Though admitting to having “fallen into” doing music things, the pub Declan ran in Baltimore is where it all began for him. Having heard that Nigel Kennedy, the classical violin player was holidaying in West Cork, Declan fantasised about having the musician play in his pub. He devised the idea of a festival where a few violin and fiddle players would perform, and boldly sent an invitation letter to Kennedy’s agent in London. Though the invite never came to be, the festival took place that year and Declan never looked back.
Aside from the Fiddle Fair, Declan works every winter at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and this is where he mainly makes contacts with people in the business. He also does some tour managing and is one of the main organisers of the Skibbereen Arts Festival. I ask him if he can pick a musical highlight to date. “There’s been lots over the years. A couple of years ago we had Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Abbeystrewry Church in Skibbereen, and we’ve had an amazing night in the Town Hall a few years ago with the Blind Boys of Alabama. It was one of the best nights ever.” Declan was also instrumental in bringing Patti Smith to the Liss Ard Estate for the Cork X Southwest festival back in 2011. “That particular year we lost a lot of money,” he confesses. “There were three of us involved and financially it was a disaster, but still something to be very proud of when you look back, to bring an artist like that to Skibbereen”.
Despite having brought so many high profile artists to West Cork, the Fiddle Fair remains McCarthy’s brainchild and the one event he is most excited about. The festival changed its format over the years, moving to various locations when the pub he ran in Baltimore sold in 2004. For some time, the Fair took place at the Harbour Hotel where concerts were held every night for a week, and at the lovely Glebe Gardens, which was particularly special on sunny days. When the hotel sold in 2008, Declan found himself in a quandary and moved the evening events of the festival to the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen, a choice which proved to be very successful. The following year the Fiddle Fair returned to Baltimore with the addition of a marquee on the pier. The marquee, which hosts 300 people, is now their hub for the weekend and where most of the concerts happen, though some also take place at St Matthew’s Church, allowing the audience to get close and personal with the performers.
What makes the Fiddle Fair special is that it is small and intimate. “The festival starts every year on the Thursday where each of the pubs will host an ‘official’ couple of sessions each,” Declan explains. “Lots of musicians come with their fiddle or their guitar so there are sessions all weekend. You could go to the festival and not go to any concerts and still hear lots of great music”. Early on, Declan made the very conscious decision not to have a separate artists bar, so that audience and artists could mingle, which makes it the charm of the Fiddle Fair: artists could be playing a concert on the Friday night, but on the Saturday they could be playing a session in the pub or having lunch on the square. “It’s very much an inclusive, accessible festival,” Declan remarks. “And that’s how I’d like it to continue.”
The festival usually books thirteen visiting acts including three or four from Ireland and the rest from different countries. Aside from the live music, the event offers workshops with the musicians from the line-up, film screenings, historical walks, and more unusual happenings like boat trips around the harbour with two musicians and ten of an audience to hear some music for an hour. This year, Declan is thrilled to introduce Aidan O’Rourke’s film ‘The Ballet of A Great Disordered Heart’, which was shot during lockdown in Edinburgh where the folk musician/film director lives and offers an insight into his community and the music there.
Although the Fiddle Fair and traditional music in general tend to attract an older audience, an important part of the festival is to encourage the local kids to engage with music. Every year on the Friday morning, the festival hosts a concert for local primary schools, which is always good fun and consists of three of the acts doing 20 minutes each for about 300 children, some of whom will get up and play with the artists if they’re learning music. “I would love it if some day a kid from Baltimore performs at the festival,” Declan shares.
Over the years, the Fiddle Fair has had music from many different countries, but this year he’s especially excited to introduce acts from Finland and Estonia, none of which have performed in Ireland before. He came across ENKEL, four girls from Finland, at a music showcase in Oslo. “They’re amazing, really good but also really funny. They seemed like really good craic, so I booked them,” he says. Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves, who will perform with Ye Vagabonds on the Sunday of the festival and play bluegrass / old timey music will be a big hit with the audience too. “I know people will love them because they’re absolutely amazing.”
With the return of the most ‘famous’ Fiddle Fair act to the festival this year – The Foghorn String Band, and many other world-class musicians to boot, Declan declares: “I’m really happy with the line-up this year, it’s going to be really good!”. His enthusiasm is palpable as he says, “I’m really excited now. You have to come!”
The Baltimore Fiddle Fair takes place May 4-7. For more information and tickets, visit www.fiddlefair.com