"If you're good enough, we'll put you with the kids" - learning music at The Joe Mooney Summer School
The picturesque village of Drumshanbo in County Leitrim is host to one of the most popular Irish music schools of the summer. The Joe Mooney Summer School follows Willy Clancy in Clare and Tubbercurry in Sligo and comes just before Scoil Achla on Achill Island. It would be quite the summer to make all four, but I had to choose one and this year it was Drumshanbo.
I went for the week to learn the fiddle, polish up on my trad guitar and meet musicians, teachers and students from all corners of Ireland and around the world.
I arrived on the Sunday before the school began to explore the town and register for fiddle lessons. Arriving into the town at 4pm on a sunny Sunday afternoon I could see that finding a trad session wasn’t going to be hard. The main street in the town has a raised pedestrian walkway that had a session in full flow with a dozen musicians and a small crowd enjoying the afternoon sun. The three pubs along this walkway continued to have trad sessions from opening until close throughout the week, with students filling up the lounges in the afternoon to practice their tunes and teachers joining in for the evening sessions. Like many of the other Irish music schools throughout the country, the lessons during the day are for learning new pieces and brushing up on technique and then the pubs and lounges are where you go to practice your playing in a group environment. This is where the old and young, the student and teacher alike mix to create the lively and varied session that makes these festivals so engaging and fun for all.
Chance encounters with living legends
I was advised on arrival that The Welcome Inn was a quiet pub at the end of the town (a two minute walk from the middle of town) where many of the visiting musicians enjoyed playing small evening sessions so I headed there first. There is an element of luck in finding the best music at these events and my luck was in from the start. In the pub were two elderly gentlemen with fiddles playing beautiful hoppy jigs in the corner of the pub. The only others there were a couple of bodhrán players who had chosen to sit this one out. The barman couldn’t tell me the names of the fiddlers but told me that the senior of the pair was one of the “main men”.
I had the guitar with me and was itching for a tune. There is an unwritten etiquette in joining in sessions, particularly with a guitar and especially when the fiddle playing is of this quality so I approached with caution, respect and as much Monaghan charm as I could muster.
“Evening gentlemen, I’m staying for the length of a cup of tea and would love to join you for a couple of jigs”. Knowing that the old time musicians are particularly weary of guitarists, I assured them that I wouldn't be doing any strumming and would accompany them more like a quiet harp than a guitar. This pleased the gents and we played a couple of tunes. It’s rare to hear such expert fiddle playing up close and I sat out for a couple of tunes to take it in. The final tune was a hornpipe I hadn’t heard before. After the pair had finished I asked them where it was from adding that I never sat in on a hornpipe I didn’t know, which the younger gentleman said was much appreciated (the charm offensive was working). “Its called Ben Lennon’s Hornpipe. I wrote it for this man,” he said, nodding to the senior fiddler.
The name was familiar but the status of the man only became clear when I asked around later. Ben Lennon is a legendary fiddle player (and expert tailor) from north Leitrim and member of a family of musicians and composers, including his son Maurice Lennon who was the other fiddle player in the pub. Ben received a TG4 Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 and now in his 88th year he played a number of afternoon sessions throughout the week surrounded by a small, knowing audience. Here’s a short video I got of one of them. Ben nodded as I came in, “Hello Shane”. I was delighted with myself!
The Evening Sessions
The week was full of chance encounters and incredible music, including actor Brendan Gleeson playing fiddle at a few sessions and a host of young Irish singers and songwriters like Lisa O'Neill taking part in the singing sessions. The teachers at the Joe Mooney summer school are some of the top musicians in the country and many of them appeared at the evening sessions to show the students how it's done. I have the privilege of knowing three of the teachers there from my school days in Monaghan and was able to get the inside track on the top sessions. I have known Michael McCague since secondary school and have watched as he has became one of the top guitarists and traditional accompanists you could hear. He’s also handy on the fiddle and bouzouki and has released a great album of his own traditional compositions. I caught him in session with his younger brother Donal, winner of the 2013 Young Musician of the Year, fiddle tutor Shane Meehan and flute tutor Tommy Fitzharris in a great evening session in the festival nerve centre Conways.
The lessons run daily from 10am to 1pm with group classes available from beginner to advanced. I have been playing the fiddle for around a year and was told that if I were good enough I would be put in with the kids (younger players in traditional circles always amaze me with their musicianship). I was put in an intermediate class that I dubbed the “no rolls no reels class”. A roll is a tricky form of ornamentation and a reel is generally the most difficult of Irish tunes. I made the cut and was put in with four other adults and sixteen kids. Keeping up with the kids was the aim for the week. There were eight fiddle classes in total and students are encouraged to change between teachers to find a level and a style that suits them. Amongst the students in my classes over the week were a mother and son from Holland, and adults from France, Germany and the US.
Our teacher was a brilliant young fiddle player from Sligo called Caoimhe Kearns. Caoimhe had a wonderful style on the fiddle and is also a primary school teacher, so she had the patience to deal with a class of twenty eager fiddle players. At the start of every lesson she asked around the class to see what sessions we had enjoyed the previous evening. The younger students (mostly under 12) beamed at the chance to share their experiences. “I was playing at a session with adults…in a pub…and they invited me back tomorrow” and “I was playing till 12 o'clock”. Bedtimes are pushed out in Drumshanbo - it's like every night is a Late Late Toy Show night.
Something Special for Everyone
There were a lot of primary school teachers there, many were tutors on their respective instruments and others were there to learn or to take part in CPD courses for the week. The set dancing proved most popular for the primary teachers and I made sure to get some promotion done for the DabbledooMusic summer course in nearby Carrick-On-Shannon in August.
There were also a huge amount of families there for the week. Many had been coming for years to learn different instruments during the day and enjoy the sessions and local outdoor activities in the afternoon. One mother was trying out the tin whistle for the first time: “The kids are in anyway so I said I’d give it a go”. There is always a great mix of different generations at the Irish music summer schools and everyone is there to meet old friends, make new friends and enjoy learning music together. On the final night I met a man from Dublin who had been coming to the festival for 20 years with his family. He summed up what these festivals mean to many of the people going every year with friends and family. “I’m getting old now and getting old and dying is never something that worried me. The one thing that I’m scared of is missing out on all of this, the music and all”. We agreed that we’d both try to make it to next year at least and meet again for a tune or two at the Joe Mooney Summer School.
If you would like to try your hand at learning Irish traditional music, why not try out our free Irish music course for kids: