We Banjo 3 (“Actually, we’re four, and if you can explain that, please do!”) sends out a joyful tune from the front of the tent. In the back, we can see only the crowd, every foot tapping, some dancing, alone, in pairs, in fours, a smile on every face. The Doolin Fok Festival in full swing is a wondrous sight, indeed!
Some three thousand people descended on tiny Doolin this weekend for the third annual folk festival. Performers ranged from trad music greats — think Christy Barry on the flute and Sharon Shannon on the accordion — to lesser-known but still great folks up the stairs and around the corner on the sessions stage. Outside the Hotel Doolin, which puts on the festival, music pours out of every pub in town, as it does all year around. With all the music and musicians in town, some even jam on the patio outside Fitzgerald’s, enjoying the welcome sunshine.
Christy Barry received the festival’s Lifetime Achievement in Music award on the festival’s opening night, Friday, June 12. Music has been in Barry’s family for 200 years, and he has won All Ireland titles for both the tin whistle and the flute, as well as introducing Irish music sessions around the world. The crowd loved him as he played with The Fiddle Case at the festival. The Fiddle Case, also from North Clare, started with Eoin O’Neill and Quentin Cooper more than 17 years ago. Now joined by double bass player and singer Jon O’Connell and fiddler Adam Shapiro, they blend Irish traditional music with echoes of klezmer and rock. The festival notes the combination of “their trademark dueling fiddles with driving and tasty bouzouki and double bass accompaniment ensures a full sound where the tune always comes first, and the tradition wins.”
Sharon Shannon, a County Clare native and internationally known accordionist and Irish folk musician, headlined the first night. Her eclectic set included jigs and reels that had every foot in the place tapping, and people bouncing, dancing, laughing and loving it all.
According to Doolin Hotel manager Lisa Fearon, the festival is folk in the broadest sense, with music including some blues, rock, soul, and bluegrass. This is the first year for the White Horse Sessions Stage, which means two stages and opportunities for some not-quite-as-well-known musicians to perform.
The Doolin Folk Festival, held in tents and the area behind the Doolin Hotel, is a successor to the Lisdoonvarna festival, which was world-famous from 1978-2003 as the “Irish Woodstock.” The Lisdoonvarna festival was held outdoors in fields, and included such notables as Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Christy Moore, Planxty, Jackson Browne, and Emmylou Harris. It ended in 1983 after violence at the festival from Hell’s Angels, and the tragic drownings of eight young festival-goers.
This year’s Doolin festival was joyful and friendly. Lots of locals joined festival-goers from Sweden, Germany and other places. Fearon said she saw some international visitors returning from past years. All musicians were Irish, and the hospitality and conviviality were all-Irish, too. Great food was as eclectic as the music, including jambalaya and Irish sausages. Despite the crowds, the queues for food and drink moved quickly. As a bonus, trays of samplers for two new Guinness brews circulated through the grounds.
The festival is a great place to hear Irish music, and the fusion and experimentation that keep it living and growing. Next year’s festival will be great, but you don’t have to wait until then to visit Doolin and hear the musicians of County Clare. And if it’s festivals you’re looking for, Doolin’s Craft Beer festival starts August 21, showcasing “the best of Irish Craft Beers, featuring over 30 different beers from the best micro-breweries in Ireland including The Carlow Brewing Company, 8 Degrees Brewing, The Dungarvan Brewing Company, Metalman, Dingle Brewery, The Franciscan Well Brewery, Galway Hooker, Trouble Brewing, Rye River, White Hag & Stonewell Cider to name a few.”
If you visit Doolin, be sure to make time for the ferry to the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher. You can see the cliffs from both the visitor’s center on the cliffs or the ferry ride below the cliffs — it’s worth the time to do both, but if I had to choose one, I’d take the ferry. You could spend weeks, months, years in Doolin and County Clare without running out of wonderful places to visit and sights to see — Lisdoonvarna is just a few kilometers away, as is Enistymon, and there’s all of the Burrens to explore as well.