The Ó Rócháin name is synonymous with the Wille Clancy Summer school. The late Muiris Ó Rócháin co-founded the festival and that tradition has continued through the involvement of son Séamus who is keeping the flame alive in West Clare.
ASK Séamus Ó Rócháin if he can imagine a life without the Willie Clancy festival and his answer is accompanied by a slight laugh.
“It would be hard now to imagine anything without out”, he says, reflecting on a life immersed in the world famous festival of Irish traditional music.
Séamus grew up surrounded by music and musicians. His late father Muiris Ó Rócháin was one of the founders of the annual Willie Clancy Summer School, Ireland’s most prestigious and prolific traditional music festival.
As a local teacher Muiris was well known throughout Clare and heavily involved in Clare’s life and lore, running the Dal gCais journal for many years and having an important role in the production of a number of films for RTÉ. In 2001 he was selected as President of Oireachtas na Gaeilge and he also served on the Arts Council of Ireland around this time.
The Willie Clancy summer school survives and thrives as Ó Rócháin’s enduring legacy. Now his son is keeping that flame alive in West Clare.
“You grow up with it. Its funny, it means the same to me as it does to a lot of people that are coming down here for years” says Seamus of his relationship with the festival.
“They wouldn’t miss it for the world. They all understand it without being able to put it into words what it means to them. I just wanted to make sure that it kept going no matter what. There were a lot of people who were saying, ‘well if you didn’t get involved, I was going to do it’.
He has fond memories of growing up surrounded by musicians. “There was always a musician in the house. You could have the Coulee Choir in the house on a Sunday morning and things like that. You only realise years later the value of it. I remember Seamus Ennis as well being in the house playing the pipes by the fire and various people like that coming in and out. It was smaller back then so you remember people as well”, he says.
Being involved with organising such a large festival is all consuming.
“We’d have the programme planned before Christmas, the lectures, the ceilis, and then the programme would be ready in January. That’s the guts of a plan ready by January. We’d have the programme printed and then we finalise things. We wouldn’t finalise the concert till May or around then. That’s the last we get finalised before we get the posters printed”, explains Séamus.
“That Éirinn is Alba concert on Sunday should be great, we’ve a troupe coming over from Cape Breton, which should add to it. We’ll have Scottish traditional, Irish traditional and Cape Breton which should be interesting. They’re going to teach a bit of traditional Cape Breton dancing during the week”.
There will be plenty of dancing in Miltown Malbay throughout the week as music lovers form across the globe make their annual pilgrimage to West Clare.
There is a unique magic and spirit around the place, Séamus agrees, that keeps drawing people back to Miltown.
He believes his father’s gradual approach of growing the festival bit by bit enabled it to thrive through the years.
He explains, “It started small. There were less than 100 people at it the first year. But then grew bit by bit. When you are growing bit by bit, you just need to get a couple more venues every year. He took on the instruments bit by bit. He didn’t just try it altogether. He took on banjo in recent years, harp, mouth organ but only when everything else was under control. When the fiddle classes got very big he got a coordinator for all the different classes. When he took on the banjo, he took on Ciarán Hanrahan immediately as the coordinator so that was that looked after. There were coordinators for everything. When things got big you had a person to look after it. They’re really proud of their jobs and they want to do them well. It’s a big part of the year for them too”.
“It was the first summer school of its kind. People started to come here and they liked that on West coast you had the beach. And they got on well with the locals too. They got to know the people and they liked the vibe as well. It all happens in a small little town and then they wanted to come back. They loved the vibe of it and they wanted to keep coming back. People come from Australia and Canada. People wouldn’t miss it for the world”.
A talented musician himself, Séamus is looking forward to sitting in on a few sessions throughout the week. But not before the work is done.
“I played a few tunes last night but when the whole thing is over and the official recitals have finished around 10pm, I try to get down to the hotel for a tune then. But I wouldn’t get down before then. There are so many events on”… “I live in Dublin but I’d be off for the summer so it fits in nicely. I can come down a bit in June and get bits and pieces ready. This week, we’re flat out getting it ready”, he adds.
Tom Queally, Harry Hughes, Seamus O’Rochain and Eamon McGivney in Queally’s bar Miltown Malbay.