Music / West Cork

Music around Clonakilty

We are both music geeks. We’ve come to know most of our Irish friends and acquaintances through music, and generally, there are lots of cool people (not only in Ireland) that we never would have known if it wasn’t for music. We’re definitely not music professionals – rather enthusiasts or passionate hobbyists, with a passion for traditional music, Appalachian old-time, older country, bluegrass, and more. We play a few different instruments each, at different levels. Until now we’ve collected instruments, but now that we live in a very small house, we try to cut down on them and try to only keep instruments we actually play or instruments that are special and that we can hang on the walls.

When we lived in Sweden we didn’t play very regularly, I guess mostly because having no regular event to get together with other musicians made us lose inspiration quite much. Since moving to Ireland, this has changed a lot. We play in a local trad session every Tuesday, and every Sunday. We go to gigs and events, and we play a lot more at home too. During the beginning of the autumn, it’s been difficult because I’ve been so overloaded with work, but it’s getting better.

A little parenthesis here – if you’re unfamiliar with Irish music and its traditions, you may want to learn some new words and concepts. Unlike many other music styles, in Irish music (and in English & Scottish music too – to some extent also in Swedish traditional music) there are regular events for musicians, where they meet in pubs to play tunes together. This is the trad session. They can be more like gigs (like in Temple Bar in Dublin), or open, where some musicians can be paid to keep the session going, but it’s open to other musicians to join. While there are other aspects and lots more to say about this concept, when I mention a trad session, this is the kind of event that I mean. In bluegrass and Appalachian old-time music, it’s called a jam session instead.

West Cork (and especially Clonakilty) is very vibrant and lively, especially music-wise. In our town, we are proud to have several good music venues, and a broad music tradition. There’s the front bar of O’Donovan’s hotel and An Teach Beag with very nice and usually open (which means that other musicians are welcome) sessions. There’s DeBarra’s, which is a lovely pub but also a folk club, and other than a weekly trad session they have gigs and other shows there every week – sometimes with some quite high profile people. Earlier this year we saw Sharon Shannon with her band, which was a fantastic experience.

Sharon Shannon at DeBarra's 2019
Sharon Shannon at DeBarra's 2019

The only thing that isn’t fantastic about DeBarra’s is the lighting, as you can see! 😀 I’m not a star of setting decent white balance on my camera, and I’m even less a star of Photoshop or Lightroom when it comes to fixing ugly colours. So most gig photos in this post may be … weird. Just so you know.

The last few months have had so many music events that we barely have had any time to play ourselves! The day before Sharon Shannon, there was another very good band playing at DeBarra’s, and in September there was a fantastic singing & storytelling festival in Courtmacsherry, followed by the guitar festival here in Clonakilty.

The storytelling festival was a very enjoyable event. We went to an open stage evening on the Friday to enjoy people’s stories and songs, and on Saturday afternoon there was a show at the Lifeboat Inn (pub and lovely restaurant) with Colum Sands, together with another brilliant, local, singer and storyteller of whom I’ve forgotten the name (shame on me!!!!!!). If any local people read this, please remind me!

Courtmacsherry Stories and songs by the sea

This festival is highly recommended. Lovely singing, great storytelling of all sorts but quite much Irish history related, mixed with a good amount of humour. Saturday night always offers a concert at Courtmacsherry hotel. For this, you need to buy tickets, but all the rest is free.

The Clonakilty guitar festival started out small in 2005 but has become such a big thing that it now seems to be too big for our little town. We enjoyed lots of nice gigs, especially at DeBarra’s, during the week, and in the afternoons during the weekend. Sadly, in the evenings every venue was so packed with people that it was impossible to actually enjoy the gigs. Still – we had a very good week and heard some good music. Perhaps they should start selling tickets to the evening gigs to avoid this.

My favourite gig during the week was with these guys – McKowski & Vervest.

McKowski and Vervest at Clonakilty guitar festival 2019

They left player is Irish, the other one Australian. If I understood it correctly, they had put together the gig using Whatsapp, or something like that! They did a VERY enjoyable hour of acoustic ragtime and similar styles, and seemed to have a very good time on stage themselves – this is something I really appreciate when I go to gigs. I honestly could have stayed there hearing them play for the rest of the day.

Another highlight was the local players the Clague brothers, who had a lunchtime gig at the Clonakilty distillery restaurant. They play similar styles, with ragtime, blues and some jazzy pieces thrown in. An excellent way to enjoy a lunch!

This French player’s genre is very much beyond what I usually listen to, but he made a special impression on me, for his particular playing style. Despite some incredibly jazzy pieces, I really enjoyed his music.

Pierre Bensusan and George Lowden at Clonakilty guitar festival 2019
Pierre Bensusan and George Lowden at Clonakilty guitar festival 2019

Look up Pierre Bensusan on YouTube, people. He’s a very competent player, and the guy without guitar who sits next to him is George Lowden, who built his guitar. They had a very nice afternoon session just talking about how they met, abou times spent together, other stories, and some music of course.

After the guitar festival, it wasn’t long until I saw the news on social media about the upcoming Cork folk festival. I thought maybe there wouldn’t be anything special, but then I saw there would be a concert with Andy Irvine.

My main instrument has mostly been the mandolin, but in recent years other instruments have taken over, at least for Irish trad music. It’s possible it’s just a matter of practice, but playing Irish tunes makes my wrist hurt, and I haven’t really been sure it’s because of lack of practice or because of my old injury. Also, a mandolin is quite a pain to try to keep in tune at sessions. While I had the wrist injury 2012 and couldn’t play stringed instruments, I took up the anglo concertina instead, and that’s what I now prefer learning Irish tunes on. I also have a nice octave mandolin that I use as a bouzouki, but even after repair it has an intonation problem, so I don’t play it much and will likely buy a better one eventually if I decide to continue learning it.

Back to Andy Irvine. For me, being interested in learning the bouzouki, of course, we had to go. Looking further in the weekend’s program, I also found a tune workshop and a concertina concert!! Need I say that we spent most of our Saturday in Cork city??

It was great hearing Andy Irvine live, but THIS was the highlight.

Cork folk festival
Cork folk festival
Cork folk festival

The player in the first photo plays an English concertina, different from what I play, but he was BRILLIANT and inspired me incredibly. The rest in these photos play anglo concertinas, and the bouzouki player in the second photo actually builds bouzoukis too. I took his business card and will contact him eventually.

Before this, I was in the process of deciding whether or not I would attend a concertina workshop in county Clare. It’s an interesting story and I will save the details for a separate post. But this concert was enormously inspiring and triggered me to make a decision since I really want to get further with my concertina playing. I can now reveal that I’ve signed up for the Noel Hill concertina school in March next year. I’m so looking forward to it!

To be continued…. In the meantime, look up some info about our fabulous festivals here down south – there’s more than Dublin to see if you visit Ireland!


  • Alice
    11th October 2019 at 2:04 pm

    I used to be a lot into music when I was a child and I have to say that was probably because I had an amazing music teacher in elementary school and I studied ballet (and you need to count and know the music very well in order to properly dance). We only played the metallophone and the flute in school, but my teacher told my parents that I was good enough to start a proper music education if I wanted. They made me choose between music and dance (because I couldn’t do both) and I chose the latter one. Sadly, after middle school, I never touched a musical instrument and I forgot all the music theory!

    I recently started toying with the idea of studying how to play the keyboard on my own as an analog hobby (I dusted off my old one from when I was a child that I never actually learned to play) and I’m finding lots of great material online but I’m having a hard time with the notes since I only studied the neo-latin naming convention (Do, Re, Mi, etc.) 😅

    • Susanne
      11th October 2019 at 2:32 pm

      Oh yes, that’s so crazy with the notes names in Italy!! (or maybe you think our way of naming notes are crazier!) I took mandolin lessons when I lived in Italy and also have some material for the organetto (that’s the English name for the ‘ddu botte but not for the normal 2-row diatonic accordion for some reason), and I have to count where I am in the scale every time! If I’ll take up the ‘ddu botte again (which I hope to do later on) I’ll learn by ear instead. Maybe you can do the same? Or is it important for you to use written music? It would depend on what you’ll use the keyboard for, I guess.

      • Alice
        11th October 2019 at 2:45 pm

        I started all excited with the music theory and then I got a bit discouraged by the notes (why can’t we use the English system OMG!), I didn’t know that playing by ear would be an option but I guess I can try that since my purpose is just to have fun playing my favorite songs, not to perform for others. I started taking a nice course on Skillshare but my membership expired before I finished it, thankfully I was able to purchase it at a super discounted price on Udemy and I’m planning to go through it first

        • Susanne
          11th October 2019 at 2:55 pm

          You can play by ear even if you plan to play professionally! Lots and lots of musicians do that. Of course theory is good but definitely NOT obligatory to play well. If you play by ear you can play with other people more easily too. I’ve learned most by ear, although I read simple sheet music (and find that a good way to find new tunes) but when I go to sessions it’s all by ear, and I have learned lots of tunes just by going to sessions and try to play along. You obviously need to know your instrument enough to do that, and I skip tunes in A, but since beginning of summer or so, I only bring the concertina to our local session. I have learned lots by only playing the concertina there. I can now join in on maybe 50% of the tunes they play (not said I play them well, but I can join in!!), while in the beginning I could play maybe a few of their tunes.
          Coming from the ballet world, I understand that playing by ear may not have been an option for you, but I’d highly recommend it. It’s a very useful skill to have.
          That Udemy course looks very good though!

          • Alice
            12th October 2019 at 10:14 am

            This is so encouraging, Susanne! I’m glad I mentioned it to you. 😃

  • Claudine
    12th October 2019 at 3:58 am

    Aww I loved reading this post! <3 It's so nice that music is so alive and kicking in your area, and I love how there are so many opportunities to play with other people and discover new musicians. Even if I don't play instruments, I'd love to witness all of these gigs for myself <3 How I wish we had similar music venues in our village!

    • Susanne
      13th October 2019 at 9:45 am

      I thought you played the uke??!
      However, I agree, we’re very privileged here with these things!! Obviously this is one reason why I’m so happy here.. music everywhere.

  • Kirsten
    17th November 2019 at 6:21 pm

    Your photos and post have really made me want to look into the Irish traditions and music in Nova Scotia more. I don’t mind driving for it as I think my area doesn’t have a lot. I know you said you were concerned about the pictures in the pubs without the good lighting but honestly some of them are absolutely stunning! That’s one thing I have not come close to figuring out. Looking at the pictures you took though it looks so relaxing and enjoyable and makes me really want to get out to the pubs here more for drinks and live music. I don’t play anything. I have only tried piano and guita when younger but other then a year or so of piano lessons in which I learned to play on Christmas Carol and not very well I never really learnt anything but I love listening!

    • Susanne
      17th November 2019 at 6:47 pm

      It really makes me happy if this post inspired you to get out and explore the music venues around you! I don’t know if you’re aware of it but your area also has a lovely music tradition, or at least Cape Breton. There is a fabulous fiddler named Nathalie MacMaster that you should look up, and do go to see her perform if you have a chance. Her kids are now musicians too! I’m sure there are also Irish music around in your area, I hope you find something good and genuine. Maybe take up the guitar again?
      Thanks so much for the compliment on my photos! I love to take photos at gigs but it’s always a great challenge and I usually fail miserably. Behind these photos here there are LOADS of bad photos. The blue and pink lighting at DeBarra’s certainly gives some challenge but I’ve managed to work around it decently and I’m very happy with the photos from the Sharon Shannon gig actually!
      To take photos in that sort of environment you’d need either a lens with wide aperture that lets in as much light as possible but to get good sharp photos you wouldn’t want to use too wide aperture anyway so if your camera can take decent photos with higher ISO that is a good thing. Actually I see that I took the Sharon Shannon photos at f1.7 and it’s still decently sharp. The light must have been ok, I was quite close to the stage too. I used a shutter speed of 1/60 and the ISO only needed to be at 1600, the one with the fiddler is at ISO 2500.
      I took some photos last week of friends of ours when they played in town, and that was a bit trickier. Also, when a bluegrass band played in a venue on the other side of Cork, there the lighting is sharply red and who knows what else. But it makes you have to learn a thing or two about white balance (I’m not there yet, but I found a useful setting on my camera)!


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