Posts Tagged With: Scoil Acla

Achill Island – a story of butterfly collections, Jehova’s Witnesses and old postcards.

During late July I spent a week on Achill Island in the west of Co Mayo. My reason for being there of course was music, a Summer School called Scoil Achla. This was my third time and I have spoken at length about it in my previous blogs. Indeed raved about it, so I won’t repeat that here. Just type Achill into the search box!  This time though I didn’t attend classes and to say I needed a break after the summer touring would be putting it too mildly. This was the perfect place to spend time away from the music but to have it on tap at the same time. At least that was my intention.

After my previous visits I thought I knew Achill. But what I discovered here was another Achill, not the one I had written about before. Oh that was all here too, the wonderful music and the undeniable beauty of this place as a Summer holiday destination.  So let’s get that over with.  Here are some shots that showcase Achill Island.  Hopefully you will hop onto the internet, book your accommodation and plan your trip as soon as possible.  But before you do read on……


This time I got to know the people.  I met some genuine Achill characters, people that shape the place now and reflect where it has come from.  In particular there was John O’Shea, quintessentially Ireland and quintessentially Achill. A more delightful person you will struggle to meet. He lives in the appropriately named “Beach House” and he welcomes you to his house with his whole being. Never short of a quip, or a quick riposte, or a yarn he would entertain and educate for hours given the chance. I was introduced by a friend and we connected straight away. He has a passionate interest in the history of Achill and collects photos, postcards, books and ephemera relating to this. This parallels my own interest in the early history of the Goldfields of Western Australia as well as our similar collecting interests.


So I spent quite a bit of time in his home as he generously allowed me to view his collections and we swapped stories.  He talked of the original settlement and the sale of the Island to the Rev Nangle and the establishment of the first village. Paintings by Alexander Williams and postcards dating  from 1903 to the First World War speak eloquently of an Achill which though much has disappeared is readily identifiable today. IG3C4770IG3C4778

One story that stuck with me was of a cruel landlord. Many of his tenants were killed in a tragic accident that took 25 lives. Because these families had lost their breadwinners and could not pay the rent they were evicted. This was 1847! in the height of the famine. He showed me a wooden bowl and a spoon made of horn, from this time, used to eat soup. This puts stories like this into harsh reality.IG3C6257

John is a truly charming man with a great line of patter and is quite one with the ladies. He is legendary for inviting visitors to the island to view his ‘butterfly collection’.  So for his 77th birthday his many friends on the island got together and created a butterfly collection for him. Each butterfly is cleverly designed to tell a story and is an individual work of art and he now proudly displays his ‘real’ butterfly collection.IG3C4755IG3C4744

He is also a man of spirit, a spirit I suspect comes from a harsh life in a remote place. He single handedly appealed a decision of his home insurers following their refusal to pay for storm damage and has taken it all the way to the High Court where he has tasted victory against the whole legal system railed against him. What we would call an Aussie Battler.

A lasting memory for me was of how he handled a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at his front door. They arrived moments after me so I was standing in the foyer listening. There was a father and his daughter. Two other daughters in the car if they needed the heavy artilery. They said they were from Germany but initially didn’t say what they wanted. The man’s first question to John was whether he had a God. A man of faith, John answered he did. “Does your God have a name?” John was well aware where they were headed and he dodged around the answer, quoting passages from the Bible, which completely threw the evangelist’s well rehearsed patter. The man was searching for passages to respond with on his tablet (that’s the android version not one of stone!) but was not able to recover. At the same time he charmed the daughter with handshakes and blessings and she could do nothing but smile. He had them on the ropes now as he asked whether they were Jehovah’s Witnesses knowing full well they were. When they affirmed, “Yes”, he said, “I have read the Watchtower and I think you have a different view of God to me”.  As the man tried to fight back then came the knock-out punch. “I’m so sorry I don’t have time to talk with you, my Australian cousin is here”.  I bet they don’t meet many like that.


There were so many highlights of my time on Achill. Here are a few that randomly jumped into my brain

  • Having a sean nós dancing lesson in one of the local pubs, from Pauline, a local artist and then being joined by some random punters for an impromptu performance.


  • Fired up by this I then did two proper sean nós dance workshops offered by the School. Thanks Pauline for dragging me along.

  • And then a bit of a dance on Keel Beach.IG3C6400
  • The Red Fox Gallery and Press and Frances and Antic-Ham who run it. Two people in such obvious harmony and in harmony with their special place over looking Doogart. Francis collects polaroid cameras and they produce the most stunning Polaroid photography and art in book form.IG3C5493

  • A walk on Keem Beach, one of the most beautiful in IrelandIG3C4870IG3C4910aIG3C5206

  • The constant mist that hangs over the hills; lifts like a dancer lifting her skirt and just as quickly letting it fall.  And occasionally she puts on a spectacular show in the evening light.  IG3C4617IG3C5555IG3C5469IG3C6091IG3C5549IG3C6301IG3C5313

  • Impromptu sessions in quiet pubs.

  • Noisy sessions in packed pubsIG3C5411IG3C5410IG3C5414IG3C5349

  • A lovely vegetarian meal with my new friends at Pauline’s house with views over Keel and then songs and tunesIG3C6282IG3C629413918672_10153802382657634_1999679985_o

  • Hot soup in the Beehive CaféIG3C6106

  • the labyrinth at the end of Keel beach. Mirroring the twists and turns of life and our endeavours to reach the centre.  IG3C6442IG3C6430

  • The evening light turning the cliffs yellow and red and reflecting on the shallow strand.IG3C6321IG3C5908IG3C5920IG3C5930IG3C5947

  • Fish and chips for my birthday at Geilty’s Pub. The best I have tasted in Ireland.  And at the same meal, my introduction to banoffee!

  • Nutella and banana pancakes sold from a caravan at the camping ground at Keel. No pictures sorry.  Too busy scoffing them down.
  • The sound of Paul Dooley’s Brian Boru harp,  Absolutely entrancing to all ages….IG3C5685a

  • Brendan Begley singingIG3C5579

  • Sessions in the Wave Crest Hotel, which only opens for the Scoil Acla week.IG3C5595

  • The Richview Hostel and the many international visitors who inhabited it

  • A swim in Keel Beach with Bridge and Siofra. Everyone else was wearing wetsuits! Still can’t believe I did that.13879371_1016935231760452_1295093538081463806_n

  • And I was still talking to Bridge afterwards so it was pizza with them at Pure Magic CafeIG3C5545

  • A visit to the workshop of Johnny Butler who took the time to show me how Uilleann pipes were made. A true craftsman.

  • A couple of hours at the Inishbiggle Festival including tunes in the tent and skipping rope.

Actually there’s a whole lot more but that gives you the gist.  I have said enough.  If you have lasted this long then you deserve a medal.  Achill is a special place and a special time.


Categories: Festivals, Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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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