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.

The creative mix of hot acts in the contemporary folk scene blended with hard-core trad musicians from around Ireland and also, importantly enough, many of the local musicians who keep the ten-month music season hopping throughout the year in O’Connors, McGanns and McDermotts. All would be showcased in the Marquee with professional sound to an audience who wanted to be there is a formula that works every time.

And this year’s lineup fits that bill once again with Damien Dempsey, Kila, The Unwanted, Lisa O’Neill, Moxie, The Bonny Men and Twin-Headed Wolf leading the cutting edge folk bands. For the trad followers it is a dynamite lineup with a multi-generation mix of performers including the 89 year-old Chris Droney from nearby Bell Harbour and family, Liam O’Flynn & Paddy Glackin, Mairtin O’Connor & Cathal Hayden & Seamie O’Dowd, Mike McGoldrick & Dezi Donnelly, Seamus Begley & Jim Murray, Lumiere (Eilis Kennedy & Pauline Scanlon), The Whileaways, Siobhan Peoples & Murty Ryan & Pat Marsh, Mick O’Brien & Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, Friel Sisters, Tommy McCarthy & Louis Costello, Blackie O’Connell & Friends, Cillian King, Gavin Moore and even a new group called New Road in which Conor Byrne himself is a member.

All of that talent for a good value of 79 Euro for a weekend pass and only 30 Euro (Friday 5 pm-1 am) or 35 Euro (Saturday and Sunday 2 pm.-1:30 am) per day in a controlled environment where you will be surrounded by kindred spirits who know their music and where to find it, it would be hard to match a lineup like this at any of the larger or more established Irish music festivals anywhere around the world.

Eoin O’Neill, a well-known musician and Clare-FM presenter has spent 20 of his 30 years in Clare playing around Doolin in all the haunts and he has a firm handle on what is good and bad in the music scene told me that the “Doolin Folk Festival is about the very best music you can find in Ireland with a 1,000 people listening to every note at any given time with a proper sound and rig professionally set up and the fact that local musicians are included in it as well as the big name draws tells you how Doolin feels about the importance of music to the village” and its high standards in all the pubs in town. O’Neill discredits those critics who say Doolin is too touristy in presenting the music because “Tourists are the best listeners you could ever have and as visitors they know why they are coming to Doolin and that matters to the musicians” who don’t have to be condescending or patronizing like in some caberet type setups.

The mid-June timing of the Doolin Folk Festival also affords visitors those long luxurious summer days where it is light until 11 p.m. which means you will want to plan for some extra time to tour around Northwest Clare from Lahinch up to New Quay. For those in search of great eating experiences and fresh locally sourced food and seafood there are plenty of choices and even in Doolin itself which has worked hard to raise the standard there to provide a more memorable holiday for those who come there according to hotelier John Burke. Great value and imagination go into the tempting menus starting with the guest houses and through all the fine restaurants these days around Clare where returning to their roots and what was special about the county are now attractions rather than simply high-priced five star accommodations around Ireland. Doolin also has a prize Guest house called Cullinan’s Restaurant & Guesthouse owned by a very tasty musician and chef James Cullinan from Kilnamona and his wife Caroline which has been a special destination for years based on its service and reputation for fine food morning and evenings.

With the new focus on the Wild Atlantic Way springing up along the roadsides now in Ireland along the route, visitors nowadays don’t simply want to view the gorgeous scenery from a car window or from a high coach perch, they want to get out and walk and take advantage of the salt-sea air that is as refreshing as it revitalizing. And the opportunities for this with Doolin as a base are exceptional with lots of healthy exercise to walk off the gorgeous meals while soaking up the cultural heritage of the region. The Burren National Park with its ancient limestone fields and wild life and flora could easily pass a couple of days as could a visit out to the Aran Islands via boat from Doolin Pier. Nowadays several companies provide trips to all three islands less than an hour away by sea when the tide is right.

Work has began just this year on a new Doolin Pier finally with funds ringfenced by the late Brian Lenihan who set aside 6 million euro to establish a proper gateway from North Clare to the Aran Islands at any time of day without regard to the tide which if fortune and the weather shine on Doolin could be completed for beginning of the tourist season in late Spring of 2015. This brings great delight to the Garrihy Family who operate a four-boat fleet called Doolin2Aran Ferries whose patriarch Jack Gerrihy was an iconic Doolin businessman and booster whom the Aran Islanders depended on to source much needed supplies for their remote islands in the sea. The company which pioneered afternoon excursions below the Cliffs of Moher have twinned with local farmer Pat Sweeney who has organized five -mile hikes from the Cliffs of Moher down to Fisher Street in Doolin to offer stunning and memorable views from top to bottom in a combination package as well (Doolin2aranferries.com).

The Doolin Folk Festival is one of these boutique or smaller model festivals you see more and more in Ireland and especially along the Wild Atlantic Way in Baltimore, Bantry, Dingle, Galway, Kinvarra, Clifden, Louisbourg, Ardara and Gweedore to name a few and also for long-time summers schools like the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay and Scoil Acla in Mayo on Achill Island.

All of these places host festivals that are curated for quality and while they bring home the bacon economically in these recessionary times in their respective localities they are predicated more on delivering a good overall experience and not setting attendance records beyond capacity. As local businessman, Eugene Garrihy told me the value of promoting the West of Ireland now is important “because every product can go stale unless it is regenerated all the time and Ireland is all about walking, cycling and discovering the natural beauty all around us and protecting that environmentally and that is what we are doing here especially here in Doolin” where being green means more than just the landscape.

It is that blend of optimistic entrepreneurship and caution that big numbers aren’t the solution for Ireland today that runs through a more pragmatic Doolin today that appears to be a central theme. Even with the arrival of a new pier which Garrihy’s ferry business will benefit from immensely doesn’t suggest going beyond the capability of the village to handle increased traffic and trade. “We need to manage it carefully as we have learned [from the Celtic Tiger days] that multiples of income and profit while welcome do not always give you the right results” Garrihy added in a phone interview. And by zeroing in on the high quality of food sources and suppliers in the area creating imaginative menus with healthier choices adds to the visitor experience in coming to Doolin and County Clare according to John Burke of the Hotel Doolin and “it also helps build and support our community”.

It may be a little late to plan a visit to the Doolin Folk Festival this year unless you are going to be in the area anyway but tickets will move quickly and accommodations are further away by now. But you can do the research at www.doolinfolkfestival.com or www.doolin-tourism.com for a visit in the future.Headline: “If it’s music you want Go to Doolin”

Doolin, County Clare -- This picturesque and quaint fishing village in North Clare is one of the gems along the 1700- 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 sea scapes 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.

The creative mix of hot acts in the contemporary folk scene blended with hard-core trad musicians from around Ireland and also, importantly enough, many of the local musicians who keep the ten-month music season hopping throughout the year in O’Connors, McGanns and McDermotts. All would be showcased in the Marquee with professional sound to an audience who wanted to be there is a formula that works every time.

And this year’s lineup fits that bill once again with Damien Dempsey, Kila, The Unwanted, Lisa O’Neill, Moxie, The Bonny Men and Twin-Headed Wolf leading the cutting edge folk bands. For the trad followers it is a dynamite lineup with a multi-generation mix of performers including the 89 year-old Chris Droney from nearby Bell Harbour and family, Liam O’Flynn & Paddy Glackin, Mairtin O’Connor & Cathal Hayden & Seamie O’Dowd, Mike McGoldrick & Dezi Donnelly, Seamus Begley & Jim Murray, Lumiere (Eilis Kennedy & Pauline Scanlon), The Whileaways, Siobhan Peoples & Murty Ryan & Pat Marsh, Mick O’Brien & Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, Friel Sisters, Tommy McCarthy & Louis Costello, Blackie O’Connell & Friends, Cillian King, Gavin Moore and even a new group called New Road in which Conor Byrne himself is a member.

All of that talent for a good value of 79 Euro for a weekend pass and only 30 Euro (Friday 5 pm-1 am) or 35 Euro (Saturday and Sunday 2 pm.-1:30 am) per day in a controlled environment where you will be surrounded by kindred spirits who know their music and where to find it, it would be hard to match a lineup like this at any of the larger or more established Irish music festivals anywhere around the world.

Eoin O’Neill, a well-known musician and Clare-FM presenter has spent 20 of his 30 years in Clare playing around Doolin in all the haunts and he has a firm handle on what is good and bad in the music scene told me that the “Doolin Folk Festival is about the very best music you can find in Ireland with a 1,000 people listening to every note at any given time with a proper sound and rig professionally set up and the fact that local musicians are included in it as well as the big name draws tells you how Doolin feels about the importance of music to the village” and its high standards in all the pubs in town. O’Neill discredits those critics who say Doolin is too touristy in presenting the music because “Tourists are the best listeners you could ever have and as visitors they know why they are coming to Doolin and that matters to the musicians” who don’t have to be condescending or patronizing like in some caberet type setups.

The mid-June timing of the Doolin Folk Festival also affords visitors those long luxurious summer days where it is light until 11 p.m. which means you will want to plan for some extra time to tour around Northwest Clare from Lahinch up to New Quay. For those in search of great eating experiences and fresh locally sourced food and seafood there are plenty of choices and even in Doolin itself which has worked hard to raise the standard there to provide a more memorable holiday for those who come there according to hotelier John Burke. Great value and imagination go into the tempting menus starting with the guest houses and through all the fine restaurants these days around Clare where returning to their roots and what was special about the county are now attractions rather than simply high-priced five star accommodations around Ireland. Doolin also has a prize Guest house called Cullinan’s Restaurant & Guesthouse owned by a very tasty musician and chef James Cullinan from Kilnamona and his wife Caroline which has been a special destination for years based on its service and reputation for fine food morning and evenings.

With the new focus on the Wild Atlantic Way springing up along the roadsides now in Ireland along the route, visitors nowadays don’t simply want to view the gorgeous scenery from a car window or from a high coach perch, they want to get out and walk and take advantage of the salt-sea air that is as refreshing as it revitalizing. And the opportunities for this with Doolin as a base are exceptional with lots of healthy exercise to walk off the gorgeous meals while soaking up the cultural heritage of the region. The Burren National Park with its ancient limestone fields and wild life and flora could easily pass a couple of days as could a visit out to the Aran Islands via boat from Doolin Pier. Nowadays several companies provide trips to all three islands less than an hour away by sea when the tide is right.

Work has began just this year on a new Doolin Pier finally with funds ringfenced by the late Brian Lenihan who set aside 6 million euro to establish a proper gateway from North Clare to the Aran Islands at any time of day without regard to the tide which if fortune and the weather shine on Doolin could be completed for beginning of the tourist season in late Spring of 2015. This brings great delight to the Garrihy Family who operate a four-boat fleet called Doolin2Aran Ferries whose patriarch Jack Gerrihy was an iconic Doolin businessman and booster whom the Aran Islanders depended on to source much needed supplies for their remote islands in the sea. The company which pioneered afternoon excursions below the Cliffs of Moher have twinned with local farmer Pat Sweeney who has organized five -mile hikes from the Cliffs of Moher down to Fisher Street in Doolin to offer stunning and memorable views from top to bottom in a combination package as well (Doolin2aranferries.com).

The Doolin Folk Festival is one of these boutique or smaller model festivals you see more and more in Ireland and especially along the Wild Atlantic Way in Baltimore, Bantry, Dingle, Galway, Kinvarra, Clifden, Louisbourg, Ardara and Gweedore to name a few and also for long-time summers schools like the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay and Scoil Acla in Mayo on Achill Island.

All of these places host festivals that are curated for quality and while they bring home the bacon economically in these recessionary times in their respective localities they are predicated more on delivering a good overall experience and not setting attendance records beyond capacity. As local businessman, Eugene Garrihy told me the value of promoting the West of Ireland now is important “because every product can go stale unless it is regenerated all the time and Ireland is all about walking, cycling and discovering the natural beauty all around us and protecting that environmentally and that is what we are doing here especially here in Doolin” where being green means more than just the landscape.

It is that blend of optimistic entrepreneurship and caution that big numbers aren’t the solution for Ireland today that runs through a more pragmatic Doolin today that appears to be a central theme. Even with the arrival of a new pier which Garrihy’s ferry business will benefit from immensely doesn’t suggest going beyond the capability of the village to handle increased traffic and trade. “We need to manage it carefully as we have learned [from the Celtic Tiger days] that multiples of income and profit while welcome do not always give you the right results” Garrihy added in a phone interview. And by zeroing in on the high quality of food sources and suppliers in the area creating imaginative menus with healthier choices adds to the visitor experience in coming to Doolin and County Clare according to John Burke of the Hotel Doolin and “it also helps build and support our community”.

It may be a little late to plan a visit to the Doolin Folk Festival this year unless you are going to be in the area anyway but tickets will move quickly and accommodations are further away by now. But you can do the research at www.doolinfolkfestival.com or www.doolin-tourism.com for a visit in the future.

Larry O'Flynn and Paddy Glackin two highlights of the Doolin Folk Festivalwww.doolinfolkfestival.com