For over a decade over the Queen's Birthday long weekend, the spectacle that is the National Celtic Festival has descended on the sleepy seaside town of Portarlington - located around half an hour south of Geelong on the Bellarine Peninsula.
The three and a bit days of the official programme were crammed full of Celtic goodness, including lectures on Irish and Scottish history, Gaelic singing and speaking lessons, music workshops, and - of course - the great and varied bill of outstanding musical acts, both local, and well-travelled.
As well as the aural festivities, the accompanying market saw a swathe of stalls and vans selling jewellery, clothing and cosmetics, through a multitude of street food vendors with traditional Scottish food, through organic ice cream and Turkish bread.
Post-arrival on the Friday evening, the festivities were off to a solid start, with people beginning to pour in from out of town for a somewhat rainy registration. We (myself and Pat Lyons) were able to meet up with fellow piper (and phenomenal Irish Dancer) from Adelaide, Connor Hoy.
After a very nice dinner in the bistro (try the local mussels!) at the Grand Hotel, we were able to get our own registrations over with, and we staked out a spot in the "Wine Bar" Marquee and await the act which had us talking for many hours before-hand, said act of course being the John McSherry Trio (later to be plus one - but more on that later!).
During the wait, many familiar faces made their way past the bar, including fellow CPC regulars Matt Horsley and Merran Moir, as well as other friends from the Melbourne session Celtic scene.
The John McSherry Trio did not disappoint. John McSherry himself on pipes and whistle, Dónal O'Connor on Fiddle, and Melbourne boy Rob Hillman on guitar and vocals, with a cracking assortment of Irish, Spanish, Cape Breton and French tunes - the forty minute show was over in the blink of an eye leaving the audience gasping for more.
Luckily, once a few more shows and drinks were downed, we made our way over to the Grand Hotel where a number of sessions were already under way. Many of the overseas performers had gathered in the front room for a ripping session, which was very much a privilege to behold.
Whilst the tunes were flowing late into the night, our Connor Hoy treated us to a live set of dances along with the excellent tunes, which not only proved to be an impressive feat (or feet?), but also netted Connor an invitation to join the John McSherry Trio on the remainder of their Australian tour!
After seeing out the frivolities of the first night, the Celtic Piping Club sprung into action with a series of official events on the program.
Firstly, a concert on the deck of the tall ship Enterprize (not quite the starship, but almost as fun!) Merran, Geoff, Matt and Andrew played a selection of tunes to introduce the lucky crowds to Scottish and Irish piping.
Following the Enterprize gig, the Piping Club hosted a well-engaged audience at St. John's Church, where they were once again treated to a great variety of piping and other musical styles.
The concert kicked off with a demonstration of small pipes, and border pipes led by Merran (Moore SSP/Garvie BP) including the tunes "Ass in the Graveyard, The Soup Dragon, and Pete and Merran's 50th Party".
Andrew Teusner (Hart SSP) then threw some the power of the voice into the mix with stirring renditions of both "Loch Tay Boat Song" and the rousing Rabbie Burns classic "A Man's a Man for a' That".
After his pair of smashing songs, Andrew regrouped with Geoff (Moore SSP), Sarah Wade (Moore SSP) and Merran to play a further bracket en masse of smallpipe tunes, being "The Piper’s Weird" and "Lindisfarne".
Interspersed between each set, Geoff relayed history and information about the pipes, piping, along with an introduction of the tunes by their respective performers.
Once the first Piping Club sets were over, our first affiliated cameo from Duck Duck Goose - Sarah Wade on the smallpipes, and Jess Foot on the oboe - the duo "At home amongst the reeds" delighted us first with "Hornpipe in D" from Handel's Water Music Suite, followed by a diversion from the British Isles towards Scandinavia with a toe-tapping selection of traditional music from Sweden in the form of a bracket of Slängpolskas.
The end of Duck Duck Goose’s interlude neatly punctuated the end of the smallpipe collection, and the beginning of the Irish uilleann Piping, with Pat Lyons introducing many in the to the still widely unknown uilleann pipes, giving a talk on the origins of the uilleann pipes from the earlier style of “union pipes”, as well as the origins of his own Geoff Wooff Bb Harrington reproduction pipes.
With Pat’s first choice of tune, the crowd was then treated to the air “Na Connery’s” - the tune to the song of the same name, which has the honour of being one of (if not the) only traditional Irish song to mention Australia, or “New South Wales” as it was then known.
After this stirring air evaporated out of the room, Pat followed up with a masterful setting of the well-known piping reel“Salamanca” taken from the playing of the late Tommy Reck.
The end of Pat’s set once again marked another shift in pitch, this time to the flat piping of Matt Horsley on his Gleeson C flat pitched pipes. Matt introduced the audience to the regulators, and their use on the pipes in accompanying the melody with simple chords, rhythm, and counter melodies (the latter most being no small feat!).
Matt started his performance first unaccompanied with the traditional Air “An Sagairtín”, followed by “Annie Shaw’s Waltz”, a lovely traditional Australian tune in the bush tradition, which fits beautifully on the pipes and regulators - allowing Matt an opportunity to showcase his graceful mastery of the instrument.
Matt was then joined by the two other members of the recently formed trad group “Trioc”, Allan Evans on harp/whistle, and Cameron Hibbs on fiddle.
The triumvirate of trad. delivered a charming selection of tunes in “The Cloon Reel”, “Kitty in the Lane”, and “The Broken Pledge”, and in doing so showed many in the audience for the first time the diversity and versatility of the uilleann Pipes in matching with other instruments to create deep and rich sound that many other trad. instruments don’t always allow.
Following the musings of Trioc, it was time for me to take to the stage, and show the audience just what exactly the concert pitch pipes they’d all been warned about were, and their own origins in the music hall tradition from great pioneers of pipe making such as the Taylor Brothers, and Leo Rowsome.
[Ed - Speaking of Leo Rowsome, here's a little documentary about Leo Rowsome as told by his friends and family that you might enjoy vimeo.com/138848121]
Matt kindly remained on stage to join in a rendition of “The Frieze Britches”, the tune to which the song “Cúnla” was written, and made famous by 70s trad. super group Planxty.
Next up, Matt tagged out and I was kindly joined by Connor Hoy playing a practice set by Davy Spillane to share a pair of reels taught to us by Jack Brennan at the Koroit Lake School, those being “Rathlin Island” and “The Famous Ballymote”.
With the reels finished, it was time for one last air from me, which was the air to the love song “An Londubh is an Chéirseach”, which at least seemed well received!
Once the CPC roster was mostly finished, all of us - CPC and the audience - were treated to an up-close-and-personal segment of tunes from John McSherry and Rob Hillman, who blew us all away with a handful of cracking dance tunes selected from the concert line-up, as well as a jaw-dropping slow air solo from John.
Once the concert was more or less wrapped up, there was a final encore performance where the whole CPC group assembled on stage with John and Rob to play a set of reels which are mutually friendly on the uilleann and Scottish pipes, being “The Silver Spear”, “The Merry Blacksmith”, and “The Humours of Tulla”.
After generous applause from the audience, there was some light Q&A followed by opportunities to try the pipes, or to see a set up-close, and an informal session at the church.
The remainder of the night was filled the familiar concerts and sessions, with another front room session at the Grand open to all where the international and local musicians put on a show to behold, including an impromptu songs in both Irish and English led by Bernadette Morris and Gerry McKeague - the like of which was very special, and left a lump in many throat, as well as a few misty eyes around the room.
For those more inclined to relaxed social sessions, there were also top class sessions happening in the other common rooms of the Grand, and a gorgeous flute and fiddle session happening on the upstairs landing with an abundance of local talent pumping out the tunes.
The next day, somewhat rough around the edges, John McSherry hosted a brilliant piping workshop (plus some whistlers who tagged along) where he taught the tune “Tatter Jack Walsh”, but more importantly, focused on the technique and musicality of the tune, imparting an overload of information on the intricacies of the tune and the ornamentation which can be used to enhance the rhythm and the quality of the melody.
John was also kind enough to accommodate a hand full of whistle players, switching to whistle and teaching ornamentation and technique seamlessly between the two groups as he made his way around the room.
For the final night, there was a somewhat quieter vibe for the Irish musicians, with a few more concerts to squeeze in, then a cruisy session on the upstairs landing.
The Scottish musicians, however, kept a ceilidh going up well past midnight in the front room, with raucous dancing, fiddling, harping, and all manner of other shenanigans.
The beginning of the final day on Monday saw the usual packing and preparations to get on the road take place, but not before a final meal from the street food market (you must try the Highlander - Tatties, neeps, gravy, black pudding, all smothering a haggis pie in flaky pastry - Amazing!).
Whilst meandering around, there was a last chance to bump into friends - both new and old - and to say our goodbyes and “until next times”, before finally going our own separate ways home.
2016 was my first time at Portarlington (both the Festival, and the town itself), but definitely won’t be the last!
I would like to extend thanks on behalf of myself, as well as all of the Celtic Piping Club members to the friends and performers who joined with us in concerts and other activities to put on a great show and bring the craic to our audience.
Also, I’d like to acknowledge and thank the National Celtic Festival for generously hosting the Club, and extending the opportunity to take part in this fantastic event.
Finally, again on behalf of myself and the Club members, I’d like to especially thank Geoff Jones for applying and organising to have all of us so well looked after at the Festival, as well as with all the other events and gatherings the Club takes part in.