For a True Taste of Irish Music, Fun, and Good Will, Check out the Russell Memorial Weekend in Doolin

By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR

If music is the heart of Ireland, then surely Doolin in Co. Clare is the soul of the country as evidenced by the huge annual turnout for the Russell Memorial Weekend.
This musical weekend -- in memory of brothers Micho, Packie, and Gussie Russell -- has become a late winter tradition and is held in Doolin on the last full weekend in February. The festival originated in 1995 to honor Micho Russell, one of Ireland ’s best-known traditional musicians, who died in 1994. But in 2006, his family renamed the festival the Russell Memorial Weekend to give equal honor to all the musical brothers.

The weekend draws former Doolin residents, musicians ,and all those who appreciate traditional music and it’s a celebration from one end of town to the other and the beginning of one day to the end of the next. Concerts and recitals are held in the town’s pubs, there’s set dancing in the Hotel Doolin, musical workshops for attendees and, this year, a performance of Connemara Sound (Fuaim Chonamara) as the featured concert. Connemara Sound stars Brian Cunningham who, with a group of young musicians including several members of his own family, weaves music, song, story, and dance into an epic about Ireland’s oldest dance form, Sean Nós, a musical tradition of Connemara.
But the festival weekend doesn’t just focus on Doolin and music. This year, organizers reached out to those suffering from the Haiti earthquake and for the opening concert in the Russell Cultural Centre, in lieu of admission fees, the audience was asked to donate to help earthquake victims.
So, is there a Boston connection to this musical weekend other than many local residents whose families came from or still live in that area? Funny you should ask. The Russell Weekend website ( says that in 2009, Denise vonMering from Boston made “a generous donation” to the Weekend in memory of her grandfather, Thomas Joseph Shannon (1897-1977), who was born in Doolin and was a neighbor of the Russells. He came to this country in 1920, and met his future wife, Margaret, a native of Macroom. They married in 1923, lived around the Boston area, and eventually settled in Somerville.
Denise’s tribute to her grandfather is included on the website: “I am drawn to Clare, to the place of story, song and dance that my grandfather spoke of so fondly. I loved my grandfather very much and knew him well, but it wasn't until I went to Doolin and experienced the Micho Festival that I realized “who” he really was, how the music and the landscape had defined him and kept a part of him wild and free to the end of his days. I know that he would be delighted to think that in some small way, he was still a part of the musical heritage in Doolin.” Her donation was given “to help enhance and promote the traditional musical heritage of Doolin.”
While the Russell Weekend is great fun, you don’t have to focus on those February dates to hear great Irish music. Many pubs around the country feature seisúns where singers will wander in during the day or evening, sit down, and join others in making wonderful music.
Oops. Apparently, my mind wandered when I wrote and proof-read this column last month because my eagle-eyed brother-in-law, Fred, who lives in Wauwatosa, WI, spotted this in the March column: “And, in Limerick, on Saturday night, March 13, the National Lottery Skyfest’s fireworks will light up the Co. Cork sky.” No, folks, Limerick has not moved south although no doubt the fireworks were so high in the sky and so spectacular that they might have lit up the Co. Cork sky…well, probably not that far away actually! The City of Limerick, I am happy to report, is, in fact, still in Co. Limerick.
How great for Galway and its economy to be chosen as the finishing port and the closing ceremony location for the Volvo Ocean Race in 2012! The final leg is expected to be a three-day race around Ireland before finishing in Galway Bay.
Moving existing commercial docks to a proposed new wharf farther out to sea at Galway Port is a key element in the plan, organizers say. The Let’s Do It Galway committee adds that Galway’s economy is set for a windfall of up to 80-million euro, with revenue coming in part from more than 40,000 international visitors expected to visit the city for the final leg.
Enda Cunningham wrote recently in The Connacht Sentinel that, “Demand for hotel rooms in Galway could be so great during the Volvo Ocean Race ‘grand finale’ in 2012, that the hotel industry is considering docking a 1,500- cabin cruise liner in Galway Port. With up to 50,000 corporate guests alone expected to travel to Galway that June for the final leg of the race, significant pressure is expected on the 5,500 hotel rooms in the city and county.”
The Galway Harbour Company is currently seeking planning permission for the new commercial dock farther out to sea as an initial phase of plans to develop a new Galway Port. If permission is granted and the dock is built, cruise liners could dock there.
Cunningham’s story quoted Paul Gill, chairman of the Irish Hotels Federation, as saying, “If there was pressure or demand, we could hire in a cruise liner, with 1,500 cabins to dock here. We would not let capacity be an issue. It was done in Wales for the Rugby World Cup in 2007, where two cruise liners moored for three weeks. It would be possible to do it here, but we would need a year run-in to organize the logistics.”
Gill added, “There are 5,500 rooms in the city and county, a further 2,500 in Limerick and 1,000 in Athlone. Road connectivity is important and the new motorway is very important. Overall, that’s 10,000 in the greater western area. But the new Port would need to be built to make it a reality. There’d be no point in mooring a liner in the Bay and having runners sailing in and out to it. I don’t think capacity will be an issue, but if it was, a liner would be a no-brainer.”
John Killeen, president of Let’s Do It Global, said preparations for the “biggest ever grand finale” at Galway Docks in 2012 will send the city well on its way to economic recovery.
Many of Ireland’s beautiful gardens (and some grand old homes) will open to the public around Easter and remain open through the summer. The following are among nearly 30 gardens and homes open during the Wicklow Garden Festival:
• Avondale House, in Rathdrum, a Georgian House built in 1777 and the birthplace of Charles Stewart Parnell, will be open to view. Avondale’s Forest Park offers parkland that is synonymous with the birth of Irish Forestry in 1904. There is an extensive collection of trees and shrubs from the long open sweep of the Great Ride to towering conifers on the banks of the Avonmore River.
• Hunter’s Hotel in Ashford is noted for its prize-winning gardens, situated on the banks of the Vartry River, with a spectacular display of oriental poppies in May and June. Many other interesting perennials are featured in box-edged borders. The large kitchen garden provides fruit and vegetables for the hotel.
• The Mount Usher Gardens, also in Ashford, represent the Robinsonian style of informality and natural design. More than 5,000 trees and shrubs from all over the world are planted in harmony with woodland and shade-loving plants.
There are many other garden festivals across Ireland and the gardens and homes are well worth visiting, especially at this lovely time of year. Local tourist offices will have information available.
Whenever you decide to visit Ireland, be sure to stop by your favorite travel agent or visit the Aer Lingus website ( for the latest information on direct flights and ground deals. Flights and deals are also offered by US Airways ( and several other airlines, but often involve layovers that add hours to the trip but also cut the cost.
For seasonal happenings, check out Tourism Ireland’s website (