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First fiddle

By David Hennessy

Meabh Smyth from Armagh was the inaugural Fiddler of London back in 2021.

Although COVID restriction prevented the final taking place in person, Meabh was judged the winner from the other finalists in the online competition.

Meabh would go on to play a number of prestigious events as Fiddler of London, notably the Mayor’s St Patrick’s celebrations in Trafalgar Square.

Since then she has had further success being crowned Young Musician of the Year at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards, and receiving a BBCNI & Arts Council Young Musicians Platform Award both last year.

Ahead of this year’s Fiddler of London competition, we caught up with Meabh to relive what it was like to be the very first winner.

Meabh told The Irish World: “It was a little surreal.

“It happened in the middle of COVID so it was a distraction from everything.

“It kind of gave us a good excuse to practice up.

“I remember my sister Annie entered and she was a finalist as well, so it kind of gave us a bit of motivation in the house.

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“I was the first person to win the competition so that is always special as well even though there have been great winners since.

“It’s something that I think back very fondly on, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve got since.

“I played at Coventry at the launch of the All-Britain Fleadh.

“Mike McGoldrick and Dezi Donnelly were playing at that so we opened for them.

“That was great.

“And in September, there was (Fiddler of London) gala concert.

“The whole family went over for a weekend and that was probably the pinnacle of it.

“Then it kind of finished with Trafalgar Square and a performance which was incredibly enjoyable and worthwhile.”

Does playing to the crowd at Trafalgar Square still stand out as a highlight?

“Absolutely. Yeah, that’s a real highlight.

“I don’t even know if I expected it would be as big as it was.

“It was just surreal to be in Trafalgar Square in London: To see such a big crowd.

“Some of my friends who are living in London, I could see them in the audience.

“It was just a really good atmosphere.

“People were really supportive.

“Absolutely a highlight in my musical career to date.”

Meabh mentions ‘great winners’ to have followed her.

Una McGlinchey and Ademar O’Connor have succeeded you, is it good to be in their company?

“Absolutely, they’re fantastic musicians.

“To have my name mentioned in the same sentence as them is an honour for me.

“I’m sure they’ll continue to go on to do great things.

“I’m in good company for sure.”

You have gone on to land other prestigious awards since being crowned Fiddler of London, was Fiddler of London really the beginning of a whirlwind of great things?

“Definitely, it gave me great platform and it gave me a lot of confidence.

“I started getting kind of smaller gigs, radio, TV performances and it all just kind of built from there.

“The pinnacle was last year, I was awarded the TG4  Gradam Ceoil young Musician of the Year award.

“That was a fantastic experience.

“It was big recognition for my style of music and my family.

“We all took a lot out of it.

“And I also had an award last year, the BBCNI & Arts Council young musician award.

“One of the performances with that was to play with the Ulster Orchestra.

“That was a really special experience and totally unique.

“So yeah, there’s been a lot of good things and hopefully they’ll keep happening and I’ll keep playing music.”

Meabh has seen the competition grow in prestige since its very first year.

“It’s definitely grown in profile since.

“It’s great for young musicians to be able to look to older fiddle players and hear what they’re doing and hear the sets they put together.

“I think that’s a really important element of the competition.

“I would teach fiddle players in Armagh and I know often one of their goals is to enter the competition and to hopefully qualify someday as a finalist for it.

“It provides great motivation for them too.”

Meabh has musical siblings in Annie, Tiarnán and Aoife. Her parents Tommy and Rosie are also fiddle players so Meabh certainly comes from a musical family.

“That’s where it all started really.

“They (our parents) got us into music from a young age and it’s always been something we could do as a family.

“We all thankfully really enjoy it and get a lot of fun and reward out of playing music.”

Last year Meabh played the Trip to Birmingham Tradfest.

“That was great.

“We love Birmingham Tradfest.

“I went to one of the very first ones maybe eight or nine years ago and I’ve been a frequent attender ever since.

“It was great to get the chance to play at the most recent one in November. I really enjoyed that.

“There was a fantastic lineup of musicians and just the guys that organise it are just so passionate about music.

“It’s a pleasure to know them and to play music in Birmingham.”

Meabh works as a barrister in Dublin but still finds plenty of time for music.

“That’s nine to five and then outside of that, it’s music: Sessions, gigs, teaching in the evenings and weekends.

“It’s very much always present.

“Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do a bit of recording maybe this summer and I can focus on music a little bit more.

“I think a solo album would be the next goal if I get some time over the summer and hopefully get a few tracks laid down.

“I’m just waiting for the stars to align.

“I’d love to put out a bit of my own music.

“I couldn’t imagine life without music or playing the fiddle four or five times a week.”

It was in Meabh’s year as reigning Fiddler of London that she would come to London to play a special tribute concert for the late Brendan McGlinchey.

“Brendan McGlinchey was a very famous Armagh fiddle player who passed away during the pandemic.

“He used to based in London for a long time and so we always would have been conscious of those links.

“After Brendan died, there was a memorial concert for him that was organised by Karen Ryan so the whole family came over to play at that as well.

“That was great.

“We saw how well Brendan was appreciated and thought of and the influence he had on the London music circles.

“You can kind of see that there’s a thriving, traditional music scene there.”

Meabh would welcome the opportunity to return to the Fiddler of London as a guest or even a judge one day.

“Absolutely. I’d love to keep the links alive.

“It’s great to hear the talent and the amount of young players that are entering it.

“It seems to be going from strength to strength and I’d love to be involved and come back again in any capacity.”

The Fiddler of London Festival 2024 will take place Friday 5 and Saturday 6 April at the London Irish Centre in Camden.

The finalists going for this year’s title are Danú McKinney from Armagh, Laoise NÍ Chinnéide from Tipperary who was Up and Coming Fiddler of London 2022, Madelyn Morrell from Maine, USA, Kira Doppel from Georgia, USA, Irene Vioque Gonzalez from Madrid, Spain who returns after competing at last year’s final, Cara Conway from Glasgow, Emma Kelly from Cork, Katie Gorham from Galway, Anna McCarthy from Dublin, and Aodh MacMurchaidh from Armagh.

Meabh says: “There’s loads of worthy contenders.

“I’m sure any one of them would be a fantastic winner.

“I can’t wait to see how the competition plays out this year.”

There will also be performances from Up and Coming Fiddler of London Jack Dilleen from Co. Clare and Sult who have been announced the inaugural London Trad Group.

Esteemed judges Donal O’Connor and Michael Rooney will also perform.

MC will be revered musician Martin Donohue.

Established by Eilish- Byrne- Whelehan, The Fiddler of London is a tribute Eilish’s late husband Justin Whelehan.

For more information, click here.

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