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Doolin - Traditional Music Mecca by PJ Curtis (1994)

Time was when the Road to Lisdoonvarna was the name of a well-known reel and the road to Doolin was populated only by the local inhabitants going about their everyday work or returning from visits from nearby towns and villages. Times have changed, and these days the road to Doolin is a familiar road to the hitchers and hikers and other assorted visitors who make regular pilgrimages to the tiny fishing village situated six miles north-west of the spa town of Lisdoonvarna in north Clare. The thousands who descend on Doolin annually are lured not only by the extraordinary land and seascapes but also to experience, first-hand, the magic of sitting in, or indeed outside, any one of the village’s three pubs and witnessing a session of traditional music in full spate. These days there are music sessions to be heard in Doolin almost any hour of the day or night, winter or summer, as fiddlers from Sweden or Brittany trade tunes with local fiddlers, flute players or pipers. And so it has been since Doolin was discovered to have at its core an untapped vein of folk culture at its purest. Word of this find got out and within a short time this previously quiet fishing hamlet hummed to the sound of visitors from all over Ireland and later the continent, in search of what Doolin offered in abundance – an authentic living culture of traditional music and song.

Those early waves of visitors made directly for Fisher Street and O’Connor’s Pub, whose owners Gus and Doll gave all comers an old-world, homely welcome offered with great charm and genuine hospitality. The O’Connor family are one of the oldest in Doolin, and Gus O’Connor’s great-great-grandfather obtained a pub licence in 1832. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for one hundred and sixty years, the O’Connor family played genial host to locals and travellers from far and wide. The pub is now run by Susan O’Connor, who proudly lays claim to being the fifth generation O’Connor to inhabit the establishment. From as early as the middle of the last century, Doolin offered to all a non-judgemental environment, a free-and-easy, come-day-go-day, left-bank retreat, in sharp contrast to the rather staid Victorian ambience of the nearby spa town, Lisdoonvarna.

In the 1920s and 30s, Doolin had been discovered by the bohemian set. Artists and writers such as George Bernard Shaw, JM Synge, Augustus John, Dylan Thomas and Oliver St John Gogarty spent idyllic summers in and around this sleepy fishing-village, mostly in the convivial, welcoming atmosphere always on tap at the O’Connor hostelry. Indeed, it could be said that the genuine, open-hearted welcome proffered to countless visitors by the O’Connor family down the years lies at the centre of the magic that is associated with Doolin. Today, that welcoming aura is still the initial, engaging atmosphere sensed by the visitor. Added to this welcome are the seemingly endless music sessions to further engage and bewitch the first-timer. A visit to Doolin was to step through a portal to a world which seemed to exist in a very separate dimension. It was as though one had stepped back into another age; a strange timeless place where only the celebration of the moment matters. In this rarefied atmosphere, as the tunes, the songs and the stories wove their magic spell, the real world of cares, worries and responsibilities slipped further and further away. Many who visited Doolin in those early days were so bewitched by the village and its lifestyle that they set up home there to become Dooliners - fully fledged locals in every sense of the word.

Doolin, once a quiet fishing village tucked away on the north-west coast of Clare, has over the last two decades at least become a veritable mecca for fans of traditional music from all over the world and has established for itself an international reputation unequalled anywhere on this island. Indeed, it might be said that Doolin is to Irish traditional music what New Orleans is to traditional jazz, the important difference being that Doolin still remains relatively unsullied and untainted by over-commercialisation and gross exploitation. In the mid-Forties, when the pre-eminent uilleann piper and collector Séamus Ennis travelled to Doolin to collect the music and song of the locality, he found it to be a vigorous centre of music and dance. At that period it certainly was still very much the hub of the vanishing Clare Gaeltacht, a fact that interested Séamus Ennis greatly. Here he knew he would witness and collect folk stories, songs, poetry and music, entirely unblemished by any outside influence, which had been handed down intact from generation to generation.

While in Doolin in September 1945 Séamus first came into contact with a twenty-four-year-old whistle-player who captured his attention and his keen ear. This was Séamus Ennis’s first meeting with Pakie Russell, who later became better known as a fine concertina player, folk-storyteller and able spinner of his own tall and humorous tales. Another local Doolin musician to be recorded by Séamus on that visit was fiddler, concertina player and singer, Paddy Killourhy. At a recording session at Gus and Dolly O’Connor’s pub, Paddy gave Séamus Cathaoir an Phíobaire (The Piper’s Chair), now a well-known jig.

The Radió Éireann (RTE) broadcaster, Ciarán Mac Mathúna, also made many collecting trips to Doolin throughout the Fifties and his field recordings of the music and song of the area were aired on his ground-breaking Ceolta Tíre and A Job of Journeywork on Radió Éireann. When the poet Michael Cody visited Doolin in the Sixties he was totally captivated by the old-world atmosphere which still existed there. He too was also utterly enthralled by the wealth of music, story and song he encountered. Cody later wrote that in Doolin he discovered “….a place where real folk musicians played music which was a living thing and not something dead for centuries and artificially resurrected by scholarly types who met in very self-conscious folk-clubs at weekends.”

In the Seventies and Eighties, as the word spread about Doolin, more and more musicians, not to mention listeners, travelled there to meet, play and enjoy the casual yet friendly, convivial atmosphere. To drop into O’Connor’s, McDermott’s or McGann’s Pub, run by Tony and Tommy McGann, was to chance on an impromptu session storming away for hours and perhaps consisting of some of the finest traditional musicians to be heard anywhere. At any given time, winter or summer, day or night, it was possible to sit in a cosy corner and witness the music of Tommy Peoples, Noel Hill, Tony Linnane, Christy Barry, brothers Michael and Seamus Hynes, Paddy and John Killourhy, Davy Spillane, Matt Molloy, Frankie Gavin, Paddy Keenan, Sharon Shannon, Mary Custy or Kevin Griffin playing in different combinations.

No visit to Doolin was complete, however, without hearing one of the legendary Russell brothers, Micho, Gus or Pakie. All three brothers inherited the great store of local music and folklore, which stretched back perhaps a thousand years. The tradition and spirit which the Russell brothers represented was the reason musicians and international visitors were drawn to the area in the first place, a fine, delicate spirit which still permeates the musical atmosphere of Doolin. Over the last three decades Micho, the more famous of the trio, took his vast repertoire of traditional music, story and songs to the world by recording several albums, television and radio appearances, publishing collections of these stories, songs and tunes, embarking on regular tours of Europe and the United States to become somewhat of a traditional music superstar. Amidst all this activity, he could still find time to sit quietly in one of the Doolin pubs, charming listeners with his hypnotic tin whistle or generally discussing any aspect of his music with anyone who approached him. Micho’s brothers Gus and Pakie were, in Michael Cody’s words, “..happy to stay in Doolin and let the world come to them.” Which indeed it did in numbers so great that a hostel, a Doolin-Deli and three restaurants quickly sprang up to deal with the increased volume of visitors. When the writer Hugo Hamilton visited the village in the summer of 1993, he found a very different Doolin than did Dylan Thomas or JM Synge several decades ago. Hamilton observed, “All species of traveller co-existed comfortably; backpackers, bandanas and bikers, Moto Guzzi and MCP Les Corbeaux emblazoned on their jackets.” He also saw the inherent dangers in this growing influx of visitors. “The danger now is tourism fatigue, not towards Germans or Australians, but the noisy Irish hordes who arrive on the weekends with their own homogeneous craic, singing Beatles songs in the beer-garden across the road from O’Connor’s Pub.”

But the magic of Doolin remains unique and special in a way that transcends even the music to be heard there. The Doolin that Michael Cody and several other writers have described has altered greatly over the last three decades. The huge influx of visitors each summer has seen to that. Gone is the changeless, Brigadoon-like atmosphere and way of life which pertained in the village until the mid to late Seventies. There is an International Hostel now in Doolin, complete with bureau de change, which houses visitors from as far away as Hamburg or Honolulu. The Fisher Street of today is a far cry from the Fisher Street of even twenty years ago, with its craft shop, delicatessen, record shop and restaurants. But apart from the dreamy, otherworld atmosphere which hangs over the village, it is the inhabitants, the pubs and the music which still attract pilgrims from every corner of the globe. A visit to any of the three music pubs in the village, O’Connor’s, McGann’s or McDermott’s, may now often seem like stepping into some great pan-European gathering. Swedes rub shoulders with Italians, Germans with Bretons and Australians with Americans. It is not uncommon to catch sight of foreign hitchers on the roads out of Dublin carrying cards with the word “Doolin” written on them.

In recent years it has become perhaps a little more difficult to witness the calibre of spontaneous music-session once common in Doolin. The sheer number of visitors, coupled with the number of often over-enthusiastic fiddlers and whistle-players-keen to join in the session and the craic - caused many local musicians to seek less congested havens to play their music. “The place has changed,” complained one musician who frequented Doolin in the Sixties and Seventies “that was the golden age of Doolin, when the Russell brothers, all three of them…. and Killourhy borthers could be heard in O’Connor’s Pub any evening, playing, singing, telling stories and talking to genuinely interested people. Now you have Americans or Australians coming to Doolin to listen to Germans or Dutch play Irish music! Many of the people who come these days, don’t really know why they’re there or even what theyre looking for.”

Nevertheless the village still attracts musicians and ordinary visitors from all corners and manages to retain its own unique new-age bohemian ambience. There still exists in Doolin a healthy sense of community, a vital, secure community which still exudes hospitality and friendliness. Moreover, though the very real danger exists of the emergence of an international, homogenised Doolin, the village still offers a wholeness, a totality of old-world culture that has been lost, discarded or ignored elsewhere in Irish society. One visitor from Alabama said of his visit to Doolin, “I never wanted to leave the place. The friendliness, the music…the fact that the rat-race has by-passed the place…the strange, magic light at dawn and dusk… It has that certain spirit in the air.” This, then, is part of the unique attraction of Doolin. If it is over-exploited or tampered with in an insensitive way, it may yet destroy that spirit, that special magic that lies at the heart of Doolin’s appeal.

Taken from Notes from the Heart: A celebration of Traidtional Irish Music by PJ Curtis (1994)

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