September 2, 2022

Claire Vanorny and Ryan Behnke bring home silver medals from the All Ireland Fleadh

By Brian Miller, CIM instructor and director of the u18 céilí band

This August, eighteen Center for Irish Music students travelled to Mullingar, Ireland for the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (All Ireland Fleadh). Fourteen youths and three adults attended Monday-Thursday music classes through the Fleadh’s Scoil Éigse program and six students (plus CIM instructor Ryan Behnke) competed in the All Ireland music competitions on the weekend. I was lucky to make the trip myself as a CIM instructor. CIM fiddle teacher Mary Vanorny was also there for the full week with her family.

Located about an hour west of Dublin in County Westmeath, Mullingar worked out to be a great host town for the event. After a busy opening night on the preceding Sunday (President Higgins was in town) Scoil Éigse classes began and we settled in to the rhythm of the week. Those of us not attending classes had plenty of time to savor our tea and explore Mullingar and the surrounding area. (Resident CIM blueberry connoisseur Bev O’Connor kept the O’Connor-Ford-Miller house supplied with the best of the local market each day!) Classes wrapped up each afternoon and some attended the 3pm concerts featuring the Scoil Éigse tutors in the beautiful Mullingar Arts Centre. Others took their instruments downtown to try busking for a few euros.


Claire Vanorny showing off her second place medal in fiddle slow airs. 


Alex, Vivienne, Ben and Cora Ebinger busking

Busking at the Fleadh is a thriving tradition and by the end of the week, there were buskers of all ages in front of nearly every shop window in Mullingar. The four Ebinger kids from CIM loved busking and earned enough to buy themselves a complete set of fleadh hoodies (over €100—paid all in coins of course). String-loving CIM students Derek Anderson, Morien McBurnie and Owen Larsen (aka Twice Banjaxed) fell in love with the temporary Fleadh banjo shop and became regular visitors between bouts of busking. The trio was interviewed by the local paper and performed live on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta!

A couple families were lucky to find accommodation in the Bed and Breakfast above Kerrigan’s pub just north of the town center and that became our defacto meeting place each evening. With Guinness and Club Orange available and a fish and chips counter around the corner we were well stocked. These times sharing stories from the day (and the night before) at the picnic tables behind the pub were rich community-building experiences full of laughter and friendship.

Columbia Session

CIM students sessioning at the Columbia pub

Some nights, we got our instruments out and started our own session at Kerrigan’s. Others, those of us who hadn’t had enough went session hunting in the multitude of Mullingar pubs. The town was ready for us and there were almost as many “Musicians Welcome” signs as eager case-toting musicians. We used WhatsApp to let each other know where the tunes were good and where seats might be available (a challenge as the week went on). The sessions were a blast and CIM kids were in the thick of it all week. They played with other young musicians from Ireland at the funky Columbia pub and with New York kids around the corner at The Druid’s Chair.

outdoor session

Session on the street with Nevellie Larson, Allegra Larson, Sky Kelsey, John Daly, Brian Miller, Derek Anderson, Morien McBurnie and Owen Larson

Friendships made over tunes often last a lifetime and the Fleadh is a great opportunity to meet up with old friends and pick up where the last set of reels left off. My own dear friends, Tommie Cunniffe and Michelle Finnerty from Cork City, came up and it was a treat to introduce the CIM musicians to their musical kids Bláithín, Sadhbh and Éanna and to play a few polkas together. We had a surprise visit from former CIM student Moira Flagstad on Saturday. She was just in time to help remove an errant pigeon that flew into Kerrigan’s and sat down next to Tommie’s accordion! Mary Vanorny and her daughter Claire chatted with 2021 Minnesota Irish Music Weekend guest fiddler Bríd Harper after her CD launch concert. Mary, Claire and Ginger Anderson also had a meet up with renowned Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll and enjoyed a few secluded tunes with her. That same night, I was walking down the rather chaotic main street with 2022 MIM guest Sky Kelsey when we ran into Limerick-based fiddler John Daly who used to live in Chicago. Several CIM students happened by at the same time and, miraculously, there were empty chairs on the sidewalk! Soon we had a magic late night session under the lights of the P.W. Shaw hardware store.

Ryan and Brian

Ryan Behnke and Brian Miller en route to the uilleann pipes competition

Competitions commenced Friday afternoon sending us to all corners of Greater Mullingar to find the various venues and support the seven CIM qualifiers who made the trip. Our musicians played beautifully and impressed all of us with their calm under pressure. CIM students competed on concertina, fiddle, fiddle slow airs, whistle, whistle slow airs, flute, flute slow airs, accompaniment, duets, miscellaneous, banjo and mandolin. Instructor Ryan Behnke entered on uilleann pipes and uilleann pipes slow airs. These musicians poured their hearts into preparing for these competitions and every performance I heard (I made it to nine!) was astounding.

Placing in the top three at the All Ireland comes from countless hours of dedicated practice and deep engagement with the music and is an amazing achievement for anyone. We were delighted on Friday evening when the news went around that Claire Vanorny had placed second in fiddle slow airs! This was the first second place earned by a CIM student at the All Ireland. Then, on Sunday, Ryan Behnke came into town with his pipes and gave us another happy surprise when he took second in the senior uilleann pipes slow airs. How wonderful to have two members of our CIM community recognized for their music in this way!

Kerrigans inside

CIM students Nevellie, Allegra, Katie and Katya.

There are way too many stories to tell from this Fleadh trip! We all came home full of memories that will last a lifetime and each time I meet a CIM student who was there, I can sense a new enthusiasm in their feeling for the music and our community. Thank you to all the incredibly supportive families and to the CIM for asking me to be part of the fun.