smaller details of the event that others may not.

He recalled most of the buildings that hosted musical events during the 1963 Fleadh Cheoil and he could even tell us what activities were going on there. He said: “The music went on until at least the Thursday of the following week. I remember being at a big session in The Midland Hotel on Mount Street in Mullingar, it was a big hotel that most of the fleadh was organised in.

“I took part in loads of competitions there. There were also button and piano accordion competitions down beside the Masonic Hall in town and there were loads of competitions in St Mary’s College too.

“There was also a big parade that ran at the fleadh that year. It wasn’t just an industrial parade as such, because there was comedy stuff in it too. I remember I wound up in the leg of an elephant. Don’t ask me what the elephant was doing there, I don’t know, but I remember being in the suit leg and having a little hole to look out through.”

Noel spoke of the many concerts that took place in the old Hibernian Cinema on Castle Street and in the County Hall.

“There would have been marching band competitions too that took place in Cusack Park, which is happening again this year.

“It was a busy place, hosting concerts, céilís, parades and competitions. I remember a man called Malachy Sweeney, he was from Armagh and was a part of a céilí band. He would hang on after the fleadh was over and head down to Bed, Mullingar – it was a pub on Mount Street back then, and he’d play the drums there. He was a great drummer and the fun was great there.”

The love of playing and listening to traditional Irish music has endured, and many young musicians take part in the fleadh every year.

“In my time you didn’t have to qualify for the All-Ireland, whereas now you have to compete in your county first,” said Noel.

“When I was playing in competitions, you just sent your application in, maybe three weeks in advance, and then you could compete. Now, there are just so many people wanting to take part so there had to be qualifying competitions introduced.”

Noel has noticed some great talent at the recent Fleadh Cheoil competitions and said he is looking forward to listening to the young musicians this year. “There has been a huge turnout of younger people through the last couple of years of the fleadh, which is great.”

He is hopeful that this year’s homecoming will have good weather but thinks there will be a much greater turnout of people than originally expected.

He said: “Please God, the weather will be good, and if it is, everyone will enjoy the outdoor music even more. We should have had the festival back years ago, but I’m looking forward to it now.

“I think everyone around the town is too because there seems to be huge interest this year. More businesses are getting involved this year too – which is great to see.

“People are just so grateful to have the fleadh back in Mullingar to celebrate the homecoming of traditional Irish music in the best way possible.”