Here we are in the County Clare, it’s a long, long way from here to there.‘Lisdoonvarna’ by Christy Moore, 1984
Flutes and fiddles everywhere.
If it’s music you want, you should go to Clare.
It would be fair to say that the town of Ennis in Co Clare is not the first destination anyone thinks of when planning a holiday to Ireland. This little county town on the River Fergus, 40km north west of Limerick and around a 30-minute drive from the wild Atlantic coast is somewhat off the traditional tourist trail, but at McKinlay Kidd we love it as it has an atmosphere all its own. By some it is regarded as the very epi-centre of Irish traditional music.
There’s a commitment to upholding the legacy of ‘trad’ here, though there’s a lightness of touch that comes only when that tradition is simply a normal part of everyday life. Reverence exists, of course, but there’s little sign of stuffiness, and no stiff collars.
Sometimes it seems that musicians are the more common breed here; there’s a constant flow of youngsters attending competitions for every instrument from tin whistle to harmonica, fiddle to flute and concertina to harp and all points in-between. Compete in the town heats, move on to the county rounds and make your bid for the All-Ireland championships. It’s not uncommon to find All-Ireland champion players in the corner of a bar ‘leaning in’ to The Connaughtman’s Rambles or Drowsy Maggie.
On most evenings in Spring and Summer, it can be more difficult to find a pub from which the strains of Paddy McGintys Goat don’t emanate. Perhaps from a group of just three musicians – fiddle, flute and concertina, for example – or a larger ensemble including multiple fiddles, uilleann pipes, bouzouki and even full-size harp.
A favourite ‘tune’ (the colloquialism for a live music session) takes place at Considine’s Bar (known locally as Fafa’s – most pubs have a nickname, for some reason). ‘Piping Heaven, Piping Hell’ is hosted by uilleann pipe legend Blackie O’Connell, and features pipe players young and old from all over Clare, alongside bouzouki maestro Cyril O’Donoghue. The sound of eight sets of pipes belting out Spike Island Lassies seems to make the creamy Guinness go down even better.
Perhaps pop into PJ Kelly’s where some of the very best of Clare’s musicians often gather, sometimes with Geraldine Cotter on piano, her brother Eamonn on flute, Jack Talty on concertina and Meadhbh Hendrie on fiddle, as well as an ever-changing mix of players from all over the county. It’s a relaxed affair; a few reels and an air or two, then maybe 10 minutes of chat. This is a social outing as much as a ‘tune’, the musicians’ way of communicating their day-to-day, their family lives and stories of the week, all over a pint or two, of course.
And one of the best things about all of this, is that everyone is welcome and no tickets are required. Indeed, Ennis is consistently voted ‘Ireland’s Friendliest Town’, so be aware that strangers will bid you ‘good morning’ or ‘how’re ye?’ in the street unprompted, and foreign accents in bars invite questions and curiosity.
Away from music (if that’s even possible here) Ennis features a stunning 19th-century cathedral filled with superb art and a wonderful pipe organ, as well as a 13th-century friary. There’s a pleasingly independent feel to the extensive shopping, with few recognisable names, including several excellent bookshops and a ramshackle antique shop or two.
Take a wander up O’Connell Street, the monument overseeing all, lined with shops of all kinds, great coffee bars and one or two excellent pubs (of course) then maybe stop by The Town Hall bistro for lunch of chunky seafood chowder and just-baked local bread. Ennis is a fine base from which to explore wider Co Clare, too, with the mystical landscape of the Burren, the soaring Cliffs of Moher and the superb beaches at Lahinch and Spanish Point all within easy reach.
And I have something of a confession to make; this music-obsessed Glasgow boy met and fell in love with an Ennis musician, got married here in 2016 and moved here permanently in 2022. Having been visiting since 2011, the transition to full-time Ennis life has been a challenge, soothed in large part by the welcome afforded every visitor, and the incredible, authentic, joyous music that seems to vibrate from every corner of town.
Words & Images by Chris Hendrie
McKinlay Kidd offer a number of holidays to Ireland, including self-drive, public transport and small group guided tours. Why not check out our Grand Tour of Ireland by Train to experience the best of the Emerald Isle? Our Wild Atlantic Way Guided Rail Tour also features an extensive trad music session in Ennis where you can discover the quirks and lore of traditional music and dance for yourself.
Do let us know if you’d like to include Ennis as part of a tailor-made Ireland tour. Visit our website for more holiday inspiration.