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Inishowen Singing Festival Experience

15 May 2018

DkIT music student Lee Harding was the 2018 recipient of the Inishown International Folk Song and Ballad Seminar bursary for students. 

He enjoyed an incredibe experience between 23-26 March, during which time he was immersed in the song traditions and inspired by both the community and the surroundings, and shares his reflections: Inishowen is the largest peninsula on the island of Ireland and includes the most northerly point – Malin Head. Stretching across county Donegal, Inishowen is a credit for its beautiful environment, friendly community and, of course, its 4G mobile data.

In Inishowen, there is a fine selection of activities from horseback riding tours to historic sites such as the Doagh Famine Village. However, nothing appears to be more popular and rich in the community than music, specifically their traditional Irish roots (which show no signs of dying with the younger generations). I was fortunate to attend the annual Inishowen Singing Festival, which first started around 1989 and celebrated its 29th anniversary this year. The importance of the Inishown International Folk Song and Ballad Seminar consumed my thoughts during four and a half hours on the McGinley’s bus from Ardee directly to the front doors of the Ballyliffin Hotel. As I came closer and closer to my destination, I began to become more aware of my surroundings as we seemed to go back in time. Nestled in the rural landscape, Ballyliffen is a bustling little town. With three to four different hotels surrounding the centre of the town, I learned very quickly how big a tourist attraction the Inishowen peninsula is. My experience of the festival had positives, negatives and weird experiences. Coming from a non-traditional music background, I found the festival to be a completely new cultural experience – but something I was willing to give a chance. I quickly became acquainted with a local man who made sure to always have me included, Colm Toland from Clonmany who had a rich history in the Inishowen singing traditions. Through him I gained a large understanding of the history behind the festival and community.

I was surprised to learn that people come from Scotland, Wales, Germany and many other parts of the world to listen and learn from others. The environment had no judgement, but it is secure on its concept of treating the voice as a solo instrument. The Inishowen singing tradition is focused on telling the story. As Colm Toland had said to me,

“You can make a mistake in the melody, that is fine. What is important is the story; and if you mess that up, well then people may be annoyed with you then”.

I was not the only bursary student at the festival and I quickly made friends with students from UCC and UL. We shared opinions and ideas on the topics ranging from coffee to what is traditional singing, all eager to learn about the tradition. I found that my questions about Irish song traditions could be answered through those who I met. The importance of the Inishowen Singing Festival is the community, and though it has its mix of progressive and traditional ideas – no one can ignore the power of singing and how it can bring people together. I thoroughly enjoyed my opportunity, which has given me a deeper insight into the culture, place and traditions that I experienced. I hope to bring this experience with me in my future studies and my own development as a singer.

For more information, please contact:

Adele Commins


You can also visit the website:

Inishowen Singing