Miltown reveals itself in a quick glance from the passenger seat of Joe Burke’s taxi. As I peer up and down Main Street–the only street–I can’t help but feel I’ve made a mistake. This is the epicenter of the Irish music world? This is where one can put their finger on the tradition’s pulse?
I chose to travel through Ireland to learn more about rhythmic tropes in traditional dance music. One of my destinations was Miltown Malbay. Perched on the western edge of County Clare, Miltown is home to the Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, a renowned summer school and week-long festival celebrating traditional Irish music in memory of the great piper Willie Clancy. Classes in Irish instruments, set dancing, and sean-nós singing are offered to thousands of people at a generously low tuition.
But I’m a day early for the 41st Annual Willie Week, and I’m truly worried that I might be the only one at the festival. From the window of Joe Burke’s taxi, and then from the curb of Main Street with my backpack and mandolin at my feet, the town seems empty. There is no sense of an impending musical storm on the magnitude I’d been made to expect (“Masses descend on Miltown in the name of Music!” “Caravans filled with fiddlers line the sea!” “Sessions in lively pubs drive on into the wee hours!”).
There are four music stores in this one-horse town, but this is hardly unusual for Ireland. I’ve just arrived from a week on the east coast in Dublin, where I filled several days in music shops playing bouzoukis, pipes, whistles, and concertinas. Ireland, it seems, has no shortage of musical instruments, and Miltown is no exception. So I poke around the quiet shops, then wander the surrounding fields: Tall grassy squares, demarcated by knobbly stone walls, punctuated by low coastal houses with pastel-washed walls, squat chimneys, shingled roofs.
On the outskirts of town I (finally) meet another person who has traveled to Ireland for Willie Week. He’s shouldering several large duffel bags, a tent, and a concertina in a wooden box. He introduces himself as Beggs, from California. It’s his first week of a two-month journey, during which he’ll be camping and festival-hopping through the British Isles. I help him move his gear to a campsite about a kilometer away. At the campsite, two young lads are playing a lilting jig on Uilleann pipes and bodhrán. It’s the first music I’ve heard since I crossed the country.
Beggs and I begin the trek back into town to find some evening music sessions, and conversation turns toward dinner. A rugged outdoorsman, Beggs surprises me by saying he had once eaten mice while living off the land. “A mouse has three bites,” he explains to me. “The back bite has the muscle and fat, the middle bite has the organs and nutrients, and the front bite has the creaminess of the brain.” I ask how he brought himself to eat a mouse. “Hunger makes a fine sauce,” Beggs muses.
Luckily our circumstances aren’t nearly so dire. We decide to treat ourselves to a full dinner in celebration of the start of the festival. We step into The Bake House Restaurant. Now, Miltown is starting to flood with musicians: almost every seat is filled, and almost every patron has an instrument case beside them. The festival has begun. The Bake House advertises fresh fish, so we order the salmon. Beggs scarfs down his portion with his hands.
For the following five days and nights, tunes float from the doors and windows along Main Street. Though my Willie Week includes banjo classes, lectures on Irish music history, and frigid dips in the Atlantic Ocean, the festival is really about the sessions. Trad Sessions are cloaked in protocol and etiquette. Knowing when to play, where to sit, which tunes to suggest, when to move between keys or meters... The traditional session is a swift river, and I’m certain it takes being Irish to truly play along the current.
Sessions usually take place in a public house, or pub, and Miltown Malbay has, by my count, fourteen pubs, each packed ‘round the clock. During the day, patrons drink Bulmers hard cider near the entrances of the pub or play tunes indoors. At night, musicians gather in tight circles around tables crowded with half-full glasses of Guinness. Banjo necks and fiddle bows rise up and out of the circle like pins from a pincushion. In the later hours, sessions move into the streets, and tunes fill the cool night air.
For Willie Week, I live not in Miltown proper but at Spanish Point, named after the ships from the Spanish Armada that wrecked off the coast in 1588. Each night, in the haze of late evening, long before the pubs close their doors, I make my way out of the village, into the quiet countryside, and towards the sea. Even as the roar of the ocean comes into earshot, it will be a while yet before the lights of the caravans and the cliffs of Spanish Point come into view. But even after walking for an hour, I can still hear the wailing of the fiddles, the whoops and cheers of onlookers, and the low thrum of stomping feet.
~ Noah Fishman '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler