On the trail of traditional Irish music in County Clare

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Clare is rich in traditional music, and you’ll never miss a session if you know where to go, writes Deanna O’Connor.

*This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of our sister publication, Ireland of the Welcomes.

Maura O’Connell, Martin Hayes, Willie Clancy, the Kilfenora Céilí Band, even if you’re not a fan of traditional Irish music, some of Banner County’s famous sons and daughters names will ring a bell. Clare is a source of musical talent, so when I decided I wanted to learn to play, this seemed like the place to go. For years I had wished I could play the Irish harp, and one day I decided, why not?!

Somewhat by chance, a quick internet search brought up an intensive week-long course, led by Janet Harbison, the grande dame of the Irish harp, in the beautiful surroundings of the Boghill Center in Co Clare. It was time to sink or swim. Buying a harp is an investment of thousands of dollars, and I figured I’d know by the end of the week if it was a worthwhile investment (I didn’t play any instrument of music at this point, so it was really a leap into the unknown).

Magic in the bog

The Boghill Centre, run by a Dutchwoman, Sonja O’Brien, is an eco-friendly residential location and organic farm set in 50 acres of natural bog; it hosts everything from yoga retreats to traditional Irish music weeks. Sonja has lived in the area for over 25 years and, as an accomplished violinist, is active in the local music scene. While I joined the dedicated harp group, she took a mixed lesson for the week – a group of Irish and American friends who regularly played music together, on a variety of instruments. They had traveled from their homes in the United States to combine a holiday in this scenic region with a week of masterclasses to learn more traditional Irish tunes.

Our base for the week was magical – close to nature and with delights to discover across the estate, from a stone circle to a labyrinth to hand-built cob houses. We were served delicious organic vegetarian meals, sourced from vegetable gardens and orchards. The center hosts ‘woofers’ – volunteers who learn natural methods of growing food through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) organization.

During the week, based in Boghill, we attended our masterclasses in the mornings, and in the afternoons we had time for individual lessons, as well as walks and outings to explore the beautiful landscape of the Burren, the remarkable limestone landscape that harbors a unique blend of geology and flora.

Poulnabrone Dolmen, in the Burren, County Clare.

The session

Each evening we took off to sample the musical delights of a different city, from the famous ceilí band near Kilfenora (still going strong after over 100 years), to sessions in the pubs of Ennistymon, Doolin and more Again. The beauty of Clare is that, at less than 100km end to end, its compact size allows you to see every corner from a central base. The most modest exterior of a small pub in a country town can hide a plethora of talent, spending hours of an evening playing traditional Irish tunes in a ‘session’. All comers are welcome, the only prerequisite is that you can play or stand up and sing a tune.

Doolin, County Clare.

Doolin, County Clare.

Much Irish music is passed down or learned by ear, so many musicians with a good command of their instrument will find they can attend a session and pick up the melody, as it is played in repetitive rounds, or at less join in some backing chords.

Here’s a tip: the tin flute is both much easier to learn and much easier to transport than a harp! Most Irish children will learn the tin whistle in primary school, and for many citizens of Clare, Custy’s Traditional Irish Music Shop was where they were taken to choose their first instrument. The fiddle and accordion are two of the most commonly used instruments for playing Irish tunes, along with the flute and Uileann pipes.

*This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of our sister publication, Ireland of the Welcomes.

Festivals found

As the birthplace of traditional music, the annual festival calendar in a normal year is extensive. The season begins in February and continues until the end of October. The Russell Memorial Weekend kicks off, in Doolin the last weekend of February. The festival began in 1995 with a remembrance ceremony for Micho Russell, the world renowned traditional musician, who died in 1994. In 2006, at the request of the Russell family, the festival was renamed Russell Memorial Weekend in memory of the three Russells brothers and two sisters; Micho, Gussie, Brigid, Packie and Mary Kate.

One of the best-known events of the Irish Music Year is the Willie Clancy Summer School, a week-long event, with traditional music and dance lessons, held in Miltown Malbay in early July. The first and largest of these events, it was envisioned by the city’s best-known uilleann piper, Willie Clancy, and implemented to commemorate him, following his death in 1973. In addition to lessons and organized conferences, dozens of impromptu sessions take place every night. , where the cream of Irish traditional musicians come to teach, gather and do what they do best: play music.

The beginning of September sees the Crotty Galvin Weekend in Moyasta, which commemorates three of the city’s most famous musicians: Ellen (Nell) Galvin (1887-1961), PJ Crotty (1946-2005) and Peadar Crotty (1940-2009). The small town, located between Kilkee and Kilrush, is also home to the family business Galvin Moyasta oysters. Harvested from the certified Grade A waters of Poulnasherry Bay – named after the Irish word for ‘oyster hole’ – they are of exceptional quality and a must for seafood lovers visiting the region. Once COVID-19 restrictions permit, the farm tour is a fascinating insight into this delicious and highly nutritious food.

More than music

Another stop for those wishing to combine the sensual delights of food and music on their trip to Co Clare is the Burren Smokehouse Visitor Centre. The award-winning smokehouse was established in 1989 by Swedish Birgitta Hedin-Curtin and her Irish husband Peter Curtin, in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare. The daughter of a hunter, Birgitta brought her knowledge of self-sufficiency and quality produce to her business and the business is renowned for using the finest organic Irish salmon, mackerel, trout and mackerel.

Enjoying the Burren, County Clare.

Enjoying the Burren, County Clare.

From the Burren Smokehouse it is only a short drive to the famous Cliffs of Moher, Clare’s best-known tourist attraction, stretching 8km along the coast, reaching heights of 214 m. No image, or any of their film appearances (The Princess Bride, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Leap Year) can ever prepare you for the scale and grandeur of the sight.

There is so much more to say: the excellent restaurants and cafes, the charming towns, the lakes and rivers, not to mention the 11 top quality golf courses. For a small county, Clare packs a lot, it’s hard to know where to start. My advice: just follow the music.

*This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of our sister publication, Ireland of the Welcomes.

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