Lifestyle – Award winning folk and bluegrass group We Banjo 3 are making waves on both sides of the Atlantic with their unique sound and high-energy shows. Back from a five-week American tour, Enda Scahill of the group tells LAURA VARLEY about life on the road, being home and giving back to society.
Galway trad and bluegrass group, We Banjo 3, who have just landed home from a five-week US tour will barely have a chance to let the dust settle from that trip before they’re heading Stateside again. The band, made up of brothers Enda and Fergal Scahill from Corofin and Martin and David Howley from Ardrahan, are hugely popular across the Atlantic, having worked hard at honing their considerable talent here and abroad.
The four play a mix of traditional Irish and bluegrass music, colloquially called ‘Celtgrass’, as We Banjo 3 founding member Enda Scahill explains.
And, as one of the biggest Irish folk bands in the US, the four have played to more than 150,000 people in the last five weeks on their US tour, which started in New York and finished in Milwaukee.
“We headline at Milwaukee Irish Festival and we have between 10,000 and 15,000 people each night,” says Enda. “We’ve been doing that for eight years so we have built up a huge US following.”
Enda’s earliest musical influences include banjo and fiddle player Gerry O’ Connor and accordion player Máirtín O’ Connor of De Dannan and Riverdance fame. He can recall them playing sessions in his family home in Corofin when he was a child.
He began learning music at school, taking up and loving the banjo at the age of eight.
While working as an Environmental Health Officer with the HSE, Enda gathered together fellow banjo-players Martin and David Howley – who have engineering backgrounds – and they gigged when they had time, playing a blend of Irish, old-time and bluegrass music. Enda’s brother, multi-instrumentalist Fergal joined them for their first ever Milwaukee performance.
Since then, success for the band has included five critically-acclaimed albums. Their first, The Roots of the Banjo Tree, was one of the most praised albums of 2012, winning the Irish Times Trad Album of the Year award, while their most recent, Haven, enjoyed top billing on the bluegrass Billboard charts in US. At home, it won the Best Folk album in RTÉ Radio 1’s inaugural Folk Awards last year, as voted by listeners to the station.
While the banjo was and remains central to the group, other musical layers have been added, with fiddle, mandolin, guitar, percussion all featuring while David Howley’s talent as a singer and songwriter has also revealed itself.
The group tour for five months of the year, but Enda and the lads show no signs of slowing down. And they won’t be resting on their laurels while at home.
“We have an Irish tour which will include a night in Dublin, two nights in Cork, a night in Galway and a night in Derry. Then we will have a few weeks off and it is back to the US,” he explains.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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American visitors’ emotional trip to grave of their long-gone Galway ancestors
To find a place in the world where you belong outside the place where you grew up is how Cameo Wood describes returning to the home of her three-times great-grandparents in Kilchreest.
Cameo, who first landed on Irish soil eleven years ago, shortly after discovering her roots, returned this week with 30 members of her extended family to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors who left Galway in the early 1900s.
Discovering that connection, over a century after her relatives set foot on a ship bound for the USA, has led her family to discover a past they never knew they had.
“In 2011, someone associated with Ireland Reaching Out [Ireland XO] contacted me and said they had been clearing out Killinane Graveyard and said ‘we found your ancestors and if you come, we’ll show you where they lived, what they did and how they spent their time’,” says Cameo of the discovery.
“That sounded pretty good,” she laughs. “You hear that you might be Irish but what are you going to do – go to Dublin and look at a harp and then go home? That wouldn’t be very interesting.”
What was interesting was finding a long-forgotten connection with a place that extended her roots from Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, across the Atlantic to Kilchreest where her three-times great-grandparents, Pat Ball and Margaret Donohue, are buried.
It was their daughter, Jane Agnes Ball who married Kilkenny man George Daniels and moved to the US, beginning the journey that led 30 of their descendants back to Galway this summer.
Cameo’s awareness of her Irish roots only came about after hearing from Ireland XO – an organisation founded by Galway man Mike Feerick – while there had been rumours of a connection with the ‘old sod’, they’re not uncommon in America, she laughs.
“No one ever mentioned we were Irish. I sort of happened on a tiny link, but I was 90% sure it wasn’t true because all Americans like to think they’re Irish and Native American – and they never are!”
Now San Francisco-based, Cameo is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker but was working in tech in 2011 and it was while she was selling her company to Google that she was contacted by Mike Feerick of Ireland XO.
Standing in Woodville Gardens just outside Kilchreest, she says since that first trip to Galway in 2011, the connection has been re-established, and it’s thriving.
“We’re here in Woodville and Margarita [Donohue] who runs it remembers me. And we were just in the Village Inn in Kilchreest which I was referred to – I already had a connection.
“I can go to a bar in Loughrea and embarrassingly order my Guinness with blackcurrant syrup, because they know how I like it – and I can take 30 members of my family with me because we already know people, and that’s exciting,” says Cameo.
The complexities of Irish history at the turn of the 20th Century may have complicated matters, she says of their lost heritage, because her ancestors were Protestants and left Ireland as the push for independence intensified.
“After I made the first trip, I came back and was talking to my cousins and I was saying, ‘I think we’re definitely Irish, but it’s a weird kind of Irish because we’re Protestants’, and there were questions about if Protestants could even be Irish,” she laughs.
While many here would associate Massachusetts with the Irish-American community, Pittsfield where her family is from is a long way from the Boston-Irish, as Cameo explains.
“It’s far away from Boston and we don’t have a lot of ideas of culture there because, for whatever reason, once you’re in the Berkshires, you’re ‘Berkshires’ and wherever you came from, it doesn’t matter. And that’s true for a lot of America where there’s this funny uneasiness with heritage.
“Everyone’s American, but you forget where you came from. It may also have been the case that being an Irish person in the early 1900s wasn’t a plus, so it’s possible it fell away for that reason,” she continues.
It was as Cameo filled her relatives in on their Irish connection that the idea of a family trip grew legs.
“There’s these people at Ancestry.com who have a really big team here and they did a ton of research, and they used the research that I got from Ireland XO as part of a book they were putting together.
“I’d been involving my family and getting pictures and quotes and suddenly, everyone was like, ‘wait, we are Irish – this is amazing’!”
Ancestry help families organise this type of trip, says Cameo, and once word spread that she was planning a return, the numbers kept growing.
“At first, it was only going to be five or six people and . . . word of mouth spread that if you were a family member to Cameo, you could go to Ireland. Now we’re finally here.”
As part of their eight-day tour of the country, they took in Dublin, Galway and Clare, but their trip to Kilkenny was special. There, they met direct descendants of their two-times great-grandfather.
“We’re all very wary about claiming to be Irish because we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but now some of my cousins got tattoos saying they’re Irish, so we’re fully in,” she jokes.
“Thirty members of my family are going through this together and it is an experience we can communicate through the generations. We were just reading how my third-great-grandfather went to Salamanca and Rochester, New York, and then came back to Kilchreest, so we’ve always been travellers across the Atlantic and now we can continue to come back.
“I’m the organiser of the trip and my goal is to leave people feeling that this is the place they belong in the world, other than their hometown – this is their second hometown. I want them to feel like they have a local pub to go to and that they feel like they could take their children and their friends in 10 or 20 years and feel like they know the area and are comfortable here,” says Cameo.
Minister rebuffs calls to lower air fares for islanders
Efforts to extend reduced public transport fares to Galway’s offshore islands have been rebuffed again.
Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív (FF) has been campaigning for months to have reduced passenger fares that apply to public transport on the mainland, introduced to the islands.
The former Gaeltacht Minister had lobbied Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys on several occasions to extend the reduced fares to the Aran Islands and Inishbofin.
In the latest response to a Parliamentary Question tabled by Deputy Ó Cuív, Minister Humphreys has again resisted calls to extend the discounted fares to islanders.
In the reply she said that residents of Ireland’s 19 offshore islands already enjoy ferry fares that are at least 20% cheaper than visitors.
Minister Humphreys said, “any unilateral action to alter the terms of the existing contracts could represent a breach of contract and bring the entire procurement process into disrepute”. This, she argued, “could have a detrimental impact on the ongoing operation of these vital services”.
Minister Humphreys said that her Department, “will continue to examine ways of ensuring affordability and sustainability of island transport, both within existing contracts and in future”.
Deputy Ó Cuív suggested he had been led on a merry dance over the past few months and said the Minister never intended to reduce fares for islanders.
“It is now clear from this reply that the Minister, on advice from the Department, never intended reducing the passenger fares to the islands in line with the reduction in the rest of the country and that all the replies I got were just a push off without basis. One of the things mentioned in previous replies was that subsidised services could not be in direct competition with non-subsidised services. It is clear from the reply that the Department do not even know if such a situation exists,” Deputy Ó Cuív added.
Galway must ‘sort itself out on the tourism front’
Galway risks losing its reputation as a go-to destination for Irish tourists unless the city’s ‘overall package’ is revitalised.
That’s according to a local councillor who says sky-high hotel prices and anti-social behaviour problems in the city were serving as a deterrent for would-be visitors.
Cllr Mike Crowe (FF) said as people became more prudent with their spending amid a cost-of-living crisis, few would be willing to fork out €500 for a weekend in Galway.
“People want to feel that they are getting some value and they’re certainly not feeling it this year.
“While it’s not only Galway where this is an issue, the prices are too high and people are more concerned with what they’re spending at the moment,” said Cllr Crowe.
A survey of available hotel rooms carried out by the Connacht Tribune this week showed that for two adults to share a double room in Galway City for the weekend of August 26 to 28, the average cost was €560.
The cheapest room available was at a hotel 7km outside the city centre, at a cost of €409 for the same two nights.
By comparison, the average room cost for the same weekend in Limerick was €450 – including a stay at a five-star hotel.
Dublin prices remain way above any of the regional cities, with punters expected to come up with more than €700 for even the most basic property for the last weekend in August.
However, Cllr Crowe said Galway had to stop the rot before the good work done to attract tourists prior to the pandemic was lost for good.
“The vast majority of people are not going to stay in any city where an ordinary weekend in August will cost them more than €300, not to mind €400 and €500.
“Put simply, people want to get a fair product for a fair price,” he said.
A proportion of hotel rooms were facilitating refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere, he said, which was reducing the overall number available and this was having an impact on supply, said Cllr Crowe.
In addition, the city had struggled to compete with the on-course entertainment provided for racegoers in July, with city centre businesses struggling as a result, he continued.
“What we’re offering here at the moment is not at the level it needs to be at. Ultimately, the rooms are too dear but that is just one factor – the city is too dirty as well.
“From an experience point of view, if you’re walking from Bohermore or College Road down through the spine of the city as far as Salmon Weir Bridge, the city is dirty. There are neglected buildings, gangs are drinking at various corners, there are issues with begging and all of that is acting as a deterrent,” said the Fianna Fáil councillor.
Galway was fortunate that representatives had worked for years to protect the business element in the city centre core, said Cllr Crowe, avoiding the problems faced by cities like Limerick and Cork where their shopping core was now located outside the city at suburban shopping centres.
“We have been lobbied for decades to ensure that the shopping experience was kept in town and we have done, but now all business owners need to step up and do their bit to keep the areas around their premises.
“The Environment Section in Galway City Council also needs to get the finger out and make sure the city is clean,” he said.
Cllr Crowe called for a joined-up approach, to include city councillors and the Council Executive, Gardaí, the tourism industry and local businesses.
“We all need to come together and look at what we’re offering as a city and I think if everyone was honest, they would say what we’re offering at the moment is not up to standard.
“We need to do it because if we don’t, the great progress that was made in the past will be lost,” he said.