Return to London Town Festival

 Return to London Town Festival

Festival History for

In 1999 three like-minded souls came together to discuss an idea. All felt that, after the effects of ‘The Celtic Tiger’ bringing many pub and music venue owners back to Ireland, the once booming ‘trad scene’ was becoming quieter as a result.


The three, Karen Ryan (Irish musician, teacher and director of the Festival to this day), Geoff Holland (set dance teacher) and Jerry Kivlehan (then Director of the London Irish Centre) believed it was vital to provide a high profile platform for Irish music, song and dance, where people could come together and celebrate the tradition in the capital.


The mass emigrations in Ireland of the 1940s and 50s had brought a great many traditional musicians to the major cities in England – they settled and made their lives here and in their free time, played their music, sang their songs and danced.


This was far more than just entertainment. Keeping their art and culture alive was a vital part of maintaining their identity especially given that so many found themselves living in unfamiliar environments. During the 1950s, Irish music was almost entirely unknown to mainstream society (and certainly to the media) in England. Its promotion was solely by word of mouth among the Irish community.


London, and Camden Town in particular, was the birth place of the public house ‘session’. The session as we know it, where musicians, singers, dancers and listeners gather in a pub to play and enjoy traditional music, is actually a relatively recent development. The fact that a major Irish civil engineering and construction company had (and still has) its base in the neighbouring Kentish Town, drew Irish people to the area. Many were musicians; they would meet socially in local pubs when their work was done for the day and soon began to play music together.


The first ‘Return to Camden Town Festival’ ran from Sunday 24 to Sunday 31 October 1999. Timed to coincide with the autumn half-term and based at the then newly-refurbished London Irish Centre on Camden Square, it was an immediate hit. The format was as it was last year – a week of concerts, céilís, instrumental and singing workshops (teaching and encouraging interest in Irish music, especially among younger people, was and remains a key focus), sessions and album launches. Perhaps most important, it enabled, as it has continued to this day, those who love Irish music to meet, play together and celebrate the finest traditional musicians, singers and dancers, both living and passed. Since 1999, Return to Camden Town has spawned numerous new musical collaborations, ignited and strengthened friendships within the immediate community and more widely, and helped to encourage and educate a whole generation of new exponents of the tradition.

It’s interesting to read the programme for that first Festival. Several legendary musicians, who visited us again in our 20th year, appeared on the bill. Fiddle player Bryan Rooney launched his now-classic album, The Godfather at Return to Camden Town 1999. He joined us last year with his great friend and musical colleague, John Carty. Tin whistle virtuoso Mary Bergin performed and gave a workshop, as did the great accordionist Mairtín O’Connor. 


Since 1999, an astonishing number of the great Irish traditional musicians have performed at Return to Camden Town. The Festival has grown to become an important annual focus for the Irish community in London – a strong community which continues to grow as young Irish emigrants land on new shores. It has been the catalyst for bringing Irish music to many new and mainstream venues and events in the capital.


One highlight from the first 20 years of London’s annual Festival of traditional Irish music, song and dance was the first stage performance of three legendary Donegal fiddlers: Danny Meehan, James Byrne (RIP) and Tommy Peoples (RIP), organised at the request of Danny himself. A number of young Donegal musicians were so drawn to the event that they travelled from Donegal to London (via the ferry) on the day of the event, enjoyed the concert and late night session afterwards and headed straight back to Donegal without any sleep!


Other musicians and singers featured at the Festival have included Paddy Keenan, Mary Bergin, Matt Molloy, John Carty, Cara Dillon, Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomnhaill, The Mulcahy Family and Liz Carroll.  Bands featured over the years have included Altan, Danú, Dervish, Tulla Céilí Band, Patrick Street, At the Racket, Kilfenora Céilí Band, Lúnasa, Buttons and Bows, Moving Cloud, De Dannan, The Bonny Men, Cherish the Ladies, Caladh Nua, The London Lasses and so many more…


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