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Hometown glory

Cathy Jordan, singer with the well known trad band Dervish, told David Hennessy how much she is looking forward to Fleadhfest, why she cried when she heard live music again at Return to London last year and playing traditional music to a crowd of 300,000 in Rio.

Dervish are about to headline the upcoming Fleadhfest in Sligo.

It has been a long time since the band have performed for an audience and singer Cathy Jordan can’t wait.

One of Ireland’s best known and loved traditional bands, Dervish have been going since 1989 although Cathy herself only joined in 1991.

And in her three decades with the band, Dervish had had some incredible moments.

In 2007, they represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In 2019 their most recent album, The Great Irish Song Book featured many famous names such as Andrea Corr, Steve Earle, Kate Rusby, Imelda May and even the Hollywood star Brendan Gleeson.

It was also in that year they were honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Folk Awards.  The BBC have described them as ‘an icon of Irish music’.

Of course, nobody could have known that such a great year would be followed by live music being off the agenda for such an extended time.

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Dervish were on a tour of the States and Canada when the pandemic first hit.

Cathy remembers: “We were actually in Canada. We were hanging on because it was hard to leave when there were still gigs thinking we were coming but in the end they all just buckled and we were left- Like loads of other bands, there were so many Irish bands in America in March and we were all in the same boat- Trying to get home.

“There was the fear of being locked down somewhere else.

“There was a lot of fear in the air: ‘What does a pandemic mean? Are we all going to get it. Are our friends going to die?’

“The fear was palpable back then. We’re kind of learning to live with it now and there’s an element of fear but it’s not nearly as heightened as it was back then.

“I remember, maybe just after we had arrived in America, seeing the footage from Wuhan.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s nobody on the streets’. It just looked so eerie and it was like end of days kind of stuff.

“I remember thinking, ‘If it’s there, it can get out’.

“And then there was like kind of, ‘Ah no, sure it will be fine. Certain things will stop it’.

“But slowly but surely it hit everywhere.

“We had to make it home as fast as possible.

“Airports were closing and we managed to get a flight out of Calgary and we actually went through London and London looked like business as usual.

“We had to go from Heathrow to Gatwick and London looked like nobody told them about the pandemic.

“We got home and then a few days later they (the UK) shut down.

“I quite enjoyed the break, to down tools and be at home and do other things.

“You forget what your life is like but at the same I really, really, really missed playing and missed the music.

“Hopefully at this point now we are coming out the far side and we’ll see an end to it but you never know. There’s so many variants and so many things to scupper our plans.”

Cathy filled the musical void in the same way many performers did during lockdown: By going virtual.

“It was unprecedented for everybody and it was scary so I turned to doing the thing I always did when there was any kind of angst or worry, singing. I went online every day at 5 o’clock singing old Irish songs.

“And it was great and it got me playing every day and it gave me a focus and it got me on the right track.

“After 60 days then, the lockdown and restrictions were lifted so I was able to move on and do other things from that point.

“But it helped keep the ball rolling of playing music, that’s something I never stopped doing and if I hadn’t done that 60 day thing, I might have found it harder to wean myself back playing again.”

Does Cathy find it strange to be singing to a virtual audience? “It is, of course.

“It is not what you signed up for when you became a musician. You want that audience interaction.

“Irish music to me is like a tennis game, it’s like serve and return, you know?

“If you serve it and it gets good feedback, the return to them again is even stronger and it builds a bigger and bigger and higher and higher energy.”

Dervish will be joined at the Fleadhfest in Sligo by acts such as Téada, Moxie, the Knocknashee Céilí Band and the Mairtin O’Connor Trio.

Ireland’s only major trad event this summer, the Fleadhfest will go virtual as well as selling a very limited number of tickets for the public to attend.

“It’s not the same virtually at all looking into a screen but thankfully the Fleadhfest have an audience as well as going live streaming so that will take the weirdness away because it’s very hard to perform when you know that people are watching but you can’t see them. It’s more self-conscious somehow and you don’t lose yourself in the music because it’s just not what you’re used to.

“You can get used to them but I’d rather not,” she says laughing.

Dervish were originally known as The Boys of Sligo before changing to their current moniker.

Although Cathy herself is from Roscommon, she says this will be a home town gig for her and a very special one at that.

“I’ve lived here longer now than I’ve lived in Roscommon so it really is home. It’s where I have my house, it’s where I have my cats, it’s where the car is parked and I’m very happy to have the sea very close.

“Sligo is absolutely beautiful and Roscommon is just an hour away.

“This is a very, very special gig because number one, it’s the first gig we have had with a live audience since March twelve months and number two, it’s in Sligo.

“They’re two great reasons to celebrate as far as I’m concerned.

“We will have our friends and family and so forth here. It will be great.

“People have been so starved of live music that it really will be a great celebration.”

Cathy and the band made their return to the stage when they played a pre-recorded concert for a socially distanced Return to London Town festival last year. Cathy reveals just how emotional an experience this was after not performing for some time.

“It was our first time back on stage in a long time and when I heard the tunes again, I started crying.

“It was just such a wave of emotion. To go from doing it day in day out, week in week out, year in year out for 30 years and then nothing but silence.

“I was just so overwhelmed with the emotion of the music. It’s just part of me at this point. I didn’t realise how much I had missed it. You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry.

“That was quite emotional but it was great to be able to do it.

“Technology got us through this thing in a much more emotionally intact way than if we didn’t have social media to connect with people. There would be an awful lot more worry and an awful lot more stress.

“With zoom calls, people can work and they can chat and they can make plans for the future but you feel for those that don’t have that option and are cut off from the world.”

While Cathy concedes that people in Ireland are losing patience with continued restrictions but says that the recent heatwave has been a relief to so many.

“The date of indoor dining and all that has been moved and moved and moved and it’s very frustrating.

“I guess the government can’t predict what the virus is going to do but the people are fed up and want to get on with their lives.

“Now we have a heatwave and everybody is outdoors, everybody is by the sea, outdoor dining. It isn’t a problem anymore. It’s a great panacea for us all because it has been so tough and it has been so stressful and you don’t realise how much you need to unwind.

“You’re kind of a clock spring that has been wound too tight and you don’t realise until you start relaxing and exhaling a little bit more than you did and it’s wonderful.

“It’s a great cure for the last year.”

When asked if one moment of their great career stands out, Cathy doesn’t hesitate to recall when they were the firstIrish band to play the world’s biggest music festival, Rock in Rio.

“I don’t think we could ever trump the Rock in Rio festival down in Rio De Janeiro.

“We played between Neil Young and Sheryl Crow on one day and we had their audience.

“Then the next day we played between Iron Maiden and Sepultura, to all the black t-shirted, long haired heavy metallers.

“It was just extraordinary and there was 300,000 people there and how they responded to Irish music was a really proud moment for us.

“These were reels and jigs and songs passed on for generations and to be playing them to this crowd that had never heard some of them before and how they responded and interacted with the music was extraordinary.

“They followed the rhythm and sang along and it was just an extraordinary experience.

“We’ve had others. We got to play to Japan and China and North America and Scandinavia.

“We’ve been all over the map.

“There’s a festival we play in Canada, the Edmonton Folk Festival and there’s another great one in Denmark. We always feel very privileged.

“Probably in the beginning we took them for granted but as you get older you feel very privileged. It’s a wonderful life.

“It’s not a lucrative life but it’s a wonderful one.”

A traditional music player and enthusiast as well as an actor, the Hollywood star Brendan Gleeson guested on The Rocky Road to Dublin for their 2019 album.

Cathy says he is completely down to earth in spite of his profile.

“He’s a lovely, fantastic man and he’s so personable and down to earth. There’s no airs and graces.

“He just feels like somebody you’ve known all your life. There’s no Hollywood entourage around him. He’s a normal guy going about his business and that’s what you just love about him.

“He’s such a phenomenal actor and it was an honour to work with him.”

Dervish will soon make their way over to the UK. They play the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in late August and come to tour in October.

“Absolutely (looking forward to those), I have to get my passport renewed and knock the dust off it and remember what it’s like to get on a plane and so forth and rehearse as well because you can get rusty as well.

“I did a small gig there recently and you’re walking onstage going, ‘Is this what I do? It doesn’t feel like it normally felt’.

“It felt a bit scary because I had forgotten how to ride the bike if you know what I mean.

“But once we’re onstage, it will be wonderful.”

The last time the band were in the UK they were promoting their Great Irish Song Book album and played the London Palladium when they were joined by some of their famous guest stars.

The band are now making plans to record the follow-up.

“We’re all set for the Great Irish Song Book 2. Jerry Douglas is due over to produce that in February.

“It’s back to the grindstone as if it never happened.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to  the UK, back onstage and hope to see everybody back at the venues because they’re going to need support.

“Music kept people going. There were an awful lot of online things done free of charge all through the pandemic and now musicians and venues need people to support them.”

Fleadhfest takes place in Sligo 1- 9 August. For more information, click here.

Shrewsbury Folk Festival takes place 27- 30 August. For more information, click here.

Dervish tour the UK 12- 17 October. For more information, click here.

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