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.