Musical tradition runs deep in Ireland's wild south west

James Devitt and Christy Barry play local tunes from their native West Clare.
James Devitt and Christy Barry play local tunes from their native West Clare.

The towns of Ireland's west coast are famous for music, and their friendly pubs and lively sessions draw musicians, and tourists, from all over the world.

This musical tradition was forged in the ceilis, or "house dances" that were a staple of life in earlier times for the poor rural communities of the area.

Until well into the 20th century, neighbours would gather in each others houses to dance until dawn on flagstone floors cut from the nearby Cliffs of Moher.

The wild Burren in Ireland's County Clare with its moon-like landscape.

The wild Burren in Ireland's County Clare with its moon-like landscape.

A traditional music session in progress at Gus O'Connor's bar in Doolin.

A traditional music session in progress at Gus O'Connor's bar in Doolin.

Sitting in a room warmed by a traditional turf fire at the Doolin Music House, musicians Christy Barry and James Devitt play local tunes and tell stories from their childhoods in West Clare.

They explain that the dancing was the real serious business; back then people mostly learned instruments to accompany the intricate local set dances that had been passed down through generations.

The marathon dancing sessions would have provided a welcome break from tough, hardworking lives, and people prided themselves on how many dances they did each night.

Christy Barry talks about Doolin and the Doolin Music House

Like so many from Doolin, world renowned Irish flute player Christie Barry's talent took him around the world, but led him back.

Christy and his partner Sheila created the Doolin Music House to give visitors an insight into the local culture, along with tunes on fiddle, pipes and spoons, served with Burren Smoked Salmon, wine and cheese.

The stories are told with a deep affection for those simpler times, and of the humble people for whom the power of music and dance was stronger than religion.

The ceilis were not confined to houses and dance halls. In the long northern summer evenings, people would meet at the nearest crossroads to dance on the road, tell stories and play games.

In the 1930s the Irish government banned house parties and at that time, outbreaks of general merriment were closely policed.

However, the town of Doolin managed to hang on to its traditions, thanks in no small part to the support of the music loving owners of a small pub on the main street.

Until the 1960s Doolin was a quiet outpost, mostly frequented by visiting Aran Islanders and a few from nearby counties who came to hear the music.

Gus O'Connor's bar has been operating since 1832, and has helped put Doolin on the map as a traditional music destination.

The inn has been run by the O'Connor family since early last century, and was taken over in 1956 by the youngest of their 12 children, Gus, and his wife Doll, who welcomed and encouraged musicians.

Local musical legends, brothers Micho, Pakie and Gussie Russell, were at the heart of the sessions held at O'Connors, and each February the town of Doolin still holds a festival in their honour.

A clip from the 1970s featuring Doolin musicians, Packie Russell and Manus Walsh at Gus O'Connors.

The Russell brothers and other local musicians held a vast knowledge of traditional tunes which have since been collected, studied and enjoyed by people from all over the world.

"It's the New Orleans of Irish Music, without any doubt. "

Doolin musician, Christy Barry

And it's to Gus O'Connors we repair after our evening at the Doolin Music House, which was an add on to our Wild N Happy small group tour of the south west.

Doolin has produced way more than its fair share of world renowned songwriters and musicians, many of whom earned their stripes at O'Connors, and it's here I met 82-year-old Ted McCormack.

Ted McCormack singing at Gus O'Connor's bar, Doolin.

Ted has been singing in the pub for most of his life. He only has one leg but still drives, and age has done nothing to damage his rich voice.

He chats to me about the unspoken etiquette of the session - you have to be good to join in and you'll soon find out if you're out of your league.

The world famous Cliffs of Moher draws tourists in their droves to County Clare.

The world famous Cliffs of Moher draws tourists in their droves to County Clare.

But having said that, courtesy is important, he says. Local players should always start a tune that newcomers are likely to know, to make them feel welcome.

Ted is soon called up to do a couple of songs from what is no doubt a vast repertoire. One of these is a song written by Ralph McTell, about a homesick Irishman he met in London, called "A long way from Clare to here," and Ted soon has the audience singing along in the choruses.

The village of Doolin is a major port for boats to the Aran Islands, and a stepping off point for the famous Cliffs of Moher and the The Burren, but it's the music that tells so much more about the history of the area, and the character of its people.