Turtle Bunbury

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By Turtle Bunbury (Inspirato, 2014)

Eoin O’Neill’s 55-year-old fingers are flittering from one fret of his bouzouki to the next so fast that they have become a blur to me. And his grin is getting ever wider as he eyeballs the panelled ceiling above. The eight musicians seated around him are following his lead, hypnotizing the entire pub with a savage symphony of giddy fiddles and mandolins, pluckety banjos, bodhrans, flutes and 12-string guitars. A bearded man yelps from the sidelines, another pounds his tabletop with the palms of his hand, convinced that he too has found the rhythm. The music gets ever faster and my knobbly knees are bouncing uncontrollably off the old flagstone floor. Things are taking off in here tonight, of that I have no doubt.

It’s a Sunday evening at Joseph McHugh’s pub in Liscannor, County Clare. Outside the storm is raging, frothing up the ocean all along the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Incessant balls of salty rain smack against the dark windows, briefly clinging and then dissolving in the soft light of the turf fire. I am of the opinion that Eoin is in tune with the weather outside, that he has somehow hatched this melody in cahoots with the Gods who create such tempests.

Certainly he started calmly enough. It was just him and Yvonne Casey when we first arrived, he with the bouzouki, she with the fiddle. I stumbled in alongside photographer James Fennell having spent some hours spinning around the horseshoe bay at Kilkee and up towards Loop Head. A sagacious landlady in Kilrush had advised us this stretch of cliffs was every bit as wonderful and rather less populated than the Cliffs of Moher. In fact, there was not another soul to be seen for most of that blustery afternoon as we parked the car and gingerly strolled towards the lofty cliff-face.

It’s one of those days when you can lean forward into the wind and it pushes you back upright. I’m thinking about the power of the invisible wind and freak gusts and keeping a healthy distance from the cliff’s edge, watching those dark blue rollers steam in from afar, smashing against the same rocks that tore the Spanish Armada to shreds right here back in 1588.

I crouch upon the green, salt-splayed grasses, look across at a small square island maybe a hundred metres out to sea. I see the ruins of a dwelling on its summit.

Surely to God, I say aloud, that is the remotest building on this green Earth.

‘It was a hermitage’, I am told later by a barman in Hotel Doolin called Kieran who has an impressive American Civil War beard. ‘A saint set up a commune out there about 1500 years ago. It was all connected to the mainland but then the land fell away and it became an island.’

Kieran recently won the lottery so he ought to know these things. I also rate him because he was the guy who counselled me to switch from Guinness stout to O’Hara’s the previous evening. ‘Stick with O’Hara’s Leann Folláin and you’ll have no hangover’, he avowed. ‘Leann Folláin means wholesome stout and wholesome it most certainly is’.

Kieran says he cannot play any musical instruments. This makes him rather unusual in County Clare.

In fact, you’ll be hard pushed to find a land more musical than the fair County Clare. Traditional Irish music forms the soul of many of the county’s towns and villages from the tiny hamlets of Kilfenora, Tulla or Carrigaholt to Ennis, the energetic county capital, where musicians congregate nightly in places such as James O’Keeffe’s and the Poet’s Rest at the Old Ground Hotel.

Some melodies have been passed down from ear to ear over innumerable generations since the age of the Celtic peoples who dwelled in these fertile lands. Others are the legacy of the maritime traders from Morocco, Algeria, Portugal and Spain who plied Ireland’s Atlantic coast and ventured up the Shannon estuary that forms Clare’s southern border.

The concertina, now considered a particularly Irish instrument, was an Anglo-German invention but became so popular in Clare that by the early 1900s nearly every house in the county had one. Light and portable, these two-handed hexagonal squeezeboxes proved particularly popular with women, none more so than Lizzie Crotty, matriarch of Crotty’s in Kilrush, one of the longest-standing musical pubs in Clare.

Born into a large family in 1885, Mrs Crotty (pronounced ‘Crutty’ in the locality) became arguably the best-known concertina player in Ireland with compositions such as ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘The Reel with the Beryl’. In her younger years, this shy but determined woman frequently played at “American Wakes” where the community would gather to bid farewell to yet another young man or woman bound for a new life in America - all but one of her own siblings emigrated, none returned. Her husband Miko Crotty was one of the few emigrants who did come back and together they converted their pub in Kilrush into a hotbed for traditional music sessions, especially after the horse and cattle fairs in the square.

Crotty’s continues to be one of the strongholds of Irish music in southern Clare. The musicians play in Mrs Crotty’s old living room, tapping their feet on a worn tiled floor installed by an Italian craftsman whom Miko managed to lure down from a job at the local Catholic Church. An adjacent table was the favoured spot for Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Cyril Cusack when those hard-drinking thespians became Crotty’s aficionados in the 1960s.

Every pub is a stage upon which countless acts and scenes have taken place. We are but the players who breeze in from afar, seat ourselves upon the chairs and stools, high and low, and listen as the tunes seamlessly melt or jerk from one octave to another.

Back in Liscannor, Eoin O’Neill is still firing on all cylinders with that bouzouki of his, stomping his foot and yelping like a wolf while all around are likewise going full pelt. It’s like Zorba the Greek with a barrel of poitin thrown in. Horses’ hooves thunder on salt-stained fields, great crested rollers blast into the ancient cliffs. Faster and faster and faster it goes, fiddlers shoulders rolling like the breakers themselves, until the definitive crescendo falls and everyone drops back to earth with much whoofing of chest and contagious mirth. ‘Sorry about that,’ says Eoin, scratching the back of his head. ‘I get a little carried away sometimes’.

Magnificent. To my mind, I have just witnessed a little piece of magic, crafted by wood, string and a melee of human elbows, fingers and wrists. And yet, this same formula is in a state of near constant infusion in pubs throughout County Clare on any day of the week. It is truly extraordinary. Many children of the county are taught how to play an instrument before they master spelling or math. As such, there are now hundreds if not thousands of musicians who were born and bred in Clare, as well as the innumerable players who have drifted in from afar.

‘I’m a nowhere man,’ says Eoin, who was raised on the east coast of Ireland. ‘When I first moved to Doolin 35 years ago, the winters were so lonely that I would be almost crying in my bedroom but its so different now. The Internet keeps you connected all the time if you want.’

Irish music is often deeply haunting and emotive. I have met men and women whose grandparents were teenagers at the time of the Great Famine of the 1840s in which approximately one million people succumbed to starvation and disease while another million fled the island. I think of this as I stand on the edge of Ireland, looking out at the ocean, the same interminable, shimmering, rumbling ocean upon which so many sailed away from here.

I watch the waves crash against the sheer cliff face and the sky fills with mythical spirits who swirl alongside the gulls, swooping into the froth. The light is epic but the wind is picking up and I am inclined to retreat with haste. And suddenly, directly in front of my eyes, up pops a stick, followed by a head. The stick is a rod and the head belongs to a marvellously jolly fisherman. ‘Sweet mother, be careful’, I implore as he wobbles his way up the cliff towards me. ‘Tis a bit blustery today alright’, he concedes, ‘but I caught plenty of mackerel down there last weekend.’

Irish history does not record many happy moments. However, there are certain things that emerged from the gloomy fog of emigration, famine and religious persecution to embolden the Irish soul, not least music and humour.

I muse upon this some time later at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin when a Santa Claus lookalike on crutches belts out a version of ‘Plastic Jesus’, successfully enticing all those seated around him to sing-along. At his side, another happy-go-lucky man creates an accompanying rhythm by rattling a pair of kitchen spoons between his hands and thigh.

You’re unlikely to hear the spoons in Hotel Doolin on a Monday night but you will hear one of the finest acts in the county, namely Quentin Cooper, Eoin O’Neill and Jon ‘Jono’ O’Connell, with regular cameos from Luka Bloom. Yep, it’s the same Eoin I met in Liscannor but a different pub, different night, different musicians. That’s the way it works in County Clare.

The bar in which they perform is a deep red panelled room, dark timber floors, a glowing turf fire, ceramic whiskey jars on the window sills, walls bedecked with portrait photos of musical greats from decades past. The bar serves local and lesser-known stouts – hence, the O’Hara’s stout in my hand.

Quentin is the only person I’ve ever heard of who is half Peruvian and half Irish. Immensely likeable, he not only plays every instrument I’ve ever heard of but also makes his own. He knows his woods inside out and provides me with a whistle-stop enlightenment. ‘Fiddles, violas, violins, cellos and double basses are all back and sides maple, tough but thin enough to resonate a lot; the top is generally spruce or pine and the fingerboard tends to be ebony or rosewood. The wire can be anything from gut-string to nylon, steel, titanium, carbon, depends what you’re into.’

But now the music is on again. Big Eoin, hunched up and sucking his lower lip, strumming his bouzouki. The dapper Jono, who grew up nearby, the scion of a family of emigrants, hands gliding up and down an enormous double-bass. Quentin doing crazy things with his mandolin. Once again a session brews. A man called Barnes arrives with a banjo. Jono’s brother Kieran, lately returned from Australia, sings ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and suddenly the air is thick with the ambience of Gallipoli, 1915, and the memories of soldiers who have had their legs blown off and we all feel deeply emotional for a moment. A children’s nurse from Kerry then serenades us with ‘Will Ye Go, Lassie Go?’ With each new song, we all move a little closer and by the end of the night I am compelled to shed my own inner fears and I sing a song called ‘Spancil Hill’ which I learned from a man called Robbie McMahon, another legend of Clare, since deceased, about an emigrant who dreams he is home again with his fiancée only to awaken in far away California.

That is the power of nights like these, with or without storms raging outside the door, to pitch and toss with whatever tune or song stirs the room.

In County Clare, there are extremely talented men and women playing instruments and singing songs almost all day long. You will find them in any number of pubs. They are there to entertain and entertain you they most certainly will.


The following County Clare pubs have live traditional Irish music on most nights - if not every night – of the week. The musicians inevitably vary but check their websites or ask locally for precise details as to times and performers.


This small coastal village on the northwest coast has no bank or shop yet it boasts four of the finest traditional music pubs in Ireland, namely:

McGanns (www.mcgannspubdoolin.com)

McDermotts (www.mcdermottspubdoolin.com)

O’Connor’s (www.gusoconnorsdoolin.com)

Hotel Doolin (www.hoteldoolin.ie, particularly for the Monday night session).


Although the eponymous founder of Joseph McHugh’s is no more, his genuine old-style Irish pub continues to be one of the liveliest in the land. This village marks the birthplace of John Philip Holland, the man credited with inventing the submarine, while ‘Liscannor Bay’ is as sweet a ballad as ever you will hear.

Miltown Malbay

Since the death of the uilleann piper Willie Clancy in 1973, this seaside town has hosted an annual music festival – as well as Ireland's largest traditional music summer school – in his honour. Both events take place in July but there is music in the town throughout the year, most notably in Friel’s (frielspub.ie) – which is rather brilliantly called Lynch’s on the door – where Clancy himself slept after performing in the kitchen so often that ‘Friel’s Kitchen’ became the title of a song by The Chieftains.


‘If it is music you want, you should go to Clare’ was a mantra given full voice by Irish folk music icon Christy Moore in his 1983 song ‘Lisdoonvarna’. The 18th century spa-town is now perhaps best known as home to a matchmaking festival every September when upwards of 40,000 people come a-tumbling in looking for love and merriment. The festive spirit continues throughout the year with traditional music every Friday and Saturday night at the Roadside Tavern (www.roadsidetavern.ie)


This crossroads village on the southern edge of the outlandish limestone plateau of the Burren is home to Bofey Quinns (bofeyquinns.weebly.com), an acclaimed music pub-restaurant run by descendants of the Quinn family who ruled this region in long distant centuries.


The county capital has a proud tradition of supporting those who fought to wrestle control of Ireland from the British Empire. A tall column at the heart of the town is adorned with a statue of Daniel O’Connell, the barrister whose campaign to win the vote for Irish Catholics began in Ennis, while Éamon de Valera, one of the foremost figures in 20th century Irish history, also has strong links to the town. Fans of traditional music will not be disappointed if they heard for the Poet’s Corner Bar at the Old Ground Hotel. Alternatively try Brogan’s (www.brogansbarandrestaurant.com) or James O’Keeffe’s, aka Honest Tom Steele’s, named for O’Connell’s particularly eccentric sidekick.


One of the oldest musical pubs in County Clare, Crotty’s (www.crottyspubkilrush.com) is also one of its finest, connecting the musicians of today with the celebrated Mrs. Crotty and the traditions of the 19th century.


The ruined shell of a five-storey castle that witnessed the collapse of the Spanish Armada in 1588 overlooks the harbour of this fishing village on the coast of the Loop Head peninsula. Keane's, a charming country bar with adjoining grocery shop, hosts regular traditional music sessions.