In 1997, two local musicians specializing in traditional Irish music sat down for a meeting. Mike Mullins and Michael “Piper” Cooney were looking for help from The Focal Point Center for Traditional Arts on an event that would share Irish music with the St. Louis community. Judy Stein, then-operator of Focal Point, agreed to support the mission—“and the rest was history,” Mullins says.
From that discussion sprang St. Louis Tionól, a festival celebrating Irish musical tradition and culture. The event’s first-ever concert was such a success that attendees didn’t want to go home.
“The concert was still going at 1:30 in the morning,” Mullins says. “A coworker of mine who was attending later said to me, ‘We left at 11 p.m. because it was obvious that everyone there was having way too much fun for this to end early.’”
The event will mark its 25th anniversary this year from April 20-23, with Mullins continuing to serve as the main organizer. Mullins began his piping career in the ‘60s, playing the Highland bagpipes with a local group. It took another two decades before he could get his hands on a set of uilleann pipes—the national bagpipe of Ireland—which, Mullins says, had gone “almost extinct.” While there were a few pipers around in cities like Chicago and Detroit, there was nobody else playing the instrument in St. Louis at the time. Through the structure of the Tionól, which translates to “a gathering with the intent to share,” Mullins was able to pass along his passion for the instrument.
The 25th Tionól’s itinerary includes two concerts: one on Friday night at Focal Point and another on Saturday night at The Sheldon. The heart of the festival, though, is the more intimate gatherings that take place during the day. Workshops of varying skill levels connect attendees with renowned teachers in sounds from the banjo to the bouzouki. New skills can then be applied in sessions, which are informal gatherings where small groups join to play songs, share stories, and remember past festivals. Mullins estimates that the better players know upward of 1,000 tunes by heart.
“It’s something that you can’t really explain to people until they’ve been a part of it,” Mullins says. “It’s as much a social event as it is a music event. Sitting in a session with people that you know, playing tunes, there’s a significant amount of time spent chatting and catching up…that’s what makes it so special.”
The energy of an in-person session is difficult to replicate, Mullins says. That became especially clear at the height of the pandemic. In 2020, the Tionól was only five weeks away when it had to be canceled. Then, in 2021, a virtual version was hosted instead. When the festival returned to a limited in-person modality last year, those sessions felt even more special.
At this year’s anniversary, Mullins is hoping for a return to the festival’s usual capacity of around 120 attendees. Guests can expect all of the Tionól’s memorable traditions, including a Sunday brunch at John D. McGurk’s to cap off the weekend. For Mullins, the event is a labor of love. Aside from sharing his knowledge at the Tionól, Mullins taught both his son and daughter how to play the uilleann pipes. His daughter will be flying in for the occasion.
“[The Tionól] is a way of sharing traditional Irish music and the culture that allowed it to flourish with others who love it and who want to learn more,” Mullins says. “It’s only with the help of so many talented teachers, and attendees, over the years that a lot of people have had a chance to experience a unique piece of a culture that so many of us in this country can trace our heritage to.”