What’s it all about?
The Willie Clancy week, or Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy to give it its official title (as Gaeilge), is one of Ireland’s longest running Summer Schools (predated only by Scoil Acla, Achill 1910 and The Brian Merriman Summer School also in Clare, 1968) . The week-long Summer School and ‘festival’ of Irish traditional music takes place every year in the West Clare town of Milton Malbay in early July. Willie Clancy week is a major event in the Irish traditional music, culture and dancing calendar and it has amassed a reputation as one of the foremost places to go for quality Irish music and dance (and craic too!).
A bit of background…
The idea for the Summer School came initially from celebrated local uilleann piper Willie Clancy, and was organized and implemented shortly the great man’s death by local teacher Muiris Ó Rócháin in collaboration with CCE’s timire ceoil and other well-known local musicians. Muiris too, its director for many years, sadly passed away in 2011.
Since its foundation back in 1973 the event in Miltown Malbay has continued to flourish, becoming Ireland’s premier Summer School for traditional music and dance as well as a great place to enjoy the best of live Irish music and dance in concerts, on the streets and in the local pubs and hotels.
My experience at it…
This is my second time to attend Willie Clancy week and I spent two days there. When arriving into the Miltown any morning of Willie Clancy week be prepared for traffic jams, with cars crawling along the long main street carrying children and teenagers all clutching some traditional instrument or other.
Early mornings and late afternoons the whole place resembles one giant ‘school-run’ with anxious parents dropping off and picking their young musical hopefuls at that various music teaching venues in the town and surrounds. Local schools, halls and other buildings become centres of Irish music and dancing tuition for the week.
You can enroll to participate in tuition classes on every Irish instrument going as well as singing and dancing classes and other workshops. There are even Irish language conversational classes. The Summer School enlists the services of some of the best traditional tutors and players around to give these classes and the teaching standards are very high.
Aside from the full programme of classes there are also various lectures and talks on an array of interesting topics relating to the Irish music tradition, culture, literature and history. Willie Clancy week has something to offer anyone interested in Irish music, from serious music aficionados to those who just like a good trad session and having a bit of craic in the local pubs.
I enlisted for a few Sean Nos (old style) Irish dancing classes while there. I mean how hard could it be, right? It looked easy enough on the television and didn’t require any Flatelyesque moves or intricate footwork. Man, was I wrong. The subtle steps of our tutor looked effortless and well, easy… they were far from it. It took me ages to master a few basic steps.
The class of about 40-odd was held in a marquee and it was attended by people of all ages and from all parts of Ireland and beyond. Two women had come all the way from Japan to attend, one a beginner like me, and the other was a very capable sean nos dancer. It was great fun and the few hours passed very quickly.
In the afternoon I ventured down the town, the place was buzzing with atmosphere. Groups of young musicians busked along on the streets, the pubs were filling up with musicians and punters enjoying the sessions and having a pint or two.
‘It looked easy enough on the television and didn’t require any Flatelyesque moves or intricate footwork. Man, was I wrong.’
The atmosphere and social aspect is similar to a Fleadh Ceol in many ways, but on a smaller scale, in that the pub sessions are a free-for-all, anyone can join in. You get the strong sense that this West Clare town in early July in an annual pilgrimage for many musicians, singers and dancers, a place switch-off from the outside world and just immerse yourself in your music and catch up with old friends.
Many musicians and dancers from other cultures attend too, I came across Breton pipers and saw some traditional Italian folk dancing, which was very interesting, and different. We tend to forget that every country has their own folk traditions. Around you, amid the many Irish dialects you will hear English, Scottish, American and European accents among musicians and visitors alike. There is a unique festival vibe to the place and the festivities extend to nearby beauty spot, Spanish Point (The Armada and Bellbridge hotels) and some as far out as the neighbouring village of Quilty, eight kilometers away.
The music sessions and craic go on well into the early hours of the morning, especially towards the end of the week and culminates on Saturday night with the Muiris Ó Rócháin Memorial Concert presented in the Community Centre.
If you want to experience Irish traditional song and dance at its purest best, then this three-hour concert is a must and features the cream of Irish talent (Be sure and book early). There are also organised nightly Céilís (Irish music and dancing) at various venues.
If you fancy a refreshing break from it all, or to clear your head of fiddles and the previous evening’s gallery, and the weather is holding, then take a 20 minute walk to the beautiful nearby beach at Spanish Point. It is wonderful for swimming and surfing. The rolling waves there will certainly blow away any cobwebs. It is a nice long beach to walk on too, and there are other lovely coastal walks in the area.
Where to stay….
Most visitors and music students book their accommodation well in advance as there is limited enough accommodation. Many local houses become temporary B&B’s during the week. There is also a local hostel (The Central) and nearby hotels in Spanish Point – see list below. There camping too, official and unofficial. Many younger people camp in Spanish Point as there are some wash and toilet facilities there and it is very near the beach.
Check out http://www.scoilsamhraidhwillieclancy.com/information.html for an accommodation list.
The Bellbridge Hotel, Spanish Point – http://www.bellbridgehotelclare.com/
The Armada Hotel, Spanish Point – http://www.armadahotel.com/
The Red Cliff Lodge (Four Star), Spanish Point – http://www.redclifflodge.ie/
The Coast Lodge, Spanish Point – (their website http://www.coastlodge.ie/ was down when I last checked)
The Central Hostel, Miltown Malbay – http://www.westclare.net/centralhostel/
Food and Drink…
Well, it’s no food festival but decent enough fayre can be had, given the size of the place and the crowds. There are the obligatory chips n’ burger vans on the street, the local chippy is good too, and does decent fish n’ chips. Some of the pubs serve food as well, but they are very busy so don’t be expecting fine dining as they try to cope with the hungry masses. I had a fish dinner in Cogan’s bar on the main street which was nice enough and reasonably priced.
The Bake House restaurant on the main street is popular, but expect long queues at peak times, same with The Yard Café and Bistro on the nearby Lahinch Road. The aforementioned hotels also have restaurants and bar food and some do a carvery lunch. The Coast Lodge Hotel in Spanish Point is a nice place for lunch or breakfast, with views over the ocean and relaxing bright interior décor.
There are numerous pubs in Miltow Malbay and they all put their best feet forward during Willie Clancy week, it’s their yearly bonanza week, in reality. My favourites include Clancy’s (aka ‘The Blondes’, apparently the owners had a bevy of blonde daughters), it has a sizable backyard that turns into a (concrete) beer garden when the sun decides to shine on West Clare), Lynches (aka Friels) a really nice old session pub, as are Michael A’s and Hillary’s.
These are all traditional-style pubs and great spots for a few drinks and a music session. The Malbay is a tad ‘alternative’ in that it attracts a more ‘hippie’ clientele, and worth a visit. My only quibble over all with was the lack of craft beers available everywhere. Cogan’s was the only pub that I saw that stocked some bottled craft beers.
The abundance of great quality Irish traditional music everywhere.
Catch a recital or concert at Miltown Malbay Community Hall – Fiddle, Accordion, Irish dancing etc.
A swim, walk or paddle at the nearby lovely Spanish Point.
Relax with pint of Guinness on an afternoon at ‘The Blondes’ pub, while listening to some great tunes.
The Muiris Ó Rócháin Memorial Concert on the last night (Saturday) in the Community Centre, it features the best of the festival in terms of Irish music, dance and song.
My Low Lights…
Traffic jams at certain times in the day in Miltown Malbay, no apparent traffic management and there’s parking allowed on both sides of the street which does not help.
At certain times many of the pubs can get very packed, certainly if you are looking for a seat, but it’s a small thing.
Lack of variety in takeaway foods – mainly chip and burgers.
If you planning to stay a few nights it is advisable to book well in advance, unless you plan to camp.
It’s the Irish summer time so pack for the wind and rain too.
Book the main concert in advance if you can to guarantee a seat.
See: http://www.scoilsamhraidhwillieclancy.com/index.html for all information on the Willie Clancy Summer School.
(All images and text © The Tourist Czar)