Declan O’Brien reviews A Touchstone for the Tradition: the Willie Clancy Summer School by Tony Kearns and Barry Taylor, Brandon £15.99 pbk
WITHIN A few months of the tragically early death of master piper Willie Clancy in 1973, a group of musician’s friends had launched a traditional music and dance school in his honour.
Held annually in the first week of July in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, the small town where Willie Clancy spent the majority of his life working as a carpenter, it wasn’t long before the school had established itself as the foremost venue in Ireland for the teaching of traditional music.
Now in its 31st year, the school has gone from strength to strength, continuing to attract visitors from around the world eager to study and develop their knowledge of traditional music, enhance their musical skills, listen to the lectures and recitals and take part in the many sessions which grace festival week.
A Touchstone for the Tradition, which was launched at this year’s festival, sets out to capture in words and pictures this remarkable traditional music and dance festival. Tony Kearns traces the origins and the development of the school over the last 30 years and addresses some of the key issues and debates which have surrounded and influenced the tradition and its practitioners in recent times.
Kean’s account of the school’s distinctive philosophy, history and practice is given an added intimacy through the juxtaposition of his diary of one year’s school and Barry Taylor’s excellent black and white photographs.
Despite the school’s obvious success and the continued interest across the generations of music rooted in the tradition, Kearns is somewhat equivocal about the future.
“...the organisers of the school have built on the camaraderie that has developed between local and visiting musicians in the decade before Willie’s death. By its recognition of the primacy of the musician, singer and dancer in setting the standards for the musical community, the school has helped to maintain much of the ethos of the long-gone communities that fostered the tradition.
"Paradoxically, by introducing regiments of young people to the music, many of whom have little or no connection with rural Ireland, it has helped to disseminate the ethos to an unparalleled extent.
"With its reliance on a set of cultural practices that have, by a quirk of fate, survived the disintegration of the society in which they were developed and practised, the school is an anachronism in contemporary Ireland.
"It was born on the conviction of its founders that the values embodied in these practices would be of lasting benefit to the youth of the late twentieth century Ireland -- a conviction that has been endorsed by its continued growth over more than three decades. As to its long-term survival, only time will tell whether such practices will continue to be valued in the rigours of the apparently increasingly competitive and money-oriented society of the twenty-first century.”
In the meantime we can all gain a great deal of enjoyment from both the tradition and Tony Kearns and Barry Taylor’s evocative and thought-provoking record.
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