Rumours of event's demise out of step

 

WILLIE CLANCY SUMMER SCHOOL:THE DECREPITUDE of the Irish economy might be hogging the headlines these days, but in west Clare, tunes and dance steps are the preoccupation of nearly 1,000 students this week.

The 37th annual Willie Clancy Summer School is the pre-eminent event in a traditional music calendar packed with festivals, seisiuín and fleadhanna ceoil throughout the summer.

And with a third generation of students participating, it would appear that the first week in July has become synonymous with Miltown Malbay in most self-respecting traditional musicians' and dancers' calendars. For sure, this year's gathering is feeling the pinch of the downturn, with almost 200 fewer students enrolled, but how many summer schools can claim 1,000 enrollees - and call it a disappointment?

Rumours of the Willie Clancy Summer School's imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. A story propagated over the past week that the Arts Council, the summer school's anchor funder, would be forced to pull its funding on foot of Government cutbacks finds little traction in a town that sees its population quadruple during the nine days of the school each year.

Funds may be tighter than before, but already a 25 per cent budget cut has been ably managed through a canny partnership with Shannon Development, which stepped in to offer the summer school access to local office space when they were unable to afford the rental of Portakabins for the daily instrument classes that form the backbone of this event.

With more than 60 per cent of the students coming from Ireland and the remaining drawn from the UK, North America and continental Europe, Harry Hughes, one of the school's founders, is quietly confident that the sense of community built up over the past 37 years will see them through the lean years of the recession.

Melbourne flute player Michael Joyce embarks on his first class with Roscommon flute player John Wynne, already the worse for wear after a late night (music) session in Miltown Malbay. Pacing is everything, as Wynne explains, himself a veteran of countless "Willie weeks". Playing tunes 'til dawn is all well and good if you can spend the following day surfing the brash Atlantic waves of Spanish Point (as countless intrepid wet-suited surfers do, aghast at this uncommonly fine, recession-proof spell of weather), but balancing tunes at dawn with classes at 10am is not for the faint-hearted.

This year's Willie Clancy Summer School betrays the same preoccupation as it did in the past: pursuing excellence in musicianship and dance steps, with minimal concern for the machinery of PR that can distract the business of other musical events.

The Chieftains' fiddler, Seán Keane, belatedly joined a bill at Monday night's fiddle concert in the community hall that was laden with the great and good of the tradition, including Tommy Peoples, Zoë Conway, James Kelly, Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

Nightly concerts continue until Saturday night, when tutors from throughout the week will share a stage for a grand finale.