The North Texas Irish Festival has always been about the music.
In 1983, four Irish music aficionados were searching for a venue to perform Irish music. They organized an Irish party at a bar and featured six bands.
They were overwhelmed when 600 people attended.
This year’s North Texas Irish Festival at Fair Park from March 3 - 5 features dancers, storytellers, food, crafts, equestrian shows, blacksmithing and sheep herding, but music is the festival’s main attraction.
“The music has always been the center point of the festival. It was created by musicians, for musicians. It’s at the heart of it,” Sheri Bush, the entertainment director of the festival and the president of the Southwest Celtic Music Association, said.
The festival draws approximately 60,000 people and attracts bands from all over the world.
Irish music is diverse and when Bush considers performers, she wants bands who are as exciting as they are varied.
“When I go looking for talent, I’m looking for that thing that makes me sit up and listen. I want that thing that make me go, ‘Oh my, come to me,’” Bush said.
This year’s festival includes Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Chris Newman, a harpist and guitarist duo who have been festival favorites for more than 20 years, and Breaking Trad, a band making their first appearance at the North Texas Irish Festival.
Gordon McLeod and Betsy Cummings, members of the band Beyond the Pale, explain the differences between some of the Irish musical genres.
“Traditional music in the context of Irish music means instrumental performance of the traditional dance music of Ireland (jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, etc.) interspersed with traditional Irish songs. In this context, it is often popularly referred to as ‘trad’ music,” McLeod said.
“Manx traditional music shares many of the same characteristics with its neighbors. The Isle of Man is centrally positioned between Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, and draws musical influences from each area. However, a large distinction is Manx music also has Norwegian influences. While sharing common ground with its Celtic cousins and English tradition, Manx music has retained its own particular and inherent Manxness. The fiddle, harp, guitar, tin whistle and accordion are all part of the island’s musical history,” Cummings said.
“In its broadest sense, folk music is the music of the common people of any region. However, in modern music business usage, it has come to mean largely original songs written and performed by singer-songwriters on acoustic instruments, dominated by acoustic guitar, with an emphasis on lyrics and largely focused on personal or socially meaningful topic,” McLeod said.
One of the folk bands featured in the festival is High Kings, Ireland’s Folk Band of the year.
Brian Dunphy and Darren Holden, members of the four-man band, endured Texas’ summer heat while performing with Riverdance before joining High Kings. When the group formed in 2008, American audiences embraced them,
“American audiences seem to connect with us Irish boys, as possibly our approach to life and music is a little more laid back and not particularly manic. Also, the music and lyrics come directly from the heart,” Holden said.
Dunphy believes the band’s music communicates a shared heritage.
“Irish music seems to resonate through people with our history and being able to retell these heart-wrenching and wonderful stories is something we give back,” Dunphy said.
The High Kings were part of the St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations at the White House in March 2012. They performed for President Barack Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
“As an entertainer, I have toured many incredible places throughout the world, but being invited to the White House was quite overwhelming and exciting. The Obamas were very warm and generous with their time,” Dunphy said.
The High Kings are eager to share one of the most distinctive characteristics of Irish culture.
“Music is how we communicate with the world and connect with other walks of life. For such a small country, we have been lucky to have so many major artists come from the Emerald Isle. U2, The Script, The Corrs, Van Morrison…the list goes on and on. You walk into any pub in Ireland and you are guaranteed to hear Irish traditional music. It’s who we are,” Holden said.
Appreciating Irish music is an emotional journey.
“The audience should pay attention to the overall sound of the music which can be at turns exciting, virtuosic, haunting, beautiful, elegant, exotic, frenetic, but always intricate, compelling, nuanced and articulate and usually very danceable. When listening carefully, the skill of the musicians will be readily apparent as well as the homey, accessible and familiar quality of the music. It is uplifting and transporting,” McLeod said. “Finally, to get the very most out of the music, it should be listened to with the heart and the body.”