Racing pigs and picking banjos

Festival Fit absorbs some traditional pastimes from our American kin

La Compagnie Maribel make themselves at home

La Compagnie Maribel make themselves at home


Pig racing. Bluegrass music. On the surface, it seems strange that these two alien amusements have taken root and continue to capture the imagination of a large section of the populace of Éire. But if you get the chance to experience a porcine prance or a Appalachian barndance out on the festival trail, things become somewhat clearer.

Little knitted jockeys bounce up and down on the backs of oddly cute bonnifs as the bacon-makers streak up a temporary track – it’s more engaging than sounds. Sure, you’ll get a gourmet food fair at Punchestown and elegant ladies sipping from champagne flutes at Fairyhouse. But the tears of laughter and yelps of joy evident at pig races from Bailieborough to Ballinasloe are unsurpassed.

The sport of professional pig racing has been imported from the US, where it’s very popular in southern states. (North Carolina is home to the Hogway Speedway Racing Pigs; Hammy Hamiln being one of their star performers.) We’ve done something similar with bluegrass music, welcoming and embracing a foreign tradition that’s cut with more than a pinch of our own culture.

The enthusiasm here for traditional American roots music was something I used to attribute to the influence that Irish trad had on it’s Yankee cousin, but there’s more to it than that. Any pursuit that affords grown men the opportunity to wear cowboy hats, drink copious amounts of cider while yelping and hollering to their hearts’ content is always going to be well received in certain quarters.

The quality of some of our homegrown groups who pick out country tunes, combined with the impressive skills of American outfits who regularly tour the country, make sure the music is a regular feature at lots of Irish festivals, even events that aren’t dedicated bluegrass beanos, and there’s a bushel of those.

Last week’s Shannonside Winter Music Weekend was a hoedown hotbed. On a lazy Saturday afternoon in the sumptuous surroundings of the Main Guard Room in Bunratty Castle, The Clew Bay Critters kicked of the Folk Park leg of the festival. About an hour later High Plains Tradition from Colorado were up in The Barn pouring out a pure drop of musical moonshine.

This was the 15th edition of a festival that started as a small gathering organised by some folk- music loving inhabitants from Sixmilebridge. Three years ago, in an effort to secure extra funding and ensure the festival was more accessible to families and day trippers, the crew decided to introduce daytime gigs in Bunratty Folk Park. It’s worked out wonderfully, with hordes packing out the park all day long, enjoying the tunes and the setting.

The venues enhance the gigs: there are the large rooms of the castle, there’s The Barn (a purpose- built venue that stages mini Riverdances for the summer rubber- neckers), a proper pub in the shape of Mac’s Bar, and numerous nooks and crannies around the place.

The artificially sweet surroundings of the pretend village are brought to life by the authenticity of the music that fills it’s stage irish spaces. The Barn feels like a miniature turf-encrusted Grand Ole Opry when High Plains Tradition gather in a semi-circle around the single microphone, capturing their rocking-chair-back-porch-sunset- sound perfectly. La Compagnie Maribel bring history to life in the castle’s Great Hall with lutes, flutes and folk dancing from the ancient traditions of France and Spain.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s only a sideshow. The main business of the festival happens in Sixmilebridge and it’s Courthouse. You’d be amazed at how much wonderful music can be squeezed into 6MB.

There wasn’t any pig racing in Sixmilebridge last weekend, but there’s something about a banjo tearing into a rendition of Foggy Mountain Breakdown that whispers the phrase “Squeal like a pig” into my mind’s ear.

Safe travels, don’t die.

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