Noel Hill’s Irish Concertina School 2012 – Review
After several years attending Noel’s class in Ballyvaughan, I thought might be useful to put an updated review of proceedings for the benefit of those considering making the trip over to the west coast of Ireland in 2013…. And this is very West coast, a small and beautiful rural community set in the spectacular Burren area of North Clare, rich in tradition with a very friendly and welcoming community. While the weather may be “changeable” with all four seasons in the same morning, recent years have been blessed with some exceptional sunny spells which showcase the area – the view across Galway bay to Connemara, and its 12 Pins (sometimes with a dusting of snow on the tops) is bracing – as can be the wind coming across the bay straight of the Atlantic and hitting the coastal communities sheltered along the coast.
Shannon Airport is about 36 miles away, and Dublin airport, or the ferry port around 150 miles. Hiring a car is a good option, as public transport to Ballyvaughan is less than comprehensive. There’s a good bus service from Shannon (or Dublin) to Ennis (12 miles), but from there to the north coast is less well catered for – there is a daily bus to Ballyvaughan from Ennis and Galway but check timings and frequency! And if you want to take full advantage of the sights and sounds, access to a car is worthwhile – there are always a fair amount of people travelling down to Corofin (about 15 miles) most evenings for the Traditional Festival concerts etc, so lifts can be arranged. If you are driving across from the UK, the Holyhead to Dublin port route is a good option – the easiest way out of Dublin is the toll tunnel (3 euro off peak or 10 euro around breakfast time), onto the M50 motorway (again a small toll, 3 euro, which has to be paid online within 24 hrs of the journey, or open an account before travelling …….. www.eflow.ie ). The M6 takes you straight over to Galway (again, two short and inexpensive tolled areas, less than 5 euro for the trip, payableat the toll booths). Dual carriageway all the way to Galway and blessedly underpopulated!
While the main purpose of the week for the dedicated player might be to hone your skills in attempting to emulate the best of Irish style players, the teaching week is always timed to coincide with the Corofin Traditional Festival, normally the last week in February – in 2013 it starts on Monday Feb 25thand finishes on the following Friday, March 1st. For those wanting a fuller experience of the music, scenery and general ambience of Clare, the Russell Memorial Weekend at Doolin,14 miles down the coast, usually occupies the first weekend, and the Corofin Festival starts on the Monday and finally subsides into silence in the early hours of the following Monday with events each evening, so those with an iron constitution can fit nearly 10 days of great entertainment around the serious bit! This year, a trip down to Doolin on Sunday lunchtime found a very lively session led by Hugh Healy on concertina in full swing in Gus O’Connors, and sessions in all the bars lined up and ready to go. The same evening, up on the waterfront atConnolly’s in Kinvarra, Mary Shannon and Mary Staunton hosted a gentler session, starting around 6pm, and enlivened by Dermot Byrne putting in an appearance for a few tunes.Monday night, if you don’t fancy Corofin, sees a steady session in Marinan’s in Ennistimon, again about 17 miles down the road. While there are no formal sessions in Ballyvaughan itself, O’Lochlan’s Whisky Bar (which doesn’t open until 9pm) is a great little bar and very accommodating if people want to sit around for a tune. Wednesday night usually sees a set dancing “class” in Logues hotel, frequented by students from the Burren Arts College.
Classes are held in one of the thatched “Irish” cottages, peat fuelled and stone floored. The whole group – usually between 15 and 20 people – gather on Monday morning for a grading session. Those unfamiliar with Noel’s preferred fingering patterns may start in the “beginners” class, but if they are competent and quick to learn can progress into either the intermediate or advanced groups through the week. And don’t take the groupings too literally – beginners can range from relatively inexperienced players just starting off down the anglo (or English) concertina route, to those are competent players in a different style who want to develop the ornamentations that suit both the Irish style and its interpretation on the concertina. C/G is the preferred key for the classes and 26 keys is a sensible minimum to get into those tunes in D. Noel also plays and teaches those with G/D system instruments. The class is international in character – perhaps one third Irish, a third European and the balance from America. Russia, Sweden and Japan are regularly represented. To reflect this, booking next year will be made easier for those on this side of the Atlantic, with payment in euros rather than dollars anoption. Options to share the “Rent an Irish Cottage” as well as a more general list of accommodation in the village will be available to give more flexibility. If you are looking for your own accommodation, check that it’s within striking distance of the class location – some Ballyvaughan addresses are miles away from the action! Once the initial breakdown into three groups is made, there are two classes for each group per day, each lasting an hour. Every class will give you one or two tunes, with the dots or ABC’s, whichever you work best with – a recording device is essential for recording the tunes – played simply, then ornamented and at increased speed and complexity. Between the two classes there are 3 – 4 hrs to go away and practice, with a sandwich lunch available in one of the cottages. At the next class, progress is reviewed and new tunes started…. hard work but really enjoyable. Teaching is comprehensively delivered with great good humour and lavishly illustrated with stories of the tune derivation. One evening during the week Noel usually plays a house concert in one of the cottages – this year with his daughter Aisling on both fiddle and concertina in a great combination.
I’ve said a lot about the music, but for those with partners, or needing a break from practice, there is plenty to see and do within a few miles, as long as you have the transport. Most tourist attractions don’t open until sometime in March, but theAilwee cave and its associated falconry centre about 1.5 miles up the road is open all year. The cave itself is fascinating and the tea room excellent, but the falconry centre is also well worth a visit – at this time of year, there aren’t many other people there to see the birds flown, so if you ever fancied your hand at this, it’s a great time to step into the ring and have them fly to your hand. The Burren (http://www.burrennationalpark.ie/ )is strewn withmegalithic monuments – Caherconnell Stone Fort and Poulnabrone Dolmen (a portal tomb) are just on the roadside as you drive down to Corofin: Poulnabrone There’s a tourist information in Ballyvaughan with maps and local attraction details. Walking on the Burren is possible but not well signposted, but the small local roads are generally quiet and walkable. There are castles and Martello towers on the coastal strip within walking distance, and the Burren Way passes through Ballyvaughan – beware that the first half mile can be underwater as the turloughs are generally full to overflowing at this time of year! Nature watchers will also enjoy the area, from the host of overwintering widgeon in the harbour to passing migrants down at Black Head, seals all around the coast and Galway is noted for unusual gulls….. If you drive down to Doolin the scenic route around the coast past Black Head, with its views out to the Aran Islands, through Fanore is glorious – particularly if there is a decent wind coming in from the atlantic – the cliffs and sea are spectacular – and Doolin harbour can be an incredible sight in these conditions. The Cliffs of Moher are a few miles further down the coast from Doolin Ennis and Galway are the two nearest cities – Ballyvaughan has a garage and a small Spar store, Ennistimon has a larger supermarket, while Tesco have a large store in Ennis. The nearest cash machine is in the main street in Ennistimon, and Kinvara is rumoured to have one! If you fancy a break from self catering, Monks and Logues are generally open and serving food at this time of year, both within easy walking distance of the accommodation in Ballyvaughan, with Logues having the added attraction of free Wi-Fi – mobile phone reception can be a bit hit and miss in the area. Linnane’s Seafood Restaurant in Newquay is a few miles down the road but well worth a visit.
Overall, a week spent at the NHICS Irish School is exceptionally worthwhile. It’s a week of intensive learning, of entertainment, friendship, humour and above all else, just great music.