Back in 2004, I wrote a single paragraph about my experience of spending a music-filled week in the west of Ireland:
The whole experience was extremely inspiring, and I’m now determined to practice the fiddle like mad so that when I go back to Willie Week (hopefully next year), I can keep up with the brisk pace set in most Irish music sessions.
What happened instead was that I stopped playing fiddle altogether and 15 years passed before we went back to Willie Week.
I don’t really know why that happened. I guess other things got in the way—I was in the middle of my master’s degree at the time, and I started getting some big translation projects, and most of musical energy was going into Salter Cane. Also, we weren’t playing in any Irish sessions in Brighton so there wasn’t as much motivation to keep going. On top of that, it was really awkward to practice the fiddle while living in what was essentially a shared house with absolutely no soundproofing. So at some point the fiddle went into its case and didn’t come out again for a decade and a half.
The impetus for finally giving it another go was the trip to Germany I mentioned in my last blog post. One of the dear friends we were celebrating with was Schorsch, who has not only been my translation buddy but is also a fellow lapsed trad musician. Schorsch had dusted off his concertina and was trying to re-learn a few tunes before the Easter weekend, and I got it into my head that I should dust off my fiddle and do the same. I wound up playing quite a lot of fiddle over that weekend, and when we got back to Brighton, I kept practicing and eventually plucked up the courage to take the fiddle to the local session. Then I started taking a Saturday-morning tune-learning workshop with Jeremy, and at some point we talked about going to an Irish music festival over the summer, and the next thing I knew we had booked flights and a hotel room: we were finally going back to Willie Week.
“Willie Week” is more properly known as Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, or the Willie Clancy Summer School. And that’s what it actually is: a week-long school where you can take lessons in everything from harp playing to step dancing to conversational Irish. It’s accompanied by non-stop, freewheeling music sessions in and around the town of Miltown Malbay, but the school is what started it all. When we went 15 years ago, I didn’t take fiddle lessons for one simple, sad reason: you get placed in classes by playing a short bit of a tune for an assessor, who gauges your skill level and decides where you should go, and I was so terrified of the thought of having to play in front of someone that I couldn’t bring myself to do it (I absolutely blame this fear on the clarinet audition fiasco of 1987). I was determined to take lessons this time around, but I can’t say I was any less terrified of the thought of the grading process.
The last time around we stayed in a “B&B” (really just somebody’s house with rooms rented out during Willie Week) in the middle of nowhere. My overriding memory of the place is of being woken up in the middle of the night by what sounded like a pack of drunken men breaking into the house, but was in fact just a pack of drunken men stumbling into the house to noisily find their rooms and go to sleep. I don’t recall the donkey, and I certainly don’t recall having to walk 5(!) miles into town every(!) day, but I do recall standing on the beach at Spanish Point in the sunshine one morning, a moment preserved in one of my all-time favorite pictures of myself.
This time around—older, lazier, and with somewhat more disposable cash—we decided to do things in style and stay at the Armada Hotel at Spanish Point. This turned out to be both a good and a bad idea: good because we had a lovely room and the hotel was just a few minutes walk from the school where the music classes were held, and bad because the Armada hosted a number of musical events each evening (set dancing, “trad disco”), including poundingly loud Country and Irish bands playing in a tent right outside our bedroom window until 1 a.m. every. single. night. Their shows would generally end with the Irish national anthem (apparently this is a thing), and it’s hard to overstate the relief I would feel finally hearing the opening, countryfied strains of Amhrán na bhFiann (🎶 Sinne Fianna Fáil 🎶) at the end of each long, noisy, busy day.
Those days started with a quick breakfast and then three hours of fiddle class. The first day was just as nerve-wracking as I expected it to be. Jeremy and I arrived at the school at 9 to register for our respective classes (Jeremy took a fascinating course on the Scope of Irish Music), and after registration I was directed to the room where the fiddle students were being graded for class placement. Most of the music students at Willie Week are Irish kids and teenagers, so I felt doubly out of place as I milled around in the noisy hall outside the small room before finally slinking in.
It was all very free-form: chairs had been set up in a semi-circle, and you just had to find a seat and wait for one of the two graders to get around to you. When I sat down, a young guy was playing a reel a few chairs away from me, and it was…simply amazing. Lively, nuanced, full of ornamentation—the graders were clearly impressed. Then a kid on the other side of me scratched out a few bars of a tune, and finally it was my turn. Terror must have been written all over my face because the grader kindly acknowledged that this was the worst part of the day, and I quipped that this was the worst part of my LIFE, and he laughed and said “Go to room 26.” I was confused: “What? Should I— I mean, I can play something…” “No, no, just go to room 26. You’ll be with some other adults. Claire will take care of you.” After having worked up the courage to play, I was relieved yet also oddly deflated that I didn’t have to. But I packed up my fiddle again and trundled off to room 26.
“Claire” turned out to be Claire Egan, an Irish fiddler from London who did indeed take good care of me and the 10 other students she had been entrusted with. There were three young Irish girls in the class, but the rest of us were adults and all but two of us were not Irish (I don’t know the exact figures, but my impression was that the majority of adult learners at Willie Week were North American). Claire taught us tunes by ear, and we dove deep into various parts of them, exploring options for bowing, phrasing and ornamentation—aspects that I don’t give nearly enough thought to when I’m playing.
Even though I’ve been learning tunes by ear for a few months now, I had to concentrate fiercely to keep up; one reel in particular just did not want to stick in my head, and I kept having to “cheat” and look at the notation. Everyone else seemed to be doing fine, but when we occasionally went around the room and had to play phrases individually (utterly terrifying at first, only slightly less terrifying as the week went on), I realized that we were all grappling with our own issues on this ridiculously unforgiving instrument. Most importantly, though, it was a totally safe space where you could make glaring, scratchy, atonal mistakes and not be judged for it. Everyone was supportive and friendly, and I was happy to walk into class each morning and spend time with these other enthusiastic women.
After our respective classes, Jeremy and I would meet outside the school and go to lunch (like ~boyfriend and girlfriend~). Lunch generally consisted of a “carvery” back at the Armada (i.e. variations of a Sunday roast with all the fixings, i.e. a mountain of meat and vegetables, including two variations of potato), followed by a 3-kilometer stroll into Miltown Malbay with our instruments on our backs (we might be somewhat lazier now but we’re not totally lazy).
There’s no good way to describe Miltown during Willie Week other than ceol agus craic. There are only about 1,500 permanent residents in Miltown and the surrounding area, but that many people again show up during Willie Week to take classes, and thousands more come just to soak up the music and atmosphere (that would be the aforementioned ceol agus craic). The pubs are jammed, kids busk on the sidewalks, every second person has an instrument with them, jigs and reels float out of windows and down the streets, dancers tippity-tap their way through tunes indoors and out, and you’re just as likely to find a session in a cafe or fish-and-chip shop as you are at the back of a bar. At times you can barely move for all the people, and at times this is very frustrating (especially when you’re trying to maneuver with a fiddle case slung over your shoulder). But at times you find that perfect nook with the perfect relaxed session, and all the preceding jostling seems worth it.
The only session I actually managed to play in myself was a delightful one organized by fellow members of Jeremy’s Irish music website, The Session. Most of the other sessions in town were way above my skill level and way, way too fast (or slow enough for me to play in but way, way too crowded). While there are countless amazing musicians at Willie Week—I was fascinated in particular by the hipster-looking teenagers rocking away on fairly un-hip button accordions and banjos—I found the relentless speed wearing me down after a while, even just as a listener. It was more fun (and extremely humbling) to see young kids expertly whipping through tunes on their little fiddles and concertinas, or to come across sessions with somewhat older musicians who clearly didn’t have anything to prove to each other and were just playing together for the joy of it.
We went to an organized music recital each evening featuring Willie Week teachers and other respected performers: fiddlers the first night, flutes and whistles the next, then uilleann pipers (amazing), and finally a rollicking show of set and step dancing that had the audience whooping. There were lots of other scheduled events we could have attended—concertina recitals, dances, lectures—but we opted for the element of chance, wandering from pub to pub until we were so tired that even the prospect of Country and Irish couldn’t keep us from retiring to the hotel.
On our last evening, the unremitting crowds and element of chance took us on a funny little detour: With every single pub in Miltown packed to the gills, we decided to take a taxi out of town in the hopes of catching a quieter session in a more rural pub. We didn’t want to stray too far, so we opted for the Crosses of Annagh, an excellent name for what was, at one time, apparently a great pub for a session. That time is no longer, however. When the taxi driver dropped us at the crossroads at dusk, the Crosses of Annagh was lit up but suspiciously quiet. We poked around outside, heard music coming from somewhere, rattled timidly on a locked door, followed the faint strains of music to what was clearly a private house, and then stood perplexed in the deepening gloom, wondering what to do next.
At that point we heard more music, only this time it was much tinnier and getting closer: a man was walking alone down the country road, heading straight towards us. This was, admittedly, somewhat unsettling (we were at a CROSSROADS at DUSK, for pity’s sake—I mean, I want to be a better fiddler, but I have my limits). But because this is Ireland, and Ireland is a funny old place, the lone man approaching us turned out to be someone we actually know from Brighton: a flute player who was staying at the ad-hoc B&B from which we had heard the music to begin with. It was he who informed us that the Crosses of Annagh had ceased being pub several years ago, so we had been prowling around trying to break into what was now a private home (turns out we’re the devils).
Fortunately my phone reception was pretty decent in the middle of County Clare, so I called a local taxi to come rescue us. Our phone exchange was funny (“Can you pick us up at the Crosses of Annagh?”—“Where are you?”—“The Crosses of Annagh? Where the pub used to be?”—“Ah, you found the pub with no beer!”), and our cab ride equally so. When the cabbie pulled up in his transit van (“I’ve found you at the pub with no beer!”) he already had another passenger, a local woman who had collected a bag of takeaway food from town. He said he just needed to drop her off at home around the corner and then he’d take us back to our hotel. “Around the corner” seemed to be in another county altogether, and as we bumped down the dark and twisty rural roads, we all got to chatting (as you do, because Ireland), and of course (because Ireland) the woman wound up having a connection to the wonderful Druid pub in Boston, where we have been known to enjoy a good session.
As we were finally heading to the Armada, we passed another bright and busy hotel, the Bellbridge. The cab driver said, “Do you want me to drop you here instead? Looks like there’s a lot going on!” And since we didn’t really fancy the Country and Irish back the Armada, which was just a short walk away anyway, we said, “Sure, why not?” This turned out to be a very good choice. There were little pocket sessions everywhere: outside on the terrace, inside in the bar, and in the lobby area between the two, where a big circle of kids who couldn’t have been older than 10 were blasting through tunes, surrounded by parents and friends and delighted onlookers. We drank Guinness, we ate ice cream, Jeremy played a few tunes, and as it pushed on towards 1 a.m. (🎶 Sinne Fianna Fáil 🎶) and we found ourselves eyeing up the onion-smothered hot dogs from a suspicious-looking steamer next to the ice cream counter, we decided it was probably time to go back to our own hotel and call it a night.
Now that we’re home again, I hesitate to do what I did 15 years ago and write about how inspired I am after all of this, and how I’m absolutely, totally going to knuckle down with my fiddle practice. But things do feel a bit different this time around. We’ve become part of an Irish music community in Brighton and we’re going to sessions regularly and even doing the occasional spot at a local folk club. I’ve got a new fiddle bow and some new skills, and I am gradually developing an ability to appreciate doing something for the love of it even when you know you’re not very good. And finally, assuming we do go back to Willie Week next year (and we are currently assuming that), I doubt I’m going to get another free pass on the class grading, so I’d like to be able to walk into that room as confidently as possible, with another whole year of fiddle-playing under belt, and actually show them what I can do.