Eoghan O’Sullivan explains just why Christy Moore rates Clonakilty alongside Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House.
De Barra’s Folk Club is one of the institutions of Irish music.
Situated in the heart of Clonakilty, it has brought international attention — as well as a guitar festival — to a town increasingly known for its musical heritage.
It’s no surprise that Noel Redding, one third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, moved to West Cork in the 1970s and soon became engrossed in the music scene in Clonakilty.
While some people come to the town for its food or nearby Inchydoney Beach, there’s no doubt that for many, the thriving music scene is the big draw.
The legend goes that everything was black and white in Clonakilty and then Noel and Carol, his partner, came and everything went to Technicolor.
“There was probably a spell there in the ’80s where Noel was playing seven nights a week around Clonakilty,” says Ray Blackwell, who runs De Barra’s Folk Club, the central hub of music in Clonakilty.
"And that was part of the charm of Clonakilty, part of why it’s become such a great town over the last 20 or 30 years.”
De Barras has been a pub in one way or another for about 150 years, interspersing as a bakery and grocer’s along the way, as many pubs over the decades did.
Ray’s parents moved back to Clonakilty and took over the bar on Pearse St during the recession of the early 1980s. Soon trad sessions were taking place in the snug — just inside the door on the left — with Noel Redding a regular player and musicians from all over the country calling down to join in. Soon, the Blackwells were expanding the pub, installing a folk club upstairs.
The stage has moved around over the years and is now in the backroom of De Barras.
Paddy Keenan, an uileann pipes player with the legendary Irish folk group the Bothy Band, was instrumental in setting up a Monday trad night in the 70s which is still going today.
Paddy was “one of the most amazing musicians who happened to end up in Clonakilty”, says Ray Blackwell. “Trad music is a part of all our makeup, whether we realise it or not. And we’re very proud of that.”
Christy Moore (he who famously said “There’s Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert, Sydney Opera House, then there’s De Barra’s), his younger brother Luka Bloom, and their nephew Gavin Moore (who used to work in De Barras) are still all regulars there.
The Hothouse Flowers have played here, as have the likes of Villagers, Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, the legendary banjo player Pecker Dunne, Bastille, Sharon Shannon, Bell X1, Roy Harper, and many more — not to mention the wealth of local talent coming through the folk club too, all of them mixing and learning from the older generation of musicians still playing and living in Clonakilty.
The audience is discerning, but when they like you, they really like you.
Christy Moore performing in De Barra's Folk Club, Clonakilty
“Whatever you might think yourself, they’re so discerning and know if something is good or not. Whatever type of music it is, a good band is a good band. The audience is the local bedrock,” says Ray.
The Sitting Room Sessions take place every other Wednesday, attracting a diverse collection of musicians, John Spillane has had a residency at De Barras for around 15 years, performing on the first Thursday of every month, and then there’s the Clonakilty International Guitar Festival.
Run by a not-for-profit voluntary organisation of music lovers, beginning in 2005, De Barra’s acts as the hub of the festival, though gigs take place around the town, including in the butcher’s across the road.
It grew out of the busking festival that was in the town. Ray’s father Bobby was key at the beginning, along with various others.
“They’d have organised a lot of festivals in Clonakilty over the years, like the busking festival,” says Ray. “There was a history of festivals in the town, my father dragged me into it and threw me in at the deep end in the hope that it’d keep me busy.
“It was great as they showed us how to start and where to go from there, they laid the foundation.”
The guitar festival has grown from a day and weekend-long affair into a full week of events in 2018, surviving and thriving during the recession.
Running from September 17 to 23, this year’s lineup will include Glen Hansard, Joshua Burnside, the winner of the Northern Ireland Music Prize 2017, and a whole host of other acts. Most of the events are free, with only a handful ticketed.
“We always wanted to build it sustainably because we knew there wasn’t going to be money in it and we wanted it to be a community event. That’s part of our manifesto — we wanted to be accessible and open to everyone,” says Ray.
Clonakilty International Guitar Festival takes place September 17-23, 2018.