A right song and dance
Nowhere is the Irish music scene more vibrant than the west coast bars of County Clare. Jeremy Taylor pays a visit to soak up the craic
“It’s a long, long way from here to there – if it’s music you want you should go to Clare,” sang Irish folk legend Christy Moore.
The big man with a bodhran under his arm wasn’t far wrong. Ever since he sang about the Lisdoonvarna music festival, Ireland’s least talked about corner of the west coast has achieved near mythical status for song and dance.
Boxed in by Galway Bay to the north and the River Shannon to the south, Co Clare is something of a hidden gem – the county most people skip by en route to the better known places in Kerry or Connemara.
It’s blessed with some of the finest geological features in Ireland, from the dramatic 650ft Cliffs of Moher to the rugged limestone expanse of the Burren. And as you begin to explore this wild region, the sound of music is never far away.
"Boxed in by Galway Bay to the north and the River Shannon to the south, Co Clare is something of a hidden gem – the county most people skip by en route to the better known places in Kerry or Connemara"
Most visitors who know their music head straight for Lisdoonvarna, ten miles south of Ballyvaughan. The original music festival ground to a halt in 1983 but there has been at least one revival. The town is now known as much for its Matchmaking Festival (www.matchmakerireland.com), which is held here every summer and dates back to the time when local farmers would pull on their Sunday best and come down from the valleys to find a wife.
It’s also a great place to base yourself if you plan to set out to explore the Burren – or ‘rocky land’ – a panorama of bleak rock that attracts walkers, pot holers and geologists from around the world.
The best place to hear whistles and fiddles now is a few miles south, in the pretty village of Kilfenora. While many of its bars only put on music in the summer months, Linane’s and Vaughan’s keep the craic going all year round.There’s a Kilfenora festival in October and thousands pack the streets for the three-day event. Try a sunny weekend in early or late summer for a less claustrophobic feel.
The village has a 12th century cathedral which dominates the skyline, and it’s also home to The Burren Centre (www.theburrencentre.ie), an impressive exhibition revealing how the unique landscape in this area was formed millions of years ago. There’s a great tearoom as well, plus a craft shop selling local goods, many handmade.
The Burren Way
The Burren Way is a walking route that covers about 21 miles and climbs to almost 1,000ft. It meanders across the limestone rocks that have been left exposed and bare by the harsh elements.
The lanes and tracks twist for miles in this area but your next destination should be easy to find, as all roads eventually lead to Doolin. The tiny fishing village has a ferry to the Aran Islands, which are worth a day trip if the sea isn’t too rough.
Doolin basks on the shores of the Atlantic and is the place to visit if you like traditional music. Once again, the long main street is full of tourists in the summer as visitors wander from one music venue to another, spurred on by copious amounts of Guinness.
There are three main pubs, McDermott’s, O’Connor’s and McGann’s. The session music doesn’t usually start until 8pm, but if you want a seat then try and arrive much earlier than that. One thing’s for sure, by 9pm you’ll be squeezed in to your seat and making new friends regardless. If you don’t like the sounds in one bar, it’s only a short stroll up the street to find another band. Sometimes there’s music in the street as well, but only during the summer months when the Atlantic winds have eased.
Jigs and Reels
Ireland seems to breed traditional musicians and, although you’re unlikely to stumble across the next Sinead O’Connor or Van Morrison, the standard of playing is extremely high.
Jigs and reels form the basis of most songs and, consequently, many sessions will turn into an impromptu dance. Key instruments are fiddles, flutes and whistles, plus the haunting sound of the uilleann pipes. These are like bagpipes which are operated by a wind bellow held between the hip and elbow.
If you wake up the next morning with a sore head, make your way down to the tiny harbour where the fresh breeze is better than any painkilling tablet!
The county’s main town is bustling Ennis, about 20 miles to the south. The streets radiate from the cathedral and a statue commemorating Irish liberation campaigner Daniel O’Connell, who championed the cause of the Catholic poor in the 18th century. He was born south of the county border in Co Kerry.
Music again plays a strong part in daily life with two annual festivals, the Fleadh Nua (www.fleadhnua.com) in May and the Guinness Traditional Music Weekend in November, when the town becomes a heaving mass of revellers.
The Glór Irish music centre (www.glor.ie) puts on performances all year round, with something most nights during July and August. Failing that, try Fawl’s Bar in O’Connell Street or the Knotted Chord in Cook’s Lane.
Around Ennis are a number of attractions that would make a good day out. Quin Abbey is a Franciscan Priory that dates back about 600 years. By Irish standards it’s a beautiful building and well preserved for the flocks of tourists that come here.
Knappogue and Bunratty Castles
Nearby Knappogue Castle was taken by Oliver Cromwell and became his headquarters during one of the most bloody periods of Irish history. It’s been heavily restored and contains an exhibition of Waterford Crystal.
Just as impressive is Bunratty Castle, about 15 miles from Ennis. The site was originally a stronghold of the Vikings but was later developed into a more traditional castle by a local clan. A folk park has been developed next to the ancient monument that houses a collection of furniture and artefacts.
Lahinch is another busy market town that has become popular with tourists. It has thrived because of several sandy beaches that attract holidaymakers and surfers, as well as golfers who play the local courses.
Spanish Point is the perfect beach for bathers and was named after the survivors of the Armada who landed here – and were duly executed. Nowadays you can be assured of a warmer welcome.
A few miles east of the Lahinch is Ennistymon, boasting a couple of bars you really shouldn’t miss. Cooley’s House and Eugene’s both have enthusiastic music sessions all year round and there’s also a Traditional Singing Festival at the end of June.
A slightly less crowded spot is Kilkee. If you avoid the slot machine arcades and fish and chip shops there are some dramatic cliffs and wild sandy beaches to walk. Duggerna Rocks are a wonderful spot to explore rock pools when the tide is out.
While neighbouring counties have benefited from Ireland’s tourism boom, Co Clare seems to have been passed by – for the time being at least. But it provides the visitor with the most authentic flavour of Ireland and its musical traditions.
You shouldn’t have to search hard to find the music you’ve been looking for – simply ask the locals and you’re sure to be pointed in the right direction…