Festival Fit


WHAT TIME do ye stop serving at?” It was a simple enough question, but the answer had more power of place than epic ads promising hot-rock massages and footsie in fancy hotel dining rooms, more cultural clout than tourism ministers who are attractive to women of a certain political persuasion and it sounded much sweeter than dodgy anthems for socio-touristic initiatives.

“Ah sure, whenever.” Three words that don’t really form a cohesive sentence but still manage to convey a world of hidden meaning; is it any wonder Beckett grew up to be a minimalist. It was already very late and the band were happily knocking out a torrent of thumping zydeco that had the clientele in the small Co Clare pub hopping up and down like chickens on heated biscuit tins. This wasn’t going to be an early night.

The day had started innocently enough, at Bunratty Castle, where the assembled performers for the Shannonside Winter Music Festival were scattered around the folk park, located in various nooks, crannies and grand halls of the castle. Some spot for a few tunes. The Barn, in the Darby O’Gill-like theme village, is a proper venue that would put many a music house around the country to shame. The castle was where it was at though. There are two grand halls in Caisleán Bhun Raithe, complete with tapestries, antlers and more stained glass than Shane McGowan’s dishwasher. These rooms seem awfully classy today, but must have been no stranger to dancing and debauchery in yesteryears; a bit like Joanna Lumley.

The setting suited a trio of traditional singers known as The Voice Squad in particular. The hall rang out to songs and stories that seemed to fit this place as much as the wooden beams, vaulted ceilings and antique furniture. The lads’ harmonies were as tightly woven as the rugs that decorate the stone- flagged floors and as deep, warming, earthy and roughly smooth as the mead that would be served to the banqueting tourists in the very same halls later that evening. I fear the tourists may have missed the real show.


It was back into Sixmilebridge later that evening for another heaped helping of nourishing music. The Courthouse in the centre of the village played host all weekend to intimate concerts for attentive audiences who enjoyed acoustic performances from artists flown in especially from Bulgaria, Boston, Slovenia, Scotland and even Limerick. I discovered that the picturesque Co Clare town has one of the best abbreviated names in the country – 6MB. It seemed a particularly apt nickname when you tried squash into the Mill Bar on Saturday to catch razor-sharp American bluegrass band Special Consensus. There wasn’t much standing room, let alone storage space. How many gigs can you fit into 6MB? About 50 over a whole weekend.

When the late-night activity kicked in, things got turned up a notch or 20. The auld boy with a plait in his grey beard suggested that everybody “Do the mime artist thing in the nip, painting ourselves up, but pretend it was an accident like.” Mikey, who usually fronts a band of scallywags, serenaded a young lady, telling her he was going to kill a puppy every day until she went out with him. Gypsy Rebel Rabble were totally cured of their hangovers as they flaked out tunes in the early hours of the morning and it was only at this stage I discovered the ticket in my pocket entitled me to free pints. It wasn’t an early night.

This weekend, there’s another winter music festival, in Ballincollig Co Cork. A pretty impressive line-up includes Fionn Regan, Steve Cooney and Aoife O’Donovan from Crooked Still. The headline gigs are ticketed but there are plenty of free gigs, sessions and workshops for added distraction. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more . . . or possibly twice.

Safe travels, don’t die.

* ayearoffestivalsinireland.com

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