Interview with Festival Director and musician Brent Cassidy ahead of the Irish Festival of Oulu in northern Finland

We caught up with Festival Director and musician Brent Cassidy originally from North Carolina in the US but now proudly promoting Irish music and culture through the most northerly Irish festival in the world - The Irish Festival of Oulu , located in northern Finland.

Irish Festival Oulu

How and why did Brent Cassidy from the USA set up and Irish festival in northern Finland?

Irish music has been in Oulu for close to nearly 30 years. When I came to Finland to live in the year 2000 I felt the urge to do some research on my Irish roots which were based back to my surname of Cassidy of course. That period for me was the time when my passion for Ireland and its music and culture really took off. I took particular interest in the instrument of the bodhrán and started practicing. As my skills improved with this great instrument I knew there were some local Irish musicians in Oulu so I gave them a call (We had no Facebook back then) to try and organise some small sessions. The small sessions were great and they happened more and more frequently. 

Over time our small sessions got bigger and bigger to the extent that we all decided to set up an Irish Music Society here in Oulu. At the opening party of our new society we realised that it was so popular that we actually decided to set up a festival. That’s essentially how we set up the festival with the first one taking place in 2006. A lot of people were sceptical in that we were in Northern Finland and that an Irish festival may not actually work but for me I just had the passion and enthusiasm just to play more Irish music that we gave it a shot anyway. For our 10th year the Irish Festival of Oulu will have an extra day turning the festival into a 6 day long celebration. 

Where did your passion for Ireland and its culture come from?

Well I was always curious of my Irish roots which were my Grandparents and when I did move to Finland access to Ireland was easier so I went over a few times and I really fell in love with the place and specifically its music. My love for the country, its people and traditions continued to grow and after visiting the Gaeltacht in Donegal several times and hearing Irish Gaelic, I decided to learn it myself. Soon after, I met Eddie Keenan, the dad of my friend Eamonn and he inspired me to start my journey with Irish language and just 2 years ago received the Fáinne Óir. So since then my passion has just grown and grown and we now have this festival that is a complete passion project with a group of people whose passion has also grown over time.

What presence does the Irish society have in the small city of Oulu?

The Irish music society has approximately 150 members but the group of musicians would be about 15. These musicians have become very skilled and experienced due to the success and inspiration from the festival. Many have excelled to a high level of musicianship and performed alongside professional Irish musicians, too. Our sessions are lively and inviting and we have had guests attend from Sweden and throughout Finland. The musicians, craic and tradition here in Oulu also continues to inspire new musicians all the time so we like to think we are very much contributing to the tradition of Irish music. 

Especially now with our sessions you don’t even have to advertise any more as people will just come along which really shows the growth of the Irish society here in Oulu. There is even an Irish dance group here called ‘Irish Dance Oulu’ who are at a really high level. Also the growth has been shown in the numbers of people who have come to our festival over the years and in 2006 we had about 1,800 attendees and in 2013 we had over 8,000 so over the past ten years over 60,000 people have come to our Irish Festival which is incredible. The Helsinki Times even wrote that “Oulu is Finland’s Irish Culture mecca” back in 2013 and this year for our 10th year anniversary we are expecting close to 8,500.

That is an incredible amount of people! How many people live in Oulu?

I guess about 196,000 live in the city and municipality. 

How many Irish people are living in Oulu?

Probably no more than 10 Irish people live in Oulu, but I am not sure to be exact. But now we even have a Gaelic Football club called the ‘The Oulu Irish Elks’ founded and managed by Donegal man Cathaoir Sóna. The really interesting thing is that a lot of these activities, clubs and societies have all come out of the festival which really is fantastic. In fact the Elks are the world’s most northern GAA team.

What is it about Nordics passion about Irish culture?

I have played music throughout Finland and in Copenhagen and Rome, and my only guess is first of all that Irish culture is very popular globally as one can see from all of the Irish pubs in every major city. Irish culture is not too far off Nordic culture especially musical culture and they can relate to that. But mainly it’s popular because its full of energy, lively and full of rich history that in some way or another anyone can maybe relate too.

Is Nordic music similar to Irish music?

Yes I think it is similar but also very different.  Many musicians in Finland also play some Irish instruments such as accordion, fiddle, guitar, banjo and guitar. Finnish music is dance music and you can just about find the fiddle anywhere really.

Do you listen to Nordic music yourself?

Yes I like Scandinavian folk music such as Baltic Crossing, Frigg and what is also interesting about Sweden and Finland is that they also have their own bagpipes.

You mentioned earlier that you play the bodhrán, do you think there is a trick to learning the bodhrán?

The thing about the bodhrán is that you need to have a sense of music and rhythm and so like with everything else it really is all about practicing and listening to the music and to other musicians.  To me it’s the heartbeat of Irish music. For anybody that wants to learn the bodhrán I would suggest sitting and listening to some sessions, learning session etiquette and find someone who knows how to play and learn it.

All of these particular attendees are Irish culture fans but you have also mentioned that you attract visitors from all over the world.  From what countries do people travel from?

Scotland, UK, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Australia, USA, Poland, Spain, Brazil. All of these attendees are Ireland fans and it really shows how popular Irish culture is worldwide.

Why should people go to the Festival of Oulu?

To put it simply people should come along to the Irish Festival of Oulu to experience the magic of Irish culture in Northern Finland. 

The Irish Festival of Oulu is now on its 10th year taking place from September 29th  - October 4th and you can even be in with a chance of winning free tickets by entering their competition here!

Photo Credits:

- Festival Fun, credit: Juha Pekka Manninen
- Paddy Keenan, Brent Cassidy and Tommy O Sullivan, credit: Markko Törmälä


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