Island folk


Oisín McGovern

‘WILL you meet me on Clare Island, summer stars are in the sky/We’ll get the ferry out from Roonagh, and wave all our cares goodbye’. The lyrics of this famous Saw Doctors song will be very apposite when Mayo’s second-largest offshore island hosts its very first folk festival in a few short weeks.
Those who do get the ferry out from Roonagh on the second weekend in September are in for a festival experience that few other places can offer.
With just over 4,000 acres of land mass, the island itself is the venue, essentially. As well as being able to walk from one show to another, visitors will be immersed in the raw, majestic scenery that makes this place a jewel in the crown of the Wild Atlantic Way.
“It just benefits the music so much, I really feel very strongly about that,” says Clare Island Folk Festival Chair, singer-songwriter Niall McCabe. “It makes sense in that environment, it’s not like having a rave on Clare Island!”
Speaking to The Mayo News, McCabe says that Clare Island is embracing its rich and unique heritage in staging its inaugural folk festival.
Like many of Éire’s offshore islands, Clare Islanders have a particular affection for their folk music.
Deprived of the amusements available to most on the mainland, for decades island dwellers across the Atlantic seaboard relied heavily on their own music, song and dance to keep themselves entertained.
That affection for folk lingers to this very day.
“There’s a great culture of music on Clare Island already. We all love folk music, we all love trad music,” says McCabe, himself a renowned folk musician.
This will not be the first time that Clare Island has held a festival, of course. McCabe explains that there have been various fiestas and gatherings on the island over the years – but nothing quite like this.
Since leaving Clare Island’s shores some 15 years ago McCabe has played with some of the finest artists in the country.
But like so many islanders, home was forever calling him back to the great rock on the edge of Clew Bay.
Having returned to the birthplace of Grace O’Malley in 2020, McCabe wanted to bring some of what he had experienced on tour back to his native soil.
“I wanted to do something positive for the island. I was inspired by Inis Bofin; they have a great arts festival down there,” he replies, when asked about why he wanted stage a folk festival out on the Atlantic Ocean.
John Spillane, Niamh Regan, Pauline Scanlon and the trio of Tara Breen, Josephine Marsh and Laoise Kelly are just some of the acts that will step onto the pier over a unique and intimate weekend of festivities.
There will even be an appearance from Westport-based Hekim Hemid, who will play a set of traditional Kurdish music alongside Donal Moran and Tony Reidy.
Accommodating musicians and visitors on a small island in the middle of ocean will be a challenge. However, it is a challenge to which the islanders are determined to rise.
“We can only cater to a small number of people, but we can do it well, and that’s the goal,” McCabe insists.
“Acts that come have to adapt; they can’t just hop in the cars and drive away at the end of the gig, that’s the added pressure. If the weather’s bad, it’s another layer. Hopefully the weather will be fine. I hope that people will get more of an adventure as part of it.”
If simply getting there isn’t enough of an adventure, the island itself has jaw-dropping vistas as far as the eye can see.
One could easily spend half a day sightseeing around Granuaile’s castle, St Brigid’s Abbey, the lighthouse or the hill of Knockmore before spending an evening listening to John Spillane or Laoise Kelly in the warmth and comfort of the Stone Barn Café.
“Even if it’s wild and rainy, [the island’s] got power and it changes how you feel about the music,” McCabe says. “It’s not just about what you’re playing, it’s about the setting and it’s about the atmosphere, and I think that’s what we have that you can’t get anywhere.”
There are few places on earth like Clare Island, but there are even fewer music festivals like The Clare Island Folk Festival.

For more on the Clare Island Folk Festival, September 9-11, and for tickets, visit