Raidio na Gaeltachta’s Seán Bán Breathnach has been broadcasting from the Willie Clancy Summer School for nearly 40 years, while his association with Miltown Malbay and the master piper goes all the way back to a memorable few hours he spent in the company of the maestro in O’Friels just a couple of months before he died.
THOMAS and Maisie are behind the bar, while those on the other side of the counter are dotted around on high stools and low chairs, apart from the few who prefer to drink standing up.
They’re locals for the most part, apart from a couple of interlopers in town for the night from the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht.
It’s O’Friel’s (even though Lynch is the name over the door) on the edge of Mullagh Road on a summer’s night in 1972 and the young Seán Bán Breathnach and Tomás Ó Raighne have just landed in Miltown Malbay.
Tomás, the principal of Coláiste Lurgan in Inverin and Seán Bán, the college’s entertainment manager. In search of some entertainment in Miltown, they couldn’t have come to a better place….
“We just happened to go into Friels,” recalls Seán Bán over 40 years later, “but when we went in Willie Clancy was there and I had my recorder. ‘That’s Willie Clancy playing,’ someone said to me, ‘you should record him.
“I did just that and I was probably one of the last to record Willie Clancy as he played on his own underneath the stairs that night in Friels. The first time I saw proper set dancing – it was outside Friels that evening.
“Willie played and then he was talking about Radio na Gaeltachta – you could only get Radio na Gaeltachta on medium wave – and that you’d get it perfect from the transmitter in Beal an Daingean, beaming it right across to Miltown.
“I got a shock when Willie said he loved sean nós singing. He picked out one woman, Nean Grealish. I think she would be the nearest thing to a gospel singer and he said she was magic – I’ll always remember that.
“I didn’t know the significance of it when I recorded him that night,” continues Seán Bán, “and it’s one of my big regrets that I lost the recording. It would be great to have it to this day.”
What matter about the lost recording though – the big thing for Seán Bán was that in the long run his association with Willie Clancy and the festival that would bear his name just over a year later was born that night in Friels.
He’s been coming to Miltown Malbay ever since.
His rite of passage, his and Radio na Gaeltachta’s own camino, only their pilgrim route is to ‘Willie Week’ instead of Santiago de Compostela.
THE Rodaí is parked up since Saturday and will remain until this Saturday. It’s Seán Bán Breathnach’s window to ‘Willie Week’, from where he broadcasts daily from 2pm to 4pm, interspersing live and impromptu performances with the best of recordings from the long night and early morning before.
“It’s the fastest two hours on earth,” he says. “We meet at 12 and my producer Áine Hensey gives me the brief, we got through it and we’re away.
“I’m in that Rodaí looking out,” he says. “You see the musicians passing and you’d have them come in. You’re right in the middle of it. It’s one of the big gigs of the year for me.
“I’m just as excited starting the programme on the Monday as I ever was. The buzz, the excitement is still there. The day I don’t get the buzz there’s something wrong.
“They can have all the schools and all the weeks in Ireland, but the ‘Willie Week’ is the magic. It is absolutely magical – I often said it that on the Friday before ‘Willie Week’ it would be a one-horse town, but 24 hours later and for the whole week after the place would be totally transformed into one of the busiest little towns in Ireland.”
So it is this week, so it was when the Raidio na Gaeltachta team landed in Miltown Malbay for its maiden ‘Willie Week’ voyage nearly 40 years ago.
“I went first with Mattie Joe Sheamuis (Ó Faharta),” recalls Seán Bán, “and I think we broadcast there for the first time in 1977. We didn’t do it live in those first years.
“I remember in the early ‘80s I used to record the stuff and put it out from Limerick. We’d record during the night and into the morning and then we’d be on air in Limerick form 11 to 12. Many the piece of music I recorded at three or four in morning that then went out a few hours later.
“You could stay up all night and it didn’t really bother you – there was no such thing as going to bed because ‘Willie Week’ meant seeing very little bed. Over to Ollie Conway’s in Mullagh – it was fantastic. There wasn’t much talk of meeting the Gardai or anything.”
Along the way RnaG recorded and played them all. Séamus Ennis, Leo Rowesome, Liam Óg O’Flynn, Martin ‘Junior’ Crehan, Martin Talty and many, many more.
“We were the first station to go down to Miltown for the week,” says Seán Bán, “and they had fantastic time for us and Muiris Ó Rocháin always had a fantastic welcome for Raidio na Gaeltachta. Muiris had this aura about him – he was something else and he made the festival.
“I often think about it and was fascinated by it in the early years that you’d be paying big money to go and see the likes of the Chieftains and Planxty, but there in Miltown you’d have Sean Keane, Michael Tubridy and Sean Potts (The Chieftains) and Liam Óg O’Flynn (Planxty) playing in a pub, our outside a number. It could be Marrinan’s, the Blonde’s, Friel’s, Queally’s or wherever.
“This year we’ll be without Sean Potts. There’s always someone passing on every year and it’s very sad. I was on holidays when he died and a tear came to my eye when I heard – it reminded me of all the sessions in Miltown and those who are gone.
“The likes of Junior Crehan was the man to me who was Miltown Malbay and Willie Week. I miss the likes of Martin Talty – the piper next door to Willie – and all those great people we recorded.”
Thing is, the recorder just keeps on turning, when once it was the cumbersome reel to reel machine to capture some of Willie Clancy’s last notes in Friels, now it’s a zoom recorder that’s not much bigger than a mobile phone.
“It’s just as good,” says Seán Bán, “because all you have to do is look around and see the young people. Thirty years ago teenagers would look odd with a fiddle, a harp or a box.
“Now it’s coo to be doing it – nobody is afraid to do it and nobody looks sideways at you. ‘Willie Week’ has done that and it’s why I love it so much.”
And, it’s what brings him year after year.