Cavan singer Thomas Hughes, a first year student on the BA (Hons) Applied Music programme at DkIT was recently awarded a bursary to attend the annual Inishowen Folk Song and Ballad Seminar from 24–27 March. Participation in the festival provided Thomas with opportunities to meet and learn from other singers, add to his repertoire of song and experience the culture and heritage of the Inishowen peninsula.
At DkIT Thomas studies a wide range of musics including popular, jazz, classical and traditional music but the weekend in Inishowen provided him with an immersive experience in traditional singing. Having grown up singing and competing in various contexts including Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, this was somewhat familiar territory for Thomas.
Amongst his favourite experiences over the weekend was a fieldtrip to Urras on the edge of the peninsula on the Saturday morning. The groups learned a number of songs on the journey as they enjoyed the scenery. Here they saw the sign, “Welcome to Amazing Grace country”, which refers to the story of events that led Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807) to write the lyrics to the famous song following a storm in the North Atlantic, after which he found refuge near Lough Swilly. Thomas enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the many singing sessions, which changed his perspective on singing: “As I am from a competitive background where forgetting words is frowned upon I had all my songs down to a tee but soon found out that that wasn’t necessary. I loved the relaxed atmosphere about the whole situation. If you forgot your words there was always someone there to help you out. Nobody cared as long as you took part.”
One notable performer present at the festival was Rita Gallagher. Thomas remembers “When I was younger I remember my singing teacher talking about Rita Gallagher. It was great to finally meet her in the flesh and hear her sing in person”. From south Donegal and a three-time winner at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Rita is a popular figure at festivals, singing weekends and workshops where her easy, gentle style draws people into the songs. In 2010, Rita released a CD called The May Morning Dew and she was awarded the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Award for Traditional Singer in 2017.
After his eventful weekend, Thomas returned to DkIT to finish the first year of his studies but, before the examinations begin, he will perform as a soloist in a concert at Birr Castle at the invitation of Lord and Lady Rosse. Commenting on his experience in Donegal, Thomas says: “The festival will aid my studies a lot in DKIT as I have received more material which can be used as part of my studies. It also taught me to be more relaxed and enjoy myself more when I am singing.”
For more information on opportunities to study music at Dundalk Institute of Technology see https://www.dkit.ie/creative-arts-media-music