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The 52nd Willie Clancy Summer School What’s in store for this year’s festival

Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy is a week-long summer school in traditional music and set dance held annually at Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare.

The first and biggest of such events, it commemorates the town’s best-known uilleann piper, Willie Clancy, and has been running since just after his death in 1973. The idea was initiated by Clancy himself, and implemented within six months by teacher Muiris Ó Rócháin in collaboration with CCE’s timire ceoil Séamus Mac Mathúna and local musicians Martin Talty, Paddy Joe McMahon and Junior Crehan.

The school is focused around the teaching of instruments and set dancing in formal classes, but stresses the value of the oral/aural tradition. In its fleadh-style volume of music-making in bars it has become something of a Mecca in the music, its retinue of up to a hundred and fifty teachers, and hundreds of improving and competent musicians, dancers and singers drawing in thousands of listeners.

The school addresses the cultural and intellectual side of traditional music by the inclusion of daily workshops on singing and the tradition, afternoon lectures and evening recitals. The ‘Breandán Breathnach memorial lecture’, given by various authorities in traditional music, opens the school, a music tribute at Clancy’s grave, launch of albums and publications in traditional music follow.

Scores of impromptu sessions accompany these organised activities, nightly set dance and céilis complement a routine of morning classes given by top players on uilleann pipes, flute, tin whistle, concertina, fiddle, button accordion and set dancing. Classes in harp, banjo and harmonica have been added in recent years.

Celebrating the Tulla Céilí Band

The  renowned band will be 80 years playing in 2026, a landmark event in the Irish traditional  music landscape.

East Clare has always had a vibrant musical tradition and the first attempt to channel this  talent into a  ceilí band -type format was in 1944/45 when a group called  the  Ballinahinch Céilí Band was formed . This group reformed and expanded in 1946  and  that year entered – and won – the Féile Luimnigh competition as the Tulla  Céilí Band. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. The Tulla won the same competition in 1947and 48 and went on the competition circuit, winning  many  fleadh titles at county, provincial and  All-Ireland levels in the 1950s and 1960s. Their main competitor in those days was the north Clare Kilfenora Céilí Band.

The Tulla’s recording catalogue is impressive spanning the 1950s to 2016 and including 78s, L.Ps, Cassette Tapes and CDs. They  recorded for radio and TV and  toured extensively in the UK and USA,  playing at major social and cultural functions.

The band played at the first Willie Clancy Summer School  in 1973 and since then  has been a major attraction on the school’s  programme, playing at open air sessions as well as céilithe. But the band’s association with Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy is not confined to  céilithe. Many band members have been tutors and demonstrators at the workshops over the years. P. Joe Hayes, Francie Donnellan, Paddy Canny, Seán Reid, Peadar O’ Loughlin and Martin Hayes have contributed hugely to the school’s tuition programme. Therefore the school is delighted to mark this enduring collaboration  with a special  tribute on Tuesday the 9th July when  band members, past and present, relatives and friends, musicians and  dancers,  will come together for an afternoon of music, song and dance. The event will be presented by Paula Carroll,  traditional music broadcaster and a presenter of Clare FM’s traditional music programme The West Wind.

The Tulla is still a major attraction on the school’s céilithe programme, bringing hundreds of dancers to the Mill Marquee on Tuesdays and Thursdays of summer school week. And they are still in friendly competition with old rivals the Kilfenora who occupy the Monday and Wednesday slots at the Marquee.

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Remembering Margaret Barry

Margaret Barry may not be well known  nowadays in  traditional music circles but she was once a major figure on the folk/traditional  music circuit,  in the  1950s and 1960s  and an older generation in Ireland and the UK will have memories of her performances.

She began her career as a street singer, her strongly accented unique voice and loudly strummed banjo  penetrating the  cacophonies of  fair days,  pubs   football matches and  race meetings.  Gradually she established a  solid and serious  audience  among  folk music followers and commentators.  She  was recorded by such  experts  as  the  American collector Alan Lomax,  singer/songwriter Ewan McColl ,  and Peter Kennedy of the BBC,  and began  to play at  established entertainment centres  all over  Ireland.

With her musical companion, Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman, she  toured  the  folk music clubs in the UK and the  vibrant network of Irish pubs in London.  Television brought them a wider audience and they played the Royal Albert Hall, maybe the high point of their UK professional careers.

In the US they performed at the Rockefeller Centre in New York and appeared at the controversial Newport Folk Festival in 1965 where they shared billing with the likes of Pete Seeger, Joan  Baez and Bob Dylan.

The  Willie Clancy Summer School is remembering  the singer  on  the  afternoon of Thursday 11 July when  Alan Woods, Artist Liaison and Field Recording Officer with the Irish Traditional Music Archive, will give a talk on her  life and music. Accompanying Alan Woods will be the award- winning  singer/songwriter Lisa O’ Neill who will perform  a selection of Barry’s  repertoire .

Other Lectures and Overseas Contributions

Other lectures on offer  during the week include an examination of the long-standing  connections between pipers and piping in Clare and Dublin , extending back to the 1930s, which will be given by Gay McKeon , CEO, and Emmett Gill, Archivist, Na Píobairií Uilleann.  This lecture marks the 50th anniversary  of  the long-standing cooperation between the Willie Clancy Summer School and Na Piobairi Uilleann (NPU) which began in 1974.

A number of  overseas  lecturers will bring  interesting insights into various aspects of Irish traditional music in their presentations.   Chelsey Zimmerman , from the USA , is a PhD student at the University of Limerick and she has extensively researched Irish traditional music and musicians in New York city  in the early decades of the 20th century, She  will  lecture on her  recent research.   Professor Kate Bevan-Baker of Concordia University, Montréal, will speak on the connections between the  traditional music of Ireland  and Québec. The School of Irish Studies at Concordia University is a powerhouse for the study of Irish traditional music and culture and Head of the School is Ennis man Professor Gearóid Ó hAllmhúrain, a noted academic, piper and concertina player.

Collecting in Miltown in the 1960s

Scottish singers and musicians Peter Shepheard and Jimmy Hutchison, were young  folk  music enthusiasts  during the folk  music revival of the 1960s and familiar with the folk club circuit in the UK.  They first visited Miltown Malbay in 1964 and recorded many local singers and musicians.  The pair were directed to Miltown by the  renowned broadcaster and collector, Ciaran MacMathúna, who indicated that it would be an ideal place for exploring Irish traditional music and song.  In the final presentation on Saturday 13 July  they will share these recordings and their memories of that journey with  visitors and local people –many  of them relatives of those recorded sixty years ago.

Music from Virginia and Québec

The Scuffletown Trio Marc Carraway, John Whitlow and Matty Metcalfe – multi-instrumentalists from Virginia, USA, and playing Appalachian, blues and bluegrass – will give a workshop on the connections between Irish traditional music and Appalachian music on  the afternoon  of Monday 8 July.

Entitled ‘Irish Roots to Appalachian Branches’ the presentation will demonstrate the styles and techniques linking  both musical  traditions which have evolved over centuries.

They  will also perform at the Ceolchoirm Idirnáisiúnta /International Concert on Tuesday afternoon,  at the Mill Marquee, sharing the bill with the  Gairloch Trio  from Montréal.

Gairloch is described as  “ a Celtic Trio focusing on the  Scottish and Irish traditional repertoire.” They perform  songs and instrumental tunes from the traditions of Scotland, Ireland and Québec.

All multi-instrumentalists, their musicianship has been described as world class. The trio consists of Seán Dagher, a composer and arranger  and an expert on  sea shanty-singing who plays bouzouki and  banjo,  Kate Bevan-Baker  an  award-winning fiddler, violinist and singer who  teaches at Concordia and McGill universities,  and David Gossage who plays flute, guitar and  harmonica in all styles of music and teaches Jazz at McGill University. Gairloch will deliver  two  afternoon workshops at the school. On  Wednesday  they will demonstrate Québec fiddle styles and techniques and on Thursday will  provide illustrations of Sea Shanty Singing, its traditions and techniques.

Know the Score: Read Music the Trad Way

The Willie Clancy Summer School is constantly revamping its courses and adding to its curriculum.

This new course was initiated in 2023 and attracted much interest. It was designed  by the inspirational music educator  and musician, Dr Liz Doherty. The course is aimed at music tutors  who wish to  develop their tuition techniques and schoolteachers who wish to  acquire the  skills to confidently foster traditional music in the classroom. The course is delivered in association  with I Teach Trad and, very important to note,  certified by the Royal  Irish Academy of Music.

For full details on this programme contact Dr Liz Doherty at [email protected]

As usual there is a full programme of  instrumental tuition and workshops on  traditional singing and the history of Irish traditional music, song and dance, complemented by recitals,  concerts and céilithe.   The school will be opened  on Saturday 6th July by the distinguished piper  and documentary maker Peter Browne, well known for his work with RTÉ Radio as producer and presenter.  And the artistic programme of the 52nd summer school will come to an end with the grand finale concert on  Saturday  13th when Cor Chúil Aodha will wrap up a varied week of  lectures, recitals, concerts, film documentaries, workshops and céilithe.

The 52nd Willie Clancy Summer School  takes place in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare 6- 14 July.

For full details of the Summer School, including the programme and  accommodation, see the official website.

Note: Online registration is now closed.

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