The statistics speak for themselves: in 2016, the branch’s fifty-ninth year, the Irish Minstrels sent forward one hundred and twenty qualified competitors to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, the all-Ireland music championships.
As the most important event in the Irish traditional music calendar the championships attract musicians from all over the world and no branch of Comhaltas anywhere last year produced more competitors than Glasgow’s long-running success story.
The Irish Minstrels is the oldest and largest branch of Comhaltas in Britain and was the first to be formed outside of Ireland. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann itself had been formed in Ireland in 1951 and when news of its success in promoting traditional music began to reach Owen Kelly, a Cavan native living in Glasgow, he discussed this with his friend, the fiddler and composer Jimmy McHugh, and in January 1957 the Irish Minstrels was formed.
The success that the branch enjoys today is in itself a tradition. In 1957, Jimmy McHugh won the All-Ireland fiddle competition in Dungarvan and the following year, Pat McNulty, whom Jimmy had encouraged to join the branch, won the uilleann piping title. That same year Owen Kelly himself came second in the men’s ballad singing event.
At this time pub sessions had yet to become established in Glasgow, so weekly sessions were held in church halls and other venues, including the A.O.H. Hall in Royston Road, with a ceili taking place once a month. The early years of the branch included hosting the first All-Britain Fleadh in Partick Burgh Halls in 1964, with branches from Birmingham and London providing the competition, and a much bigger version in 1968, when fund-raising activities attracted the attention of the local constabulary, who were concerned that the committee might be running shebeens.
In the 1970s the image of traditional music underwent a change when groups including Planxty and the Bothy Band attracted a young audience with their powerful and exciting tune sets and soulful singing. At this point Frank McArdle, a school teacher, became involved in the branch and from 1977 he introduced a youth policy. By no means a master of all instruments, as he is quick to point out, Frank was still able to impart the basics to young students, among whom were players who were able to listen to recordings, quickly learn new tunes and share them with their fellow participants in weekly sessions, firstly at the Diocesan Centre and then at the short-lived Irish Centre.
By 1985, these Tuesday sessions had moved to St Roch’s Secondary School in Royston and it’s here that the Irish Minstrels continue to thrive. The St Roch’s Ceili Band is a byword for excellence in Irish traditional music learning. Players in the under 12, under 15, under 18 and senior age groups are encouraged to express themselves on fiddle, piano and button accordion, concertina, whistle, flute, banjo and mandolin and the twenty tutors who coach the two hundred students every week all give their services free as a sign of their commitment to the music.
A number of significant players have come through the Irish Minstrels. Accordionist Paddy Callaghan, who became the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2013 is a prominent member of the team and other outstanding achievements include Johnny Canning becoming All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Champion, Gavin Pennycook winning the under-12 fiddle title, Mairi Therese Deighan winning the flute section three times, and Kevin Murphy the piano accordion section three times. And as the branch celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, more talent seems certain to follow.