Doolin, County Clare -- This picturesque and quaint fishing village in North Clare is one of the gems along the 1,553-mile Great Atlantic Way from Cork to Donegal that is getting much deserved attention these days from Tourism Ireland. And not because it stands frozen in time like the majestic Cliffs of Moher that lie to the south of Doolin or the Burren to its north or even the rugged land and seascapes of the Aran Islands that hearken back to a more challenging way of life isolated in the wild Atlantic Ocean. The humble little village has been a tourist attraction for decades because of its proximity to those natural wonders and also because it has a rich musical heritage that drew on the cultural climate and musicianship of the local community like the Russell Brothers of County Clare. A recent visit there earlier this month to the locality which I first visited as a 12 year old boy over 50 years ago fascinated me anew. I thought about all the changes that have taken place there in that time along with Ireland’s transformation into a country with a 21st Century mindset and lifestyle while still holding onto a unique cultural heritage that has worldwide appeal.
After a night in a recently purchased old cottage just outside Doolin with friends from New Jersey, I rambled into the village to have a leisurely look about on a sunny day and to scope out more information about a new festival now in its second year called the “Doolin Folk Festival” coming up June 13-15 on the grounds of the Hotel Doolin. I met Rich and Mary Brautigam at Fitzpatrick’s Pub part of the Hotel Doolin complex the night before where a great music session was winding down that included Luka Bloom after stopping in at three other music sessions holding forth in O’Connors, McGanns and McDermotts Pub which have been Doolin music mainstays for generations.
The Hotel Doolin was opened in 2007 as a joint venture with owners Jim Shannon, Paddy Burke and John Burke (of Spanish Point’s Armada Hotel) before the bubble burst in Ireland and around the world. Since then the hotel had to fight its way through recession while updating the product and services available in the small village which most people still associate with the more historic Fisher Street where the famed O’Connor’s Pub sits above the Aille River that flows from the Burren to the sea. Three years ago they hired Donal Minihane as General Manager (He worked in Fitzpatrick’s Flagship Hotel in New York City in 2002) who developed the notion that theme festivals might help build a newer branding for Doolin. Starting first with a craft beer festival three years ago that included their own red ale, dubbed Dooliner, that he synched with the burgeoning Burren Food Festival that also piggybacked the growing emphasis on local produce, meats and dairy it appeared that Minihane was onto something. Last year the Hotel Doolin invested 100,000 Euro in promoting three festivals in the Village, A Writers’ Weekend in March, the Doolin Folk Festival in June and the Craft Beer event in August.
The Doolin Folk Festival was an instant hit thanks to the combined efforts of Minihane and the savvy Artistic Director Conor Byrne who has programmed many events up in his native Dublin and even the Frankie Kennedy Winter School which ceased operation last year after 20 years. Byrne is a nephew of Christy Moore and Luka Bloom (who resides in nearby Liscannor and referred Minihane to Byrne) who was well aware of the legendary Lisdoonvarna Festival that ran from 1977-1983 so colorfully described in Christy lionizing ballad “Lisdoonvarna”. Byrne’s own track record organizing innovative concerts seemed a natural plus and the rapport he built up with RTE Radio and the news media as well as his social networking skills made for a firm foundation for Year One.
Teaming with Minihane’s expertise on organizing events and logistics with the new festival focus on health and safety regulations, they took a more measured and cautious approach to building the festival which amazingly worked very well without issues of traffic or crowd congestion in the small village. Since crowd control and substance abuse helped bring about the demise of Ireland’s Woodstock over thirty years ago, this more sensible approach needed to be taken by Minihane and Byrne. They agreed that they wanted to set up an event that would be talked about by both artists and audience and keep them happily returning year after year to Doolin if not more frequently.
Using a hired Marquee in the back garden of the Hotel Doolin set up to attract wedding business for the small boutique hotel (only 17 guest rooms onsite), they could accommodate over 1,000 people there and the adjoining outdoor bar and gardens behind the block long main building that also housed the café, food and wine shop and gourmet restaurant and Fitzpatrick’s Hotel. The first year proved a massive success with sellouts all three days encompassing 31 hours of stage shows and a late night Trad Disco and it filled up all the town’s three hotels, three hostels and over 50 guest houses in the immediate catchment area up to the Spa town of Lisdoonvarna and down towards Liscannor.