My journey with Irish music and Comhaltas 

by Ali Cahill

Haigh a chairde, my name’s Ali Cahill and here’s the story of my journey with Irish music and Comhaltas.

I was blessed that I got into music at such a young age and have grown up encased by whirring notes, tapping feet and gorgeous music. I vividly remember attending tin whistle classes with TP McNamara in Lisselton National School which I started around the age of six. Those classes were always a bit of craic. We learned our tunes and practiced our notes but we always had fun with TP; not to mention the few milseán at the end of class which kept us quiet!

A few years later I began learning classical piano but I was unexpectedly roped into vamping for an U12 céilí band that same year. This would be the first Irish music competition I would ever enter: my first county fleadh which was held in Ballybunion. I can remember so well sitting in the Tinteán Theatre with Mom (who still has never missed a Fleadh with me!) and watching a girl much older than me play a strange instrument, which turned out to be a flute! It was love at first sound and I knew that the flute was the instrument I was going to play forever. I was right!

James Dillon was my first flute teacher. He had an Eamon Cotter flute and I knew that that was the one I wanted. I couldn’t wait to receive it and sound just like my teacher! Of course, when the flute was finally made and I collected it, I couldn’t blow into it at all! My tiny fingers struggled to cover the finger holes and my lungs hadn’t the capacity for blowing up a balloon, let alone for making shapes with a flute! However, I didn’t become disheartened and ‘played’ it the whole car journey home and I’m playing it ever since.

As fate would have it I met my next flute teacher in a classical music recital when I was about eleven. This was Matt Dean and for the next few years I would be under his guidance. Matt and I became the best of friends and still are to this day. Matt really helped me improve my playing and I have him to thank for my successes at fleadhs.

Of course your main teacher is who you learn the most from but I believe that I developed my own style of playing thanks to the countless music workshops I attended throughout the years. One of the most influential of these temporary tutors has to be Conall Ó Gráda, a legendry flute player from Cork who I met at my first year of attending Scoil Samhradh Willie Clancy in Miltown Malbay. I was taught by him and Tara Diamond for the week and I couldn’t believe how much I learned from them. I loved his more powerful style of playing and I had his album memorised by the end of the week. It was in this workshop that I was first introduced to the more uncommon tune types, ones rarely played in Kerry. I learned my first Highland and my first fling that week and it set alight my love for more unusual tune types and a more neo-trad style of playing. Since then I have attended Willie Clancy every year, and it’s always the highlight of my summer. I have met some of my best friends there and even though we often don’t see each other from one Willie Clancy to the next, every year it’s like no time has passed. We all meet up together and live our best lives for the week; playing in sessions all afternoon, trad discos at night and tunes until the wee hours of the morning… A trad musician’s dream!

While I have lots of interests: a proud Gaeilgeóir, reading, walking, travelling etc.,  music is my first love and it has granted me my dream job; music teacher. Words cannot explain the pride and joy I have in this role. I teach both children and adults alike flute, tin whistle and piano. There is no greater sense of pride than passing on something you love to another person. I feel so privileged to be able to do so. I also teach group lessons with Ballydonoghue/Lisselton, the very branch where I attended my first music lessons and where I’ve been a member and competed with for the last number of years. All the teachers I’ve had there over the years have had such an impact on my musical journey and I’m overjoyed to be in the same role now.

I hope I can continue to teach and promote Irish music for as long as I live. Irish music forms a huge part of our cultural identity as a nation; it’s a tradition handed down from generation to generation and it has such a special place in my heart. As the saying goes: Ní saol gan ceol ná grá!