Travel # 20 -- April 10, 2005
The Music Makers of Clare, our last day in Ennis

By Bob Corbett

Sunday morning was sunny and clear. We each ate a huge full Irish breakfast preparing a day out walking and enjoying lovely Ennis, for SURELY this time, it was our last visit here on this trip; this was our fourth day here.

I was a bit curious as to what we would really do. This was our fourth day in Ennis, albeit one of them (the day in the Burren) we spent precious little time in Ennis, and the first day we didn’t arrive until late afternoon. Yet Ennis is very tiny, and there isn’t all that much to see.

At breakfast our host Marie suggested we be sure to see the Old Abbey Hotel. It is literally that. An abbey, abandoned and once in ruins, renovated to become an extremely elegant hotel for the upper classes. Later, sitting in what was once the chapel, and is now a huge gathering room, part of the main BAR of the Old Abbey, I see stain glass windows for Guinness beer, Jamieson whiskey and other spirits (no pun intended). Yet some of the stain glassed windows seem to be of the old saints. Hilarious contrast.

By the time we got there that morning sun had given way to a very light mist. We walked in, saw that it was so elegant we would be uncomfortable and were about to make out way out when I noticed bunches of people around the lobby. This seemed odd on this off-season Sunday morning. We went over to where there was a desk and checked it out. There was a music competition and festival going on sponsored by THE CLARE MUSIC MAKERS. Clare is a county of west Ireland in which Ennis is situated and the county of Ireland most famous for traditional music. But this was NOT tradition music. Rather, this was a competition / exhibition of CLASSICAL music. It was only 5 Euro to get a ticket for the entire day, so with no further ado, we paid up, got our ticket and went into the bar, for the day converted into a concern hall, again, once having been the main body of the church of the abbey, and it was huge. Not as large as St. James Church here in Dogtown, but with enough pews (and they were still there) to seat a few hundred.

We got there for the competition of the older (up to 20 years of age) wind players and this was simply awesome. Immediately I grabbed my notebook and began to make notes. I’ll spare you the pages and pages of notes, but give you some samples of what I was writing as they were playing:

It went on and on, as do my notes. And this was the very first competition: Winds for students over 16. This would go on all day from the “big kids” (this was the oldest group) to much younger. I first started keeping my notes since I was assuming prizes would be awarded and I wanted to see if I agreed with the judges.

But I didn’t quite understand the event or the group. The Clare Music Makers (and again, Clare is known as the absolute center of Irish music) is a county-wide group dedicated to teaching and encouraging classical and traditional music. This annual event of today was devoted to classical, though a few students slipped in a hornpipe or a jig here and there.

We heard the older kids and the younger kids and they ranged from a few like Kyra who were just professional level, to another handful who were superior, to the bulk who were quite adequate and even promising, and of course, a few that only a mother could love. Some, that is, who perhaps should take up Gaelic football or become salmon fishermen and women.

The music was so rewarding. Then it ended, the 20 or so students had performed and then came the most stunning performance of all. A very tall fairly young man rose. He was sloppily dressed (which made me like him immediately in this environment when every one was dressed like a classical musician!). He was CLEARLY the genius of the group, and he went down the line, performer by performer, RARELY looking at any notes, addressing them by name, obviously knowing each and every one intimately. He commented on their playing. This was not like the crap I hear so much in dealing with the young in this country (in sports, music or any other competition) when the adults are not honest, but “supportive.” This man was so caring and supportive, but brutally honest. He would talk about what one did well, and in detail. At first I was pumped up with pride to see I had it “right” according to him in most cases, but immediately I was reduced to humility when he began the detailed critiques (positive and negative critique) when he would go into minute detail of fingering positions, breathing techniques, even showing a student how he or she STOOD affected the way he or she played. The guy was utterly brilliant. Honest, hard-nosed, supportive, intelligent and a music critic of the first order. I was just so impressed I wanted to go take his hand and shake it telling him what a joy it was to sit there for this “performance” of himself. But I never did. Couldn’t get near him. He was honored and treated like a being from another planet, and my or my did he deserve it.

We left for a while, walked around rainy Ennis, did some e-mail, and eventually wound our way back to The Old Abbey, and arrived for some of the younger kids, under 13, on the strings. The younger ones were, for me, a bit less interesting, but we sat for a couple of hours now and again being rewarded by someone trained and talented beyond his or her age. But, in the main, The Clare Music Makers had a ways to go to make worthy musicians out of that group.

It was getting late when we left and on Sundays not even the Dunnes stores are open late. Tomorrow we were headed to tiny, tiny Doolin, and I remembered well from the visit my brother John and I had just two years earlier, that Doolin is so very tiny there is not only not a grocery store, there isn’t any store at all for any such supplies. We loaded up with wine and whiskey for three full days in Doolin and a wee nip for the evening back at the B&B.

And, of course, if you’ve been paying the slightest attention to this journal, we next headed back to The Old Ground Hotel, to The Poet’s Corner Pub for our final meal in Ennis. It didn’t let us down. We feasted like king and queen, and limped home the few hundred yards to the B&B.

A bad sign. By the time we got back to the B& B, this time in some rain, Sally was feeling a good deal under the weather, a very bad nagging cold coming on. She went to bed and asleep almost immediately. I stayed up very late that night, probably to about 1 AM watching The Masters golf tournament to the very end when Tiger Woods took the victory in the first whole of sudden death. So exciting, and took nearly an entire bottle of wine for me to nurse him through to the championship.

Tomorrow is a very big day for us – off to the tiny tiny tiny village of Doolin, one of my favorite places in Ireland, arguably the very finest center of Irish music in the entire country. Hang in folks. The jigs and reels and hornpipes aren’t far off.

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Bob Corbett