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Traditional Music in County Clare by Niall Keegan

Song; Traditional contexts for performance practice

The song tradition of the county is now exclusively in the English language. Of course Clare has its fair share of Irish language revival singers but naturally enough the line into an Irish language community that had effectively died out in the first half of the twentieth century is largely broken. Many would qualify this by rooting the styles of singers and musicians such as the Russells of Doolin into the Irish language based practices of recent generations.

Tom Munnelly and Tom Lenihan
Tom Munnelly and Tom Lenihan
(2nd & 3rd from left respectively)
at the launch of the Willie Clancy Summer School in 1980.
Photo: Michael John Glynne.

The English language song tradition is well recorded by collectors, notably Tom Munnelly, and like many local song traditions the region is well represented in local repertoire and versions of repertoire. Perhaps the most outstanding published collection is Tom Munnelly’s The Mount Callan garland – songs from the repertoire of Tom Lenihan of Knockbrack, Miltown Malbay, County Clare (1994).7 Tom Lenihan’s (1905-1990) repertoire is typical in that it contains references to local places and events as well as the whole gamut of usual themes of popular and traditional songs. We find mention of local places such as Ennis, Miltown Malbay, Quilty, Doonbeg, Doolin and Kilrush. Local historical events are naturally mentioned as in the song The Rineen Ambush about an ambush of RIC and Black and Tan forces during the civil war. As with many so-called traditional singers of his generation and older he did not seem to differentiate between traditional and popular song (a distinction developed in a more self-conscious, mass-mediated world) and he himself credited individuals with the composition of many of his songs. Another notable aspect of the song traditions of county Clare is the strong tradition of composition. Many singers in the county today are active and prodigious composers, some of the more visible in recent years being Robbie MacMahon and Tim Dennehy. However, perhaps the most well known song composer from Clare was Johnny Patterson (1840-1889) an uilleann piper from Kilbannon, outside Feakle, who toured as a circus performer in Ireland, Britain and the States and wrote such sentimental classics as The stone outside Dan Murphy’s door, goodbye Johnny dear and Bridget Donohoe.

Traditional contexts for performance practice
The importance of traditional music in Clare is historically based in its role in the social life of primarily the rural, farming community in the county. Music was a feature of social gatherings for particular times in the cyclical agrarian, folkloristic and religious calendars of the community, important life events and day-to-day social events. The main context for traditional music performance was the house dance where small groups of musicians performed for dancing. An important variation of this is the mumming and straw-boy traditions which still exist to this day in parts of the county. Occasionally there was the opportunity for the performance of music, including dance music, solely for listening. Indeed some musicians were sought out nearly exclusively to provide music for listening to, most famously the blind piper Garrett Barry (1847-1899) from Inagh.

Travelling musicians such as Garrett Barry (who would probably now not be considered part of what is now realised as the modern travelling community) played an important role in both the development of an identity for Clare music and also in providing links to neighbouring communities of musicians. An example of this was the fiddler George Whelan from near Ballyduff in Kerry who, according to Patrick Kelly of Cree in an interview with Ó hAllmhuráin, “… left the world of music between Kilbaha and Cree beyond”.8 Kelly also said of him in an interview with Mick O’Connor in 1972,

“… my father got a heap of music from George Whelan, the blind fiddler that came from Kerry maybe 80 years ago or thereabouts. And he left a lot of music here in West Clare… He would have stayed a very long time here because a good part of the music in west Clare that I heard was played and taught by George Whelan”.9

In the twentieth century an important connection to the distinctive musical traditions of south and east Galway was maintained by the fiddler and teacher Jack Mulkere from Gort in Galway who married and settled outside Crusheen. Jack performed in the early Aughrim Slopes Céilí Band in 1927 and taught traditional music to generations of influential musicians between Athenry and Ennis between the 1920s and 1970s. Mulkere’s students included Frank Custy, Tony MacMahon, Paddy Fahy and Kieran Hanrahan and he was the first teacher of traditional music employed to do so by a state agency. He ran classes for Clare Vocational and Educational Committee.

In the history of traditional Irish music the end of many of the traditional contexts of music making and dancing is seen to have come with the 1935 Dance Hall Act which outlawed unlicensed dances. Certainly this legislation, sought by the Catholic Church and enacted by de Valera’s government, played a pivotal role in the decline of traditional contexts of performance but perhaps the writing was on the wall with the development and growing popularity of other forms of social interaction at the dance hall, parochial hall and, more latterly, the pub. However traditional music moved with the community into these sites, especially through the céilí bands who played in the halls and so kept alive more traditional forms of dance (and assimilated and appropriated others). With the growth of pub culture in the 1970s and 80s the music also became a regular aspect of this context through the session. It could also be argued that the traditional agrarian and pre-Christian ‘festivals’ have been replaced with a constant succession of organised festivals and summer schools, the focus of which tends to be the pub session. Indeed, the mother-of-all summer traditional music festivals is the Willie Clancy Summer School (Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy). ‘Willy-week’, as it is affectionately known internationally, was started in 1973 by a combination of local individuals, most notably Muiris Ó Róchain and Harry Hughes, and organisations such as local branches of CCE to commemorate the piper, Willie Clancy. It now attracts thousands of visitors from around the globe. Focusing on instrumental classes, lectures and performance through the week, this festival has a huge cultural and economic impact on the life of a large part of west Clare.

A session at the Willie Clancy Summer School, 1973
Fiddler Vincent Griffin with John Lyons and Mrs Tim Lyons at a session at the Willie Clancy Summer School, 1973.
Photo: Michael John Glynne.

Clare musicians were also to the forefront of the mediation of their music internationally after the initial Sligo-dominated era of 78rpm recordings. The first long playing vinyl recording of traditional music, All Ireland champions – violin (1959), primarily featured music and musicians from Clare. This recording included iconic fiddle players PJ Hayes and Paddy Canny, flute and fiddle player Peadar O’Loughlin and east-Galway piano player Bridie Lafferty and was issued on the Shamrock Label (recently reissued as : An historic recording of Irish traditional music from County Clare and east Galway).10 RTÉ, through the work of Ciarán MacMathúna for radio and Tony MacMahon for television, recorded and broadcast a large amount of material in Clare from the 1950s to the 1980s.