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Music of Clare
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Traditional Music in County Clare by Niall Keegan

Transmission; Dance; Céilí band tradition

Transmission of the music traditions of county Clare has undergone dramatic development in the past two hundred years. The traditional paradigms for transmission are learning from family and immediate neighbours and travelling ‘master’ musicians. This certainly has led to the development of music families, where performance skills are passed down through the generations and also the belief that a particular locality is essentially musical. Families such as the McCarthy’s whose musical life began with Tommy McCarthy from Kilmihil, the Hayes family from Mahera and the Russells from Doolin are central to the traditions of Clare while places such as Kilmihil, Feakle, and the areas around Doolin, Miltown Malbay and Quilty are regarded as important historical and contemporary centres for traditional musical making. Such reputations are created by these important forms of traditional transmission. The other major paradigm is that the music was spread by travelling musicians such as George Whelan and Garrett Barry. It was common throughout Ireland for people with a physical disability, particularly loss of sight, to make their living, or part of it, from playing and teaching music and this was particularly true in Clare. Such musicians, like the dancers, would have restricted themselves to a certain area, perhaps because their disability needed a community to be prepared to actively support them. This made contacts with new communities more difficult and to be avoided unless strictly necessary. Certainly their range was also limited by competition from similar musicians in surrounding districts.

More recently transmission has been transformed through institutional classes promoted in local music schools and branches of Comhaltas. This has raised the profile of the music in urban centres in the county, particularly Ennis. Undoubtedly more children are learning traditional music in county Clare at present in professional and semi-professional multi-instrumental group classes, very often aimed at producing ensembles for competition. The adoption nationally of British style grade examinations and the growth of traditional music in the secondary school curriculum has contributed significantly to the development of classical style one-to-one or small group teaching for specific instruments. Also, the summer schools such as the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Feakle Music Weekend, while contributing to tourism, have a significant educational impact through their classes for music and dance.

Factors for some extent of stylistic homogeneity in the music of Clare are the dance traditions of the region. Central to the dance tradition of Clare are the sets. Sets came to Ireland as quadrilles which swept Western Europe in the early nineteenth century and which came originally from French courtly dances such as the cotillion. Particularly popular in Clare are the Caledonian (widely believed to have been brought to Clare by Scottish sappers), the Lancers and the Plain sets. The context of the performance of these dances would have been again the house dances and the more public occasions at pattern days, fairs and other significant days in the calendar of the locality.11

Set dancing in a pub in Feakle
Set dancing in a pub in Feakle. Photo: Sonia Schorman.

These sets and step dances that today are perceived as sean-nós were taught by travelling dancing masters such as Pat Barron and Thady Casey, both in west Clare. It is remarkable that the dance tradition of Clare survived through the twentieth century as it faced much institutionalised opposition through the Dance Hall Act and general opposition from the Catholic church who condemned such dances and competed with them through the development of parochial halls. Junior Crehan gives us an example of this institutional opposition and the vigour of the tradition that survives it, describing an exchange between the dancing master Pat Barron and a local curate;

Barron, a dancing master from West Limerick was holding his classes in Jimmo Sexton’s house, near Mullagh. The local curate rode out from Mullagh fully intending to scatter the dancing school. When he came into the house, he found Barron on the floor putting a pupil through his paces while the music was being supplied by a concertina player. The priest grabbed the concertina, flung it on the fire and put his boot on it. Then he turned to Barron and is reported to have said:

Clear out of here you dancing devil or I’ll make a goat of you

To which Barron retorted,

If you do, I’ll give you a pucan up in the arse with my horns

Pat Barron did not evacuate Mullagh because the curate wanted him out; instead he resumed his classes and remained for another year or so and he didn’t turn into a goat as far as I know.12

The opposition to traditional music and especially traditional dance by the church was not however consistent. Some curates were of course strict (like the extreme example above) but some were willing to subvert the music and dance culture to their own ends. A prime example of this is Father Larkin in Ballinakill, across the border in south east Galway who was central to the establishment of the first ensemble credited as a céilí band in Ireland, The Ballinakill Traditional Players. They were most probably established to play music for dances to raise funds for the construction of a parochial hall and playing for dancing classes in the local national school. It is also believed that the precursors to The Kilfenora Céilí Band in north Clare were established in the first and second decades of the twentieth century to play for dances used to raise funds to pay a large parish debt incurred by the building of a parochial hall.13

The Golden Star Céilí Band
The Golden Star Céilí Band. Photo: Michael John Glynne.

Céilí band tradition
Dance bands have played a huge part in the successful reinvention of traditional music practice in Clare in the twentieth century and particularly since the 1940s. The two bands whose rivalry has been legendary throughout Ireland among those that follow traditional music are The Kilfenora and The Tulla Céilí Bands. However, as stated previously, there are records of over 50 céilí bands in Clare over the past century with particular local connections to village, town or parish. Indeed, in the 54 years of the All-Ireland Céilí Band competition, an annual event organised by Comhaltas as part of the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil, the first prize has been won thirteen times by Clare bands. Céilí bands are most often named for a particular place (although membership is most often more widely derived) and can incite ferocious support in that locality in a way similar to a local GAA club. This support has a wider base in a national community of dancers and listeners who may prefer the performance of one particular band over others. The major bands have a dual life as dance bands and competition bands, a life that many would say is made by the two performance practices having opposing aesthetics. The bands tend to be built around a core membership of instrumentalists (dominated by fiddles and flutes but often containing accordion, banjo, concertina, pipes and other instruments) playing in unison with piano and basic, jazz-drum kit (snare, bass, block and sometimes cymbal). These provide accompaniment for dances and, particularly for ones that would be for less traditional audiences, a singer may be drafted in to sing songs with the band for waltzes, one-steps and other dances considered more modern, less native and associated with contemporary songs. In the 1950s and 60s, when these céilí bands had to compete with the more modern ‘showbands’ (céilí bands would have been more popular in the smaller dance halls and on the less popular nights), they started to incorporate instruments and styles from that more popular tradition.14 However, with the demise of the show-band circuit by the early 70s and the revival of the set dance tradition, the bands returned to more traditional formats. Today, céilí dances throughout Ireland would be described as for ‘céilí’ or ‘set’ dancers and the later would be predominant in Clare.15 These bands were the central aspect of the first professionalisation of traditional music apart from the small economy of the travelling musicians and dancing masters. It is perhaps no accident that the predominant bands (the Kilfenora and the Tulla) came from the more rural north-west area of the county and the hill country of east Clare respectively. Although none of these Clare bands were ever fully professional, the income they generated was often vitally important for the families of the musicians.



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