THE picturesque village of Sixmilebridge in Co Clare has cultivated a discerning audience for its Shannonside Winter Music Weekend over the past decade. The event enjoys a reputation for bringing choice music of many styles to the village and creating an atmosphere where barriers between musicians and audience dissolve.
Now in its 12th year, the weekend has entered a new dimension, thanks to a partnership with Shannon Development. Music lovers can enjoy 10 of the festival’s acts in six venues at Bunratty Castle, all with a single ticket.
The festival has its roots in the Sixmilebridge Folk Club, which was founded in 1998 after a chance meeting. “I met an old school friend on the train,” says Brendan Walsh, director of the Winter Music Weekend. “He asked what was I doing and I said I’m trying to work as little as possible and playing music as much as I can. It turned out he had just taken over McGregor’s pub and he asked me would I like to come and try out a session there. When I saw the restaurant upstairs I thought it would be a great place for a folk club.”
The Winter Music Weekend is something of an ideal festival. Many Irish festivals bring in acts who perform once and disappear off to their hotels. Sixmilebridge does things differently, giving most artists several different gigs so festival-goers can see everyone they want to. Musicians can relax and get to know the fans, with impromptu sessions mushrooming over the weekend.
The event was originally conceived as a once-off to celebrate the year 2000. “The folk club thought we couldn’t let the millennium year go by without doing something special. We didn’t think of it as starting a festival, but it has become an annual event and has grown steadily.”
The collaboration with Bunratty Castle was inspired by the Ulster American Folk Park Bluegrass Festival in Omagh. “I go every year and know how well it works,” says Walsh. “I realised that in Bunratty we have an even better resource since we have genuine buildings, including the castle and church.”
All day on Saturday, Bunratty will host non-stop music. “We have the use of two big rooms at the castle, the Main Guard Room with capacity for 300 people, and above it the Lords and Ladies’ Great Hall. We also have the Corn Barn, purpose-built by Shannon Heritage for their Irish Nights, and Ardcroney Church, which was built in 1824 and transported stone by stone from Tipperary in 1998.
“In all we have 10 bands playing alternate sets on the hour across six venues and a €12 euro ticket gives complete access for the whole day.”
The church will host classical music, with top trad fiddle-player Zoë Conway’s classical Trio Elatha alternating with the Gorale Duo, two guitarists from the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
“When programming the music for Bunratty, a combination of quality and diversity was what we had in mind, as well as matching the music to the venue. Upstairs in the Great Hall we can’t have big amplification since the round stone staircase restricts access, so we’ll have bluegrass from the Carrivick Sisters, and Kimber’s Men, who sing sea shanties around a single mic like in the old films.”
The festival line-up features a range of musicians from chillbilly to jazz.
“The most exciting artist for me, in one sense, is Sarah Savoy and the Francadians from Louisiana because I have never seen them live,” Walsh says. Now based in Paris, Savoy is the latest in a Cajun music dynasty. Her parents and grandparents were among the most influential Cajun artists of their generations.
“We’re also looking forward to bringing back the Carrivick Sisters from Devon. They played the folk club 18 months ago and we just had to have them back.” Not yet 20 years old, the identical twins are gifted multi-instrumentalists and singers who released their fourth album in 2011.
“We’ll also have Mary Stokes, a regular at the Cork Jazz Festival, but we’ll be seeing a different side of her with an acoustic trio. We try to keep an acoustic ethos with very little amplification. That’s something that makes the weekend special, it brings out a side to musicians you mightn’t normally see. What’s even more rare is our audience.”
With bookings this year from Belgium, France, the US, the Czech Republic, Britain and Northern Ireland, the small festival has developed an enviable international reputation. “You can get great names for a festival and have loads of money to market it, but the kind of audience we have money can’t buy,” Walsh says. “It’s a real listening audience and the musicians love that.”
* Further information: www.wmw.ie or 061-713605