Irish Music Summer Schools and Scoil Acla

For the last forty years one of the great fixtures of the Irish summer is the Irish traditional music school. There is a now well-worn trail that starts with the Willie Clancy School in Milltown Malbay in the first week of July and then moves  to Tubbercurry in South Sligo and then to Drumshanbo in Lietrim and, if you are still up for it, to Achill in the last week of July. And of course you can go on back to Clare to Feakle which is a shortened version and a number of other weekends in late Summer and indeed right through the year. Not everyone goes to them all so I think I am in the rather unique position of having been to each of the big ones twice now.
Each summer school has its own personality and it is meaningless to say which is best because they all deliver something different. They are all structured around five or six days of classes with three hours a day. Tutors are often world class musicians and the classes are nominally graded. I say ‘nominally’ because the grading process is largely fairly haphazard. At some, such as Willie Week, you are auditioned and are placed in a supposedly appropriate class. At others they ask you how many years’ experience you have and base it on that. Some let you choose your tutor. In any case most schools then allow you to change to whichever teacher you want. So it can be fairly random. Not a perfect system and sometimes it can lead to individual frustrations but for the most part it works and I should say that mixing adults and kids doesn’t worry me as the younger ones are often much quicker to pick up tunes.
People go to the schools with different objectives. Many just go to learn tunes – the more the better. And some teachers oblige. Other tutors talk about their approach to the music or focus on technical aspects or rhythm or bowing or some other detail. These are the ones I like most. One school I attended earlier this year in Ballyferriter we had Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh who worked for the whole workshop on one note, dealing with dynamics, tone and expression. I got so much from that. But on the other hand learning lots of tunes by ear is a great discipline and that’s what I got at Scoil Acla (more later).
First of course was Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy set up in 1973 to honour the contribution of the extraordinary piper, Willie Clancy. After a slow start it gathered momentum to become the premium music school in the country with now over 1200 students each year. Fiddle alone attracts 450 students and there are 26 tutors. Right from the start the teachers have been of the highest quality and people come from all over the world to be there. Very quickly it also became a meeting place for musicians and sessions were legendary. Many of the local pubs in Miltown Malbay and surrounding villages have become institutions. Pubs such as Friels, Queeley’s, the Blondes (Cleary’s), Crosses of Anagh, Gleeson’s, McCarthy’s and more. Some of these have unfortunately gone. This model was used for all the other schools which came later and most also attract musicians, listeners, and dancers who are not attending classes. This turns the School into a Festival and there are often concerts, recitals, talks, cd launches and a formal or informal session trail. The quality of sessions at the Schools is highly variable and ranges from messy to brilliant and many of the small villages just do not have enough pubs to accommodate the influx.  I will talk about this another time.
For now though I would like to focus on Achill which is actually quite unique as a result of its special location and character .
Achill Island is in the west of Mayo and is just an hour from Westport and easy to reach over a bridge from the mainland. This connection detracts a little from that wonderful feeling of isolation that you get by taking a boat such as to the Arran Islands but once you are there you are ensnared by the charms of the place. It is the perfect location for a Summer School. It is a Gaeltacht and so Irish (the unique Achill dialect) is spoken everywhere, it is starkly scenic in that west coast sort of way. There are hills, lakes, beaches, oh and sheep. Any place that gives right of way to sheep has to be special!
The school in its current incarnation has been going 30 years but actually dates back to 1910 making it one of the oldest in the country. Classes are held in all popular instruments at beginner and advanced level as well as Irish language (Gaelig’ Acla), sean nos singing and dancing, set dancing, creative writing and, believe it or not, one of the most popular classes, basket weaving. Venues are spread out and students worry about how they will get there but they do and miraculously it all works.
The school is run by a dedicated committee of locals, much as a church fete, and as I say you wonder how it all comes together; but it does. I guess they’ve had thirty years to get it right. Just a few people running around madly make it all happen. I didn’t meet everyone on the committee but the few I did such as Diarmid Gielty and Orla and Siobhan McGinty throw themselves into it wholeheartedly. They are involved also in the teaching and bring a personal touch. I saw Orla sit with a young concertina player in a session for at least an hour coaxing and coaching her through the tunes and settling her nerves. This to me was the Spirit of Scoil Acla.
It is a great way to combine music with an holiday. In fact after the daily workshop there are no organised events so depending on the weather you can swim at Keel Beach or Keem Strand, or walk through the deserted village or climb Slievemore or explore the tiny hamlets, or visit megalithic monuments or practice fiddle or sleep. Or meet up with some fellow students for some quiet tunes. Then the challenge of the evening is to find a session. There are only three venues but they are spread out and you do need to plan or have a car. But then you can luck in. You often have to rely on intelligence (I have my network of spies now) so I was lucky with a session of locals including four pipers at Lynagh’s (a tiny one room pub well out of town which fills pretty quickly and when there is a session musicians take up most of the seating!).  There is a traditional Bb session at the Wave Crest Hotel (a decaying symbol of former better times for tourists on the Island) led by Mick O’Brien with the likes of Harry Bradley, and a host of other pipers, A session at the Annexe with a packed bar most nights and one memorable night, following a text I received at 1230 am at Geiltys with tunes with Declan Folan, Diarmid Geilty and some world class (sic) dancing from Cormac and Brendan Begley until way after 3 am. One night I even found myself at an Italian themed party at the local hostel with the owner and his family and the extended temporary family of international residents.
But what of the School. I can’t speak for the other classes but I had a week of tutor Liam O’Connor, a powerhouse of a fiddler based in Dublin. We were learning up to four tunes a day, very quickly going through it phrase by phrase and then playing it over and over until it had sunk in. The standard of students was very high so most picked it up quickly. Some didn’t, but no one left the class. For me, I struggled last year but this year I was able to cope and I guess that’s a sign the hard work of the last year is starting to pay off. I loved it.  Then there is the traditional students concert, which I also love. An audience of adoring parents and grandparents, phones and cameras trained on the semi trailer bogey as the kids and some adults have their big day up on the stage. It is unique among the schools. Of course being Achill, despite the sunny start a storm swept through on cue, but the music continued unabated.  Check out the phot of the little red boot poking out from under the umbrella!
And finally  I should also mention the great camaraderie between visitors, musicians, locals, publicans, punters, tutors; everyone is included. Oh and a special thanks to Diarmid for finding my shoulder rest which I lost last year! Who would have thought that twelve months later it would still be sitting behind the bar.  And to all the wonderful friends I have made from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Japan, Australia and of course every corner of Ireland.
I hope these photos give you something of the Spirit of Scoil Acla and that you will make the effort to get there next year. And thanks to Nuria for the shots with me in them.

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Categories: Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Irish Music Summer Schools and Scoil Acla

  1. Lovely, Bob. I so enjoy reading your prose. Your photographs tell such great stories too! it was a pleasure meeting you in Feakle.

  2. coosa2015

    Let us know if your fiddling journeys ever bring you to Asheville, North Carolina!

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