‘It is all about the music at the end of day’

A passion for music that began twenty years ago has touched international hearts. David Byrne speaks with Shannonside Music Festival director and founding member Brendan Walsh about the festival’s journey so far, as the South Clare villages tune up for this year’s events.

The Catfish Blues Orchestra
The Catfish Blues Orchestra

FROM its modest beginnings in Sixmilebridge twenty years ago to an internationally renowned annual event, Shannonside Music Festival is set to once again shake off the winter blues. 

Music fans in their thousands are expected to line the streets of Sixmilebridge and Bunratty for the highly-anticipated folk and blues festival’s twentieth anniversary, organised by Sixmilebridge Folk Club.

There is no doubt that the organisers’ ability to adapt, not only with the times, but with the ever-changing music and pub scene in the county has ensured its continued success.

While the festival has grown substantially it has also faced many challenges as organisers made sure it didn’t become a victim of its own success.

One such concern was the lack of accommodation in Sixmilebridge as the annual event grew and started to attract a wide range of musicians and genres from all around the world. 

“The Jamaica Inn Hostel closed about ten years ago, that was a very big loss,” explained Shannonside Music Festival director and founding member, Brendan Walsh.

“The one thing the hostel did was you get a lot of musicians that wanted to jam and they would go out to the pubs from the hostel.

“They would fill the pubs with these impromptu sessions.

“We still have these session but they aren’t as vibrant. 

“I remember walking down the street and it was like the ‘Wild West’ with fellas going around with double basses,” added Mr Walsh.

With this in mind, the festival organisers took the decision to expand the event into neighbouring village Bunratty, a judgement that Brendan Walsh believes was when the festival really began to take off. 

“The milestone was when we went into Bunratty Folk Park six years ago,” he said.

“When it went in there it really brought the festival to an international level because it meant that we had the extra venues.

“It is always a problem in a small village to do something new with a festival, it can get stale quite easily.

“We had a problem with venues in Sixmilebridge and even some pubs have closed since we started.

“When we started originally [in 1999] there was seven pubs [in Sixmilebridge] but now we are down to five.

“You can’t really ask big bands over from America if you aren’t going to put them into a suitable venue,” added the enthusiastic festival director.

With this in mind, the festival has gone from strength to strength in recent years, growing from its original roots in the local pub scene in Sixmilebridge to an international celebrated music affair with bands and music lovers from as a far afield as the USA joining forces every year. 

Despite this, Sixmilebridge remains a key part of the festival with attendees availing of the ‘best of both worlds’ and with future venues such as the new school hall coming on board, the annual occasion is set to expand in the village where it all begun twenty years ago. 

“The charm of the villages is what wins a lot of hearts,” explained a proud Brendan Walsh.

“If you go into a pub in Sixmilebridge this weekend you could meet people from Longford, Tullamore and Donegal and they would all be chatting to each other and they will all meet again next year.”

Despite the distance between Sixmilebridge and Bunratty, Brendan describes the close relationship between the two villages as a “match made in heaven” with shuttle buses running throughout the event filled weekend.

It was like the ‘Wild West’ with fellas going around with double basses.”

“It is really only one village for the weekend,” he added.

“You’ve the best of food in Bunratty and the best of drink and craic in Sixmilebridge.

“People like going into the village [Sixmilebridge] for an hour, walking around, and coming back into Bunratty maybe relaxing into a slightly quieter atmosphere.

“The height of a Saturday night wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea,” smiled Brendan.

As this year’s festivities are set to get underway event organisers are reluctant to rest on their laurels.

“It is an exciting project to be involved in,” Brendan stated. 

“It’s going great and the future looks very bright.

“You would certainly be examining the future after the twentieth year.

“It is run well and there is a template established well for what we do but after this year we will looking at it to see if we can get more stuff back in Sixmilebridge, in the new venues.

“It is all about the music at the end of the day, that’s what comes across here.”

Local acts such as Spancil Hillbillys and Katie Theasby will take to the stage with a diverse range of musicians and genres including traditional Irish music, bluegrass, classical, folk music and even acapella singing.

The twentieth annual Shannonside Winter Music Festival gets underway in 80 events across 17 venues in Sixmilebridge and Bunratty from Thursday, January 17, to Monday, January 21.

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