Monthly Archives: May 2018

Scattery Island, Co Clare. An Irish Time Capsule.

At the southern end of West Clare, on an island just off the coast near the town of Kilrush, lies one of country’s best kept secrets.  But that’s changing. The word is out. Last year it was awarded a prestigious European Destination of Excellence award for Ireland for offering a ‘tangible cultural experience’ and visitor numbers are dramatically increasing.  In 2016 870 people visited the island.  This year they are expecting up to 6,000 people.

Before 2016 visiting the island was unpredictable.  If there was enough interest then a boat trip was organised.  That changed with the setting up of Scattery Island Tours two years ago.   They have just commissioned a spanking new ferry that comfortably accommodates 70 against the old one, which took 12, and this is certainly helping  but don’t let that put you off.  I spoke to Irene Hamilton, one of the principals of the company, about the her desire to open the island to a larger audience and at the same time preserve what it is that makes it special.  The island has so much to offer and you can tailor the experience to your own needs.  Join a guided tour and have the stories of the island explained or explore on your own.

Irene comes from a line of island residents.  Her father was born on the island and was a sea pilot as was his father.  This link and the remarkable foresight of the people of Kilrush has put the Company at the forefront of placing Scattery  as one of the must-see destinations of Clare.  Her vision is that visitors don’t just zip past on the way to Loop Head but stop overnight in Kilrush and explore the place at leisure.

So why is it special?  There’s actually nothing else like it.  A now uninhabited island with a continuous occupation that started over 1,500 years ago, beautifully preserved, easily accessed and in a spectacular location.

I had been trying on and off for a while to get onto the island but it just never happened. During an unusual warm spell in late May I tried again. The Gods were smiling this time and on a bright blue Thursday I boarded the An Breandàn for the short trip across the channel from Kilrush.  Irene told me that the boat was named for her father and it is no coincidence that Breandàn is also the patron saint of the sea.

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Boarding the ferry to Scattery

Actually the most time consuming part of the journey was in the lock at the entrance to the Marina. It was fascinating to see the water rush in as the gates opened to maintain the level in the Marina

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Water enters the lock

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Irene Hamilton, owner of the ferry company chats to patrons.

Once through the lock you see the island and its signature Round Tower rapidly approach you and in less than 15 minutes you are there. We were well looked after by  the efficient and friendly crew which included Irene’s sister Martina.  Irene was a mavellous host spending much of the time, when she wasn’t performing seafaring duties, chatting with patrons and and answering questions or helping with family photos or making cups of tea.

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Approaching the island.  The Round Tower dominates.

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The view from the pier,   The white cottage on the left is the Visitor Centre, Keane’s Castle is in the centre and the Round Tower can be seen in the distance.

When we arrived we were handed over to  Michael who acted as our guide. The guides are provided by OPW who manage the island.  They also maintain a small visitor centre.  The tour is roughly an hour and you visit all the monastic and archaeological sites with the exception of the lighthouse and the Battery.  This was certainly worth it as Michael has a wealth of background knowledge that fleshed out the story.   Next time however I will explore it on my own but I would certainly recommend the tour as a first time experience.  And anyway it’s included in the price of the ticket.

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The guided tour begins

The story of Scattery starts with the birth of St Senan, in 488AD in Molougha, a townland about 5 km from Kilrush in Co Clare. After a life of religious study including time in Rome he set up a monastery on Inis Cathaig in 532AD.  This is the original Irish name and over time it became anglicised as Scattery.  The name relates to the presence of a monster known as the  “The Cathach” which was said to inhabit the island.  On Senan’s arrival he apparently faced the monster and ordered it, in the name of the Trinity, to depart. Such was Senan’s power that The Cathach obeyed and retreated to Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

Little is known of Senan’s life or life under him in the monastery.  Many miracles are attributed to him however and his grave has continued to hold a sacred place among the people of West Clare and beyond. The grave is supposed to be the site of miraculous cures.  Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.  Water from St Senan’s Well had restorative powers.

We do know his rule on the monastery was austere and women were banned from even setting foot on the island.  St Senan died in 544, but it would appear that the monastery continued unimpeded until the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland in 795.  Scattery which lay on their route to Limerick was sacked between 816 and 835, being severely damaged. In 968 the Vikings were expelled from Limerick by Brian Boru and retreated to Scattery. Boru however pursued them and three years later the island was raided with up to 800 people being slaughtered.

In 1057 the Vikings had another go with the Dublin Danes plundering the island. Then again in 1101 Magnus, king of Norway attacked. The Normans arrived in 1176 and this led to an attack by William Howell, not even sparing the churches.  By 1189 the last Bishop of Scattery had died and the Diocese of Scattery was abolished. The English  now took possession of the island.  The end came however following the 1537 introduction of  the Suppression of the Monastries Act by Henry VIII.

Phew! That is some story.  It seems to have been touched by every major historical event that Ireland experienced.  There are many reminders of this tortured time in the ruins that can be seen on Scattery.  Churches that date back as far as the 8th century, the round tower built between 10th and 12th century,  St Senan’s well,  St Senan’s Bed.  I found this all totally absorbing.  Come with me on a virtual tour.

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St Mary’s Cathedral and Oratory.  Built in 8th Century and added to until the 15th century. The Round Tower in the distance.

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The eastern window of the Cathedral.  The carved stone head is said to be St Senan.

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View of the Cathedral from the west.

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Western doorway of the cathedral.  Note the tapered shape of the door under the heavy lintel.  The stone to the left is thought to be a balaun stone.

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A distant view of the Round Tower and the Cathedral.

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The Round Tower built between 8th and 10th Century. Note the unique doorway at ground level

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View from inside the Round Tower

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The Round Tower doorway.  Note the thick walls; over 1 metre.

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St Senan’s Well. During a drought St Senan prayed for water and an angel guided him to this spot.  The Sanit plunged his staff into the ground and water sprung forth.  

 

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Distant view of Cnoc an Aingeal (Hill of the Angel), One of the earliest surviving churches built on the site where Senan set foot on the island.

 

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Remaining early wall of the church on Cnoc an Aingeal.

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St Senan’s Church.  12th Century Romanesque style

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St Senan’s Bed, a small church built over the grave of St Senan.  The iron bar is supposedly designed to keep women from walking in.  Women who entered according to tradition will be cursed

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View of the Round Tower from the entrance to St Senans Church

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A stone table found near St Senans Church.  Thought to be a medieval grave slab carved with a beautiful celtic cross and with an inscription saying Or Do Moenach Aite Mogroin. (Pray to Moenach the teacher of Mogroin).

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Teampall Na Marbh (Church of the Dead). Built 14th and 15th Century.

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View across the graveyard of the Church of the Dead towards Cathedral and Tower

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Modern graves at the Church of the Dead

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The graveyard at the Church of the Dead continues to be used for burials.

But the island’s story did not end with Henry.  Its strategic position meant it was always in the centre of events.  The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a tower house constructed in the late 1500s can be seen at the pier.  The driver at this time was the invasion by the Spanish Armada and the Irish Rebellions which threatened English rule. Remains of gun installations are evident.

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The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a Tower House built in the late 1500s

The next phase of activity on Scattery though did not begin until the end of the 18th century. The French supported the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and in 1814 the impressive Artillery Battery was built by the English as part of the extensive defenses erected on the west coast of Ireland. Unfortunately I did not get to visit this time.  Or the lighthouse which was built later in the 19th Century.

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View of the lighthouse and Arillery Battery from Cnoc an Aingeal

In the early part of the 19th century secular settlement of the island picked up with the construction of a village to house families of river pilots who were based there.  This was when Irene’s descendants came.  The island replaced Kilbaha as the pilots base.  Considerably less rowing of the currachs was required now to reach the ships.

By 1881 the population had reached its maximum of 140 people.  Most of the residents lived in a small area known as ‘The Street’.   Many of these structures still remain and though boarded off  from visitors the closely spaced buildings give us a real feel for what was a comfortable and prosperous community until its eventual demise.

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The Street.  The village that housed pilots and their families from the early 1800s

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The Street.  Another view

Through the 20th century the population continued to decline especially after the pilots were transferred to the mainland in 1954. The last two residents eventually left the island in 1978.  This fact somehow puts the whole story of the island into context.  Its settlement is still in living memory.

There are many reminders of this time aside from the ruins of  The Street and elsewhere.  Many of the gravestones at Tempall Na Marbh, which although being  the youngest of the churches on the island  (14th or 15th century), are beautifully preserved.  Many date from pre-famine time and contain symbolic representations that not only represent religious iconography but tell the story of residents lives.  Though the church ceased to be operative centuries ago many descendants chose to be buried there and they still do today.

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Beautifully engraved gravestone at Church of the Dead.  Dating from 1828

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Engraved symbolic representations on a grave stone including images of a three masted ship and a hooker and perhaps shipwright’s tools.  Presumably the deceased was a mariner.

Following the end of settlement the island lay empty for many years,  This could have been the end of the story as the island eventually passed into the hands of a developer with grand plans for a marina.  Luckily this came to naught and the island was eventually sold to a Belgian group. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a group of Kilrush residents who pushed hard to regain ownership and ultimately bought the island back.  These residents still own the island and they ceded management to the State.

That is a great outcome.  It is not hard to imagine that in years to come Scattery will become one the essential Irish monastery sites to visit; right up there with Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.

Put it on your agenda for your next visit.

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Frank Custy. A Legend. “The best day of my trip”.

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Frank Custy is a legend in Clare music.

Never moving far from his birthplace at Dysart the man has nurtured and inspired hundreds to play and participate in Irish traditional music. A visionary who, as a schoolmaster at nearby Toonagh, integrated music into the teaching day and beyond.  Many came under his spell.  Sharon Shannon, Gary Shannon, Siobhan Peoples, Sean Conway, Yvonne Casey, Tola Custy and Mary Custy and hundreds who are not household names – all going on to make their own mark on Clare music. His work was recognised with the Mór glor award for his contributions in 2016.

But the thing is he is still doing it.

At Fleadh Nua held in Ennis in May Frank runs the Foinn Seisiún, held every afternoon during the Festival.

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Frank on the banjo and friends

This is a slow session aimed at developing musicians where they can get confidence in playing or singing in front of others in a supportive environment. It is always well attended. Anything could happen. Everyone gets a go to try out a new tune or a song.  No matter the age.  There are no barriers. You might even get an Australian singing the Clogher Road.

Or you could get a Connemara Set or a Seige of Ennis, with unsuspecting visitors being cajoled into it.

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The joy on the faces of Jo from Birmingham or Megan from Texas, new to Irish dancing,  as they are swept up onto the floor,  says it all.

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Jo from Birmingham in good hands

 

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Megan from Texas and Jo from Birmingham, learning the steps for the Siege of Ennis.

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All ages enjoy it.  

I met TJ,  travelling here with Megan from Texas.  They dropped into Ennis for a day.    As TJ said. “the best day of our trip”.

Who knows how many have gone on to play Irish music or learn to dance after having heard Frank and having the “best day of their trip”.

A big thank you to Frank Custy.

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Backyard archaeology. Right under our feet. Caherush, Co Clare.

I have spent a lot of my time traipsing around the country exploring archaeological treasures. Ring forts, portal tombs, standing stones, castles, sile-na-gigs, you name it.   I have photographed them and blogged about them. In all that time though I completely forgot to document the archaeology of my own back yard. And I mean literally my own backyard.

In January 2014 Clare, along with much of the west coast of Ireland, was struck with a number of ferocious storm that destroyed beaches and did massive damage to seaside communities. This happened four months before I arrived but the effects can still be seen today.   Hardest hit were places like Lahinch, White Strand, Spanish Point, Quilty, Seafield Pier, Doonbeg, Kilkeee, Kilbaha and Carrigaholt.

In fact the house at Caherush, that was to become mine, was hit hard and inundated, with the then occupants having to be evacuated.

The massive high tides and waves, while doing such obvious damage also uncovered some really interesting things that were previously unknown. For example near Spiddal a ‘petrified’ forest of ancient bog oak was laid bare and, closer to home, a peat layer now covered again was exposed in the bay at Caherush.

This blog is about what was found in the backyard of my cottage after the gravel was stripped away by the waves.  Evidence of long since gone farm buildings was uncovered. A number of different types of paving in close proximity were revealed and these appear to represent the floors of old farm buildings. The site covers 10m x 4m.

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Paving of old farm buildings in the backyard of the cottage at Caherush.

There are cobblestones, setts and flagging, each belonging to a building with a different function.  The original buildings would have been aligned north south. At the southern end an area of cobblestone paving was revealed.

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Cobblestone floor of an old stable.

Cobblestones are one of the earliest forms of paving, the term first being used for roadways in the 15th century in England. The use of cobbles though actually started with the Romans around 250AD. True cobblestones, are small, natural stones with edges smoothed by water, either by the ocean or rivers.  These undressed stones, or cobbles, are often of a flattened egg-shape and were used in their natural state without being worked in any way.  The stones are carefully selected and laid in sand pointy end down and were packed tightly together to provide a relatively smooth and durable surface. This construction has excellent drainage and so they were much longer lasting than the alternative of the time which was dirt. They would also have been used frequently in stables which it is believed was the case here.  A lot of thought went into selecting stones of similar size and shape and in aligning them. It is amazing that it has survived.

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Detail view of the cobblestone paving

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Typical cobblestones selected to be of similar shape and dimensions

Cobblestones went out of favour in the early 1700s and were replaced with setts which are worked into rectangular shapes but still laid the same way. These are actually what people would be most likely to refer to as cobblestone paving now.

So, there is no way of knowing how old this floor is as the tradition of using cobbles may have continued on farms much longer than their use in roadways, especially near the sea. But it could conceivably be pre 18th century,

Next to the cobbles is an area of large irregular slate flagging probably much more recent and representing an access way between the stable and the building to the north. Adjacent to this slate is a beautifully preserved shallow drainage trough made from sandstone setts aligned east west in the direction of drainage. Immediately north of this is a level area of setts in the same rock type and apparently of the same vintage, aligned north south. This area is believed to have housed cattle who would have stood on the level area facing north, which would have enabled the trough to catch their effluent and drain it away. Clever really.

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Cattle shed floor looking from the west.  The drainage trough is in the centre and the area where the cattle stood on the left

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View of cattle shed site from the east.

And then north of this is an area of large flags of Liscannor stone. Mikey Talty who was born in the cottage 80-odd years ago remembers this as a piggery, though he had no recollection of other structures where the cobbles and setts are. The north wall of the piggery had a doorway and this can be seen now filled in in the same style as the surrounding stone wall beneath a lovely stone lintel.

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Piggery floor.  Infilled doorway can be seen.

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Close up of infilled doorway

So there was continued usage of this site to house animals with evidence suggesting the possibility that it may go back over three hundred years.

I think that’s cool. And in my back yard too.

Disclaimer: These conclusions are my own and based on my own observations as well as the recollections of the Talty family. I am not an archaeologist but if anyone out there has specific knowledge of the use of cobbles in farm buildings and their age I would love to hear from you.

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Castle Gan Ainm. A castle in your front yard? Only in Ireland.

How would you like a castle in your front yard?  Well in Ireland you can have one.  They say a man’s home is his castle.  Or should that be a man’s castle is in his home.

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Just imagine the things you could do with your very own castle.  Like, use it to store your ride-on mower or maybe as a cubby-house for the kids.

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A home for the ride-on

 

I came across this one recently.  It is just on the outskirts of Liscarroll in Co Cork, which of course has its own Castle that dominates the village.  I could not find a name for this one though, so hence I have christened it Castle Gan Ainm, but it is just like the many hundreds of Tower Houses you find all over Ireland.

This one though is literally in the front yard of a farmer’s house.

It is in surprisingly good condition really and many of the features of such houses are preserved.  For example there is a chute from what would have been the garderobe (fancy name for medieval toilet – comes from the cry ‘garde robe’ made as a warning to those below, before effluent was unceremoniously tipped onto the street).  There are also a few modern additions such as the ‘rooftop garden’ comprising, at this time of the year, gorse in full bloom.

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Chute for waste products from the ‘gardebrobe’

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A rooftop garden

And of course the resident border collie. The Keeper of the Keep?

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The Keeper of the Keep

 

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The Long Room, Trinity College Library. A Bibliophile’s Heaven.

Most of my readers will not be aware that aside from Irish music and photography which I combine in my blog, another of my other passions is old books. That makes me a bibliophile. If you are on the same wavelength as me then you can understand the feeling that you get when you visit the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin.  It’s like you have been given early access to the Pearly Gates. Even if you aren’t into books it remains one of the most beautiful rooms in the world and you should see it anyway.

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The Long Room, Old Library.

The Trinity College library is huge, located in a number of buildings both on and off campus. The Old Library is located in Thomas Burgh’s architectural masterpiece ,a building which dominates the Trinity landscape.

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The grounds of Trinity College.  The Old Library is on the right.

It was founded along with the University in 1592 and 70 years later was presented by Vice Chancellor and benefactor, Henry Jones, with its most famous accession, the Book of Kells. In 1656 the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, bequeathed his valuable library, comprising several thousand printed books and manuscripts, to the Library.  This forms the core of the remarkable collection of 200,000 of the oldest books now housed in what is known as the Long Room.

This 65 metre long chamber was built between 1712 and 1732. Initially it had a flat ceiling and books on only one level. In 1860 to accommodate the ever expanding collection the roof was raised and a second level of shelving added along with a stunning curved ceiling.

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Up until 1860 there was only one level with a flat ceiling

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The second level and curved ceiling

Rich wood paneling, wrought iron staircases, giant frosted windows providing a gorgeous filtered light that gives the books a golden glow all add to the ambiance of what is a very special place.

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A remarkable space

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Stairway to Upper Level

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Lots of natural light

The books are housed in a series of double sided shelves labelled A to V on the right side and AA to VV on the left. Interestingly J and JJ are missing as this letter was only added to the English alphabet around 1630. The individual shelves are labelled a to o or aa to oo (again j missing) from the ground up and then individual books are numbered from 1 left to right. This gives each book a unique location number for example, DD m 5. A surprisingly effective pre Dewey-system ifor finding a book

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Cataloging system using letters and numbers

The Long Room is lined with marble busts of authors, philosophers and college benefactors. All white men by the way. Fourteen of the busts are by the famous sculptor Peter Scheemakers.

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Busts line the hall

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Of course the Library is best known for the Book of Kells (of which two copies are on display) in the attached museum but other prized acquisitions are on display in the Long Room. There is one of the last remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read by Patrick Pearse near the General Post Office on 24 April 1916. It was much bigger than I thought.

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A copy of the 1916 Proclamation

The beautiful “Brian Boru harp” is also housed here. This instrument is the oldest of its kind in Ireland dating back to the 15th century. The harp is made out of oak and willow, beautifully carved, and includes 29 brass strings (originally 30).

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The Brian Boru harp

The books themselves are are of course the centerpiece. They are beautifully bound. Mostly of course leather and vellum. Sometimes bindings are works of art themselves. Many are tattered, reflecting years of loving use. Unfortunately you can’t get up close but most books that I could read the titles of are of course in Latin, the language of scholars of the day, and many are apparently religious tracts. But significant proportion I noticed were in English. Shelves full of books on medicine for example caught my attention.

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Books on medicine

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Sometimes a little tape is required

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Ridges characteristic of cord-bound books

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A well used vellum bound set of Works of Andrea Gallandi an Italian scholar who died in 1780

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Bindings of many colours display the bookbinder’s art on this early Bible

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Original editions of works by  Aldrovandus, an Italian naturalist, the father of Natural History, who died in 1605

As a collector, familiar with the value of rare books one can only speculate on the value of such a unique collection and I would suggest that many of the books would be unobtainable. The beauty of them being here and not in a private collection is of course that you could access it if you needed to.  Libraries have adapted to the digital age and surprisingly still remain very popular. The death of the book is wildly exaggerated. Long live the book.

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Oysters and Trad Music. And sunshine. Sound like Ireland?

May Day weekend in Ireland is one of the busiest music weekends of the year. There is too much choice and if you live in the west you probably think of going to the Cuckoo Fleadh at Kinvara or the festival at Louisburgh. I am sure the Carrigaholt Oyster and Traditional Weekend does not come into your consideration. Well it should.

To be honest I didn’t even know it existed until I prepared the listing of Festivals, which you can find elsewhere on this blog (A Feast of Festivals) but I decided to eschew the larger festivals and the jam packed sessions and head south to this tiny village.

Carrigaholt is not a name that immediately springs to mind and, in fact, I suspect that many, even Clare, people only have a vague notion of where it is, tucked away in the very south west of the county.  Many visitors come to nearby Loop Head but most, indeed including myself, seem to miss Carrigaholt.

I was attracted by the mention of oysters among other things.  Just love fresh oysters.  Sunday arrived with a clear blue sky and a positively balmy 15 degrees so guess where I went.

Carrigaholt is located on the shores of the Shannon Estuary but is a struggling village, like many in the west of Ireland. Population of the village itself is down to 40 and I am told that of that there are only two children. There are four pubs, a small shop inside one of them, a restaurant with brilliant food and a gift shop. But not much else. Oh, and there is Carrigaholt Castle, one of the most elegant tower houses in Clare, which sits on the water’s edge, and a stunning coastal drive towards Kilbaha with some beautifully exposed geology as well.

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The imposing entrance gate to the Carrigaholt Castle

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Another view of Carrigaholt Castle ruin.  One of the most beautiful in Clare.

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West of Carrigaholt on the Coast Road.  Pink Thrift in the foreground and Loop Head in the distance.

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Gently folded strata.  Looking across to Loop Head

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Stunning scenery on the Coast Road from Carrigaholt

Yet for this weekend the streets were jammed and the pubs crowded. Little local festivals like this are the heartbeat of the traditional scene and mean so much to these isolated villages and I love them. I found myself as possibly the only person in town who had traveled there specifically and who didn’t have some connection to the village. Most were either locals, former residents or family visitors. But I was welcomed fulsomely; like joining a family party as the long lost cousin from Australia.

The weather helped of course. Everything was out on the street. An early so-called Junior Session was the first event of the day. ‘Junior’ is the wrong word. The session was led by members of the Maguire family from Wicklow and the music was anything but kid’s stuff. I was stopped in my tracks by Aiofe Maguire doing a concertina solo that showed a truly phenomenal mastery of the instrument. Playing with her were sister Emma on fiddle and Sean, still only 11, wowing all with his fiery bodhran playing. I had another chance to see them later in the day at the Long Dock.

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The ‘Junior Session’.  Some were more interested in other things

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Aoife and Sean Maguire on the street at  Carrigaholt

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The Maguires perform in front of the Long Dock

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The Maguires

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Robbie Walsh with Emma Maguire

The afternoon and evening was filled with sessions at all four pubs. Mainly local musicians from the district, including members of another talented family from west Clare, the Brownes, with some sensational sean nos dancing in the street from Colm Browne.

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In my element.  Thanks Pat Keating for the photo.

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Sean nos dancing on the street from Colm Browne

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Colm Browne with grandfather Tommy Browne.  A musical dynasty continues

I watched a bodhran workshop on the street led by the renowned Robbie Walsh and his Bodhran Buzz. I had to fight mightily the temptation to grab one and have a go but I resisted.

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Joining in the Bodhran Buzz

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Wherever you can find a seat

And later I joined Clare musicians Geraldine and Eamonn Cotter and their extended family for a marvelous couple of hours of tunes and songs.

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The Cotter family plus

Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves in their own way but for some ice cream was the order of the day.

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Totally absorbed.  A family day out.

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I scream and you scream.

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Let out of the Convent for the day or a very Irish Hen’s Party?  Your call.

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Paparazzi.  Can’t escape.

 The party continued at Keane’s Pub well into the night but after 9 hours of playing I made a quiet exit and left them to it.

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Oh and by the way I got my free plate of delicious local oysters!

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Fiddling with oysters

Categories: Festivals, My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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