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Haley Richardson

For a fleeting moment, 10-year-old Haley Richardson knew what it was like to finish first in the under-12 fiddle competition at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. The Fleadh is something like the world series of Irish music, held just a couple of weeks ago in County Cavan.

After blazing through traditional tunes, “The Old Gray Goose” and “Trim the Velvet,” Haley found herself tied for first with a young man from County Laois, with the unquestionably Irish name of Senan Ó Móráin. Both were called back to play another tune. The judges asked Haley to play “Dowd’s Reel.” Ó Móráin edged her out.

But still—an American kid in a field of more than 20 players, most of them Irish, coming in second at 10 years old. It’s certainly no longer unheard of for a Yank to place at the Fleadh, but it’s a thrill nonetheless.

Haley is one of two local kids, both members of the all-kids Next Generation traditional music group, who fared exceptionally well in Cavan. Harper Emily Safko tied for third, and then was called back. She finished in fourth place.

Back at home in South Jersey, Haley seems pleased with the result, but otherwise unfazed. She’s been playing since she was 3, and competing for the past several years. Including this year, she has competed in the Fleadh Cheoil four times. In March, she shared the Kimmel Center stage with the Chieftains. As anyone who has heard her play can attest—and in any traditional Irish music session, she more than holds her own with experienced adult players—this gifted blonde-haired sprite of a fiddler is already an old hand.

“I just felt like I did the best I could do, and really couldn’t do any better,” she says. “I didn’t think I would win; I never thought I would place. All the other kids were from Ireland, so I never thought I would win, coming from the United States.”

“I was just really happy that I placed. I thought that someday I might place, but I didn’t think it would be this time.”

Kathy DeAngelo was Haley’s teacher for two years. She, together with husband Dennis Gormley and fiddler pal Chris Brennan Hagy, run the Next Generation Irish traditional music group, all kids. Haley has been a member for years. Though Irish players frequently win, she sees signs that the playing field might be becoming a bit more level.

“Everybody says it’s rare that Americans win. That may have been the case 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s not rare anymore. The level of playing here has gotten so much better here the last 10 or 15 years.”

DeAngelo says she, Dennis and Chris encourage Next Gen kids go to the Fleadh, but not just for the competition. “We think of it more like putting a bug in the kids’ ears. We’ve always been a proponent of going over there, not just for the Fleadh but for the Scoil Éigse. (Classes and workshops.) Sometimes you can get the feeling over here like you’re the big fish in a little pond. Over there, the level of play is so high hopefully it’s an inspiration.”

Of course, the non-stop music that occurs around the Fleadh town is also a draw.

“You can go into any building at any time of day, and there will be somebody playing,” says Haley, “which I think is really cool.”

Haley’s mom Donna is thrilled, of course.

“I was surprised that she placed, but I thought it was about time. She has gone for a number of years, and played really well,” she says. “I trust that she’ll do her best. She seems to take it all in stride, whether she wins or loses. I prepare her the best I can, but she goes out and does her thing, and we’ll see what happens.”

More Fleadh coverage next week, with a profile of harper Emily Safko.

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