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Songs and stories
Mairtin de Cogain brings the beat to the Savannah Irish Festival
In addition to his musical talents, Mairtin de Cogain is an actor. He played an IRA soldier in the 2006 film "The Wind That Shakes the Barley."

Mairtin de Cogain is the leader of the Fuchsia Band, a popular and successful quartet of lads that play traditional Irish music right off the streets of their native County Cork.

But de Cogain, who recently relocated to Minnesota (!), also works with an ever–changing roster of acoustic players from the U.S.A. This, he calls the Mairtin de Cogain Project, and it’s never the same. “It’s whatever can get me out of bed, and brandish new socks on my feet every Christmas,” he says.

For the 2011 Savannah Irish Festival, Feb. 18–20, de Cogain – he’s a singer, bodhran player, storyteller and the possessor of a quick Leprechaunish wit – will perform with the Mississippi–based trad trio Legacy. He says Legacy is “one of the greatest Irish bands in the South of America.”

Other performers at the Irish Fest include the Cathie Ryan Band, Gabriel Donohue and Dierdre Connolly, the Ennis Sisters, Sean O’se and Harry O’Donoghue. There’ll be plenty of dancing, traditional Irish storytelling and a number of historical lectures and conversations. And a children’s stage, too.

Twice now, de Cogain has won the All–Ireland Storytelling award. He speaks fluent Gaelic, he can spin quite a yarn, he has dark eyes that twinkle mischievously – and he’s known to stretch the truth from time to time.

All of which are required if one is inclined to carry on the traditions of the classic Irish seanachie, or storyteller.

“Storytelling is full of boobytraps,” de Cogain explains. “The main idea is to lead someone on a path they’re not sure that they want to go on. And then as soon as they’re delighted to be there, you pull the rug from under their feet and display what you’re really trying to show them.”

The Irish, he adds, are quick to shrug off things like awards. “To win it was great, and to win it a second time was fantastic. But you still have to go home, and your father will step tell you that you got one or two things a bit off, and you could make it a bit better here, and a bit better there.

“When I got it, it really kind of instilled that I could take it with me forever. Because like most of modern life, anything that was seen as great in the past is obviously defunct and useless! With modern technology, why do you need storytelling when you can play bowling on Wii?”

Indeed. In pre–Wii times (the prehistoric era, children) the seanachie would travel from village to village. “He would earn his bread by telling stories,” de Cogain says, “and he wouldn’t be welcomed too long if he wasn’t entertaining. He would stay in a house. And each night, he would tell stories.”

Then, as now, the entertainer had to grab the audience from the get–go.

“It’s fair enough to have an hysterical story, or a story that’s good quality or good technique, but if it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to sit there.

“You can’t hold people’s attention, you know? And that’s the same with anything in all forms of presentation art. If you can’t capture the people’s attention there and then, you’re at a loss.”

This, de Cogain explains, is why Irish musicians consider themselves, first and foremost, entertainers. Traditionally, they had to bring it with them, and that’s something that stays in the blood.

Everyone in the “days of old” had a “party piece,” a song, a story or a dance they would perform on those occasions when everyone got together.

“When you came to a house for a party, you had to bring your own entertainment, because people didn’t have television, or movies,” he says. “Most people wouldn’t have had books, or the ability to read them.”

One of the best–known parts of a de Cogain performance is the Brush Dance. He’s been known to lead the entire audience for a few happy go–rounds.

“It’s changed over time, and there’s millions of variants of it,” he says. “I learned it off my brother, and we did it in kilts the first time, up in Scotland at a big dinner dance. For a party piece.

“On the West Coast, around Galway, they would have done the Half Door Dance – they’d dance a slip jig around a half–door on the ground. It had four pints of stout around it, and whoever spilt the least got to drink what was left.”

  In the north of Ireland, de Cogain says, they have a Chair Dance and a Cap Dance.

“Of course, on the East Coast they still have the profitable Lap Dance. Most people don’t bring that abroad.” 

Savannah Irish Festival

Where: Savannah Civic Center's Martin Luther King Arena, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: 10:15 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20; Noon-7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21

Tickets: $12 per day, or $16 for both days

Irish cieli (dance): At 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18 in the ballroom ($5)


Saturday, Feb. 20:

Main Stage

10:15 a.m.: Opening Ceremony St. Vincent's Academy Chorale

Savannah Pipe & Drum Band

11:45 a.m.: The Irish Dancers of Savannah

12:45 p.m.: Legacy

1:45 p.m.: Gabriel Donohue & Deirdre Connolly

2:45 p.m.: Brendan Nolan

3:45 p.m.: Glor na h'Eireann, The Pride of Ireland School of Irish Dance

4:45 p.m.:The Ennis Sisters

5:45 p.m.: The Cathie Ryan Band

6:45 p.m.: Legacy with Mairtin de Cogain

Kevin Barry's Pub Stage

11:45 a.m.: Savannah Ceili Band

12:45 p.m.: Brendan Nolan

1:45 p.m.: The Ennis Sisters

2:45 p.m.: The Cathie Ryan Band

3:45 p.m.: Legacy with Mairtin de Cogain

4:45 p.m.: Gabriel Donohue & Deirdre Connolly

Buttimer Family Cultural Stage

12:15 p.m.: Bill Gillespie: "Irish-American participation in the U.S. Civil War"

1:15 p.m. Mairtin de Cogain (seanachie)

2:15 p.m.: Harry O'Donoghue and friends perform and discuss their songs

4 p.m. - Sean O'Se with Professor Matthew Allen - the legendary singer will perform and show portions of a recent movie on his life

Sunday, Feb. 21

Main Stage

12 p.m.: Glor na h'Eireann

1 p.m.: Gabriel Donohue & Deirdre Connolly

2 p.m.: The Ennis Sisters

3 p.m.: Irish Dancers of Savannah

4 p.m.: Legacy with Mairtin de Cogain

5 p.m.: The Cathie Ryan Band

6 p.m.: Final Tribute to Volunteers

Kevin Barry's Pub Stage

12 p.m.: Savannah Ceili Band

1 p.m.: Legacy with Mairtin de Cogain

2 p.m.: Harry O'Donoghue

3 p.m.: Brendan Nolan

4 p.m.: The Ennis Sisters

5 p.m.: Gabriel Donohue & Deirdre Connolly

Buttimer Family Cultural Stage

1 p.m.: Jimmy Buttimer: "Servants of God and Man: Irish Religious Women in the South in the Civil War."

2 p.m.: Bill Gillespie: "Irish-American participation in the U.S. Civil War"

3 p.m.: Mairtin de Cogain (seanachie)

4 p.m.: 2:15 p.m.: Harry O'Donoghue and friends perform and discuss their songs