Russians kick up their heels in Clare
“Are these Russians coming or not?” said one of the locals, who was getting tetchy. It was close to 6pm on Saturday and we were standing outside the community centre in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare. There was little under an hour to go before Clare took on Dublin in the All-Ireland hurling qualifier and two hours before the opening concert in the annual Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy.Several musicians and a dance teacher had gathered to give an introductory lesson to a group of 40 Russians who were over from Moscow for “Willie week”, as it is sometimes known locally. The instructor had been waiting since 4.30pm but there was no sign of the Russians.
Generally, in Miltown, when they ask “which way did you come?” they want to know whether you turned off at Inagh or came via Lahinch. The Russians would have had to travel about 6,000 miles (10,000km) for the session but no one knew exactly how they would be getting there.
The school, which was set up in 1973, is Ireland’s largest traditional music summer school. Since the beginning, it has remained true to its original remit of handing down the tradition in its purest form to the next generation of musicians.
In other words, cultural fusion is not high on the agenda. Yet, since the early days of the school, musicians from all over the world have been coming to the west of Ireland to learn traditional Irish music and dance in its truest form.
Last year, there was a group of Romanians, and for several years Croatians used to attend. The Japanese have been coming here for about 20 years and there’s even a branch of Comhaltas in Tokyo now.
“Since the 1970s, we’ve always had a foreign component,” said the summer school administrator, Harry Hughes. “We had 80 people at the summer school the first year and 10 of those were from the continent and the UK. Since then, that has grown.
“The percentage at the moment would be 40 per cent of our students are from overseas and 60 per cent from Ireland. Mainly they’re from Germany, France, Scandinavian countries, Spain, the UK and America. We might have had Russians before, but never such a large contingent.”
Hughes had set aside a corner at the back of the main hall, where Liam O’Flynn was due to launch the summer school later in the evening.
There is a strange feeling around Miltown this year as it is the first time the school has not had the steady hand of the late co-founder and director Muiris Ó Rócháin guiding it. “The school is much bigger than one person,” said Hughes. “But he made a huge contribution. We will certainly maintain the ethos he helped set out in handing on the music in its purest form to a younger generation. Now, how the tradition changes and adapts are peripheral issues to us.”
Having said that, this year is the first time recitals on banjo, harmonica and harp have been granted their own listing. That, folks, is about as revolutionary as the Willie Clancy summer school gets.
“I think I see some Russians now,” said one person, standing outside the entrance to the community centre and trying to squeeze the life out of a Rothmans cigarette. And yes, sure enough, coming down the street was a group of Russians, all high cheekbones and long braided hair, and, well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say they were after a little thirst-quencher or two.
“I don’t even know what I’m meant to be doing here,” said dance teacher Mary Clancy. “I haven’t a clue. I only got a call this afternoon so I’ve no idea if they can dance or not. We’ll soon find out I suppose.”
The musicians – Cian Talty, Séamus Ó Rócháin and Eamon McGivney – started to get ready to accompany the teaching, and some of the Russians changed into their dance shoes.
“A friend of ours in another city knew an Irish dancer,” explained Moscow native Vickie Mamontova, “and he taught one of us and so step-by-step we started to learn Irish dancing mainly from videos and CDs, which we got from the internet. So we decided to organise a group to come here to Miltown to learn music and dance from the experts.”
Mary Clancy was in a hurry to get going. She wanted to be home in time for the start of the hurling. “Right, take your partner and face this way. Okay, now forward, one and two and one, two, three and back and two and back two, three. Lovely. That’s the first movement and we’ll get on from there,” she said, before turning to the musicians. “Right, we’ll take a reel so.”
The three musicians kicked into gear, and the dusty floorboards, which have absorbed generations of dust and sweat, began to bounce in unison with the 40 Russians. On the walls all around were black-and-white photos of past masters who had taught at the school: Seán Reid, Mick Hand, Dan Dowd and, of course, Willie Clancy. I half-imagined them becoming animated, smirking and nodding in approval.
“Pretend like you are going to dance a waltz,” said Mary Clancy. “The gents advance on the left and the ladies on the right. One and two and one, two, three. We’re now going to dance what’s called a full house at home. Are we right?”
Trickles of sweat began to form on the brows of some of the Russian women. They had started out perhaps a little uncomfortable, but as the music played and the surroundings began to embrace them, they were relaxing. There was just 20 minutes to go to the start of the hurling, and Mary Clancy was steadfastly putting them through their paces, like a farmer herding his cows swiftly into the shed for early milking.
“House Nikita and mind the dolls,” someone shouted, and they went through the first figure of the Caledonian set. “We’ll advance and retire twice now,” said Mary Clancy, and this dusty corner of an otherwise empty hall turned into a ballroom of twirling, swirling bodies, advancing towards one another then retreating, smiling, nodding and winking.
“Dance as if no one is watching,” Mary shouted, and they did, as their feet began to move almost of their own volition and their high cheekbones seemed lifted by the broad smiles on their faces.
At the end, they gave a huge round of applause as the musicians put their pipes back into their boxes. “I better go. We can’t be late for that match,“ said Mary Clancy, as she headed for door.
Far away, so close
“We have sessions in Moscow where we have a local bar. Every two weeks we get musicians together and we play. Some of us are students and we rent a dance hall during the academic year. In the summer we dance on open ground in the park. We dance to Irish music and we have a stereo system and practise for hours.”
“In Russia, all our songs are sad and we have to suffer and sing about how hard life is. Irish culture is not like this for us. There is joy. I wanted to come here to see how a country saves its culture and traditions. We don’t do that very well in Russia. When I see women with shamrock rings dancing and singing, it is better than studying Irish literature in university. There is something real and pure about it.”
“I learned how to play the concertina from musician Noel Hill through his online tutorials. I play with a group in Moscow and we play Irish music. When I first began it play it, I understood it completely. It is music from my heart. After that, I got interested in Planxty, the Dubliners and the Chieftains. I’m looking forward to playing in a few sessions this week.”
One of the big draws this year will be a concert in honour of Muiris Ó Rócháin on Tuesday at 3pm.
Pat Mitchell will give the main lecture of the week on Willie Clancy on Wednesday at 3pm. On Friday, there are two events that are always well attended: the traditional singing in Irish and English recital and the concertina concert. The recital is at 3pm and features Pauline Hanley, Nan Tam Taimín de Búrca and others. At 8pm the concertina concert includes Noel Hill, Edel Fox, Timmy Collins, Cormac Begley and many more.
The final concert on Saturday night features some of the best traditional musicians in the country and runs from 7pm to 10.30pm.
Throughout the week, there are lessons and workshops each day from 10am to 1pm, with recitals in the afternoon and concerts at night. For more see willieclancyfestival.com.