Clancy’s legacy keeps fans in tune

The tiny village of Milltown Malbay is the focal point for Willie Clancy Week, reports Caomhan Kean.

THOUSANDS of music lovers are attending the annual Willie Clancy Week in Clare this week and of those over 800 have signed up for lessons in music, song and dance at annual music school.

Up to 5,000 people are expected to pour into the tiny town of Milltown Malbay (population 600) to avail of the jigs and the reels and the fun over the week-long event.

Held in honour of famed uilleann piper, Willie Clancy, who died just before the first festival in July 1973, the initial idea was to hold a non-competitive summer school, where people could pay their tuition and be exposed to the best musicians around.

“Willie was very reserved about playing,” says Michael Falsey, a neighbour who knew Clancy from a young age. “He was quite happy being in the background, playing a few tunes. But if ever there was anyone with a love of music around he was more than willing to sit down with them and give them advice.”

It’s this spirit that drives the festival — one where 70-year-old musicians can sit down and play with those as young as 10 and upwards: talking them through the music and taking them seriously; helping them learn the etiquette and the techniques of session playing.

The week attracts some of the biggest names in traditional music, some who come to teach, some merely for the craic, and chances are you will meet — and possibly play — with them at one of the many sessions that spill out onto the street, and weather permiting, the beach.

For the first seven years of its life attendance rarely rose above 200 people, but the set dancing revival of the early 80s meant that car loads of dancers descended on the festival, doubling the figures year after year till they peaked post-Riverdance in the mid-nineties. The demand for other instruments to be added to the original four — tin whistle, flute, concertina and fiddle — stimulated this growth and now classes are offered in the accordion, banjo, harp, harmonica and the uilleann pipes. There are also 20 dance teachers on hand, plus classes in Irish and Scots Gaelic.

The school costs €140, with students getting tuition, lectures and free admission to recitals, plus half priced tickets to the nightly celli. There are also several set dances, sessions in pubs and exhibitions which wouldn’t be part of the school itself but add to the whole festival atmosphere.

“The atmosphere reinforces the tuition,” says Harry Hughes, a schoolteacher who founded the festival with Martin Talty and Muiris Ó Rócháin soon after moving to the area in 1970.

“Once the students finish their classes they can wander up and down the street, they can hear what is going on in this pub and that pub, and they can go in and join in. They are in a relaxed environment, listening to these musicians and teachers, talking to the them and exchanging information.”

There are classes in the morning and lectures in the afternoon on various aspects of traditional music. Not just traditional Irish music but European and American folk. In the evening there are recitals from musicians of note followed by a rip-roaring celli to end the day. “We are having grandchildren of the first students from the 1970s coming to us now, and many’s the person who has told me they have met and fallen for someone at the Willie Clancy week and ended up married to them,” said Hughes. Friendships are picked up after year-long interludes and polished by a mutual love of trad.

It costs €300,000 to get the “Willie” (as it is affectionately called) up and going and the local community pulls together to ensure that it does. As well as sponsorship from local businesses (and more recognised corporations like Diageo, Bus Éireann and IMRO) many locals give up their time to man the venues and to ensure the event runs smoothly. 230 work on the artistic side of the festival with 75 doing the administrative day-to-day running of the event.

“It pays dividends,” says Hughes. “The investment that it brings into the town would tune out a fair economic return”. In 2003, May Day consultants were commissioned by Fáilte Ireland to survey the financial benefit that the week had to the Milltown area. It found that the festival brings in around €5 million to the local economy over 7-10 days.

Given the festival’s size and the size of the town there is a bit of pressure when it comes to housing everyone. People taking the classes book their accommodation early, as do those coming from abroad, but there is the usual rush in the run up to the week with some visitors having to settle for guesthouses up to five or six miles outside the town.

“The sheer quality of the musicians that attend the Willie Clancy is what sets it apart from other such like events” says Hughes.”

“In the older days they came in to learn the music, to get a basic style. The technical skills of people coming in now are far, far superior to those of those who came first. What they need is more tunes and development of style. That is what they are looking for. To hear older musicians and how they interpret the tunes.”

* The 39th Willie Clancy Summer School runs until July 10 in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare.


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