Home » Arts & Culture » Sharing the spirit of the Russells of Doolin
Charles Monod plays a musical tribute to the Russell brothers in their former family home at Doolin. Photograph by John Kelly

Sharing the spirit of the Russells of Doolin

The rich history of one of Clare’s most influential traditional music families is being pieced together for the first time in a new online archive of sound, images and memories.
The Russell’s of Doolin archive was launched at last month’s Russell Festival and tracks the life, music and stories of Micho, Packie and Gussie Russell.
The archive is the brainchild of local musician and co-organiser of the Russell Festival, Charles Monod, who has spent the last year conducting interviews and sourcing images, audio and video about the famous Doolin brothers.
Charles came to traditional music comparatively late in life, but once he was bitten by the trad bug, he was hooked for life. Originally from Switzerland, he came to Doolin for a summer as a teenager, but like so many lovers of traditional music, he found it difficult to leave.
“When I came here for the summer I started playing the tin whistle as something to do. My aim was to be able to play in the sessions, that was it. But over the years I practiced and learned more and more tunes and that has ended up with me being a full time musician, producer and involved in lots of music related stuff in Doolin,” he said.
“The big turning point for me was after Covid, I did a masters in Traditional Music Performance in UL. I was always interested in archives and old recordings, but I really got into that during that time.”
All three of the Russell brothers had passed away before Charles arrived in North Clare in 2006. Despite this, he quickly discovered that the spirit and the music of the three was very much still alive on Fisher Street.
“For me it is the history of Doolin, the Russells and O’Connor’s Pub, that is the history of the village,” he said.
“That first summer I worked in Magnetic Music and the owner would have been friendly with Micho. In the music shop we had all the CDs that were available. From that first summer on I was listening to all the recordings.
“There is one particular CD that I still have from that time called ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’. On that CD there is way more talking than playing. There is Micho introducing the tunes, with stories and playing the odd tune here and there.
“That would have been my first encounter and I remember at the time, I was fascinated by his English and way of speaking. At the time, my English wasn’t as good as it is now and it was sometimes difficult for me to understand local people here.
“But for some reason, because of the way that Micho spoke, I could understand every word he was saying. I found that fascinating.
“There is a poetry in it. That is something that came up in the research that I have done, is how special their way of speaking was.”
Having never played music before, there was something in the purity and simplicity of the music produced by the Russell family that captivated Charles.
“It is hard to put into words but I have always been attracted to the music that has a style that is not so polished and technical. Simple isn’t the right word. It might sounds simple, but try playing it the way they played it and you will see that it not simple,” said Charles.
“I met musicians here that would have played in a similar style to the Russells, people like Noel O’Donoghue or Terry Bingham. I was always attracted to their music and I can see clear links to their music and the music of the Russells. I think it is an older type of music.”
Over the past year, Charles has travelled the highways and byways of North Clare and beyond in search of new information about the Russells. This journey has brought him into contact with scores of people with different stories and memories of the brothers.
One of the often told stories about Micho is that he wasn’t a fan of working on the farm. While this may be true, Charles has discovered that he was an incredibly hard worker when it came to music, a profession, traditional musician, before the term was even invented.
“There has been so much information about Micho, because of his character and personality. Everyone has a story about Micho,” he said.
“The image that most people have of Micho is of this happy go lucky man, but no one ever thinks about the amount of work that he put into music.
“We often hear jokes about him not doing too much work around the farm, but talking to a few people who knew him, including his neighbours and people who toured with him, he was relentless at working at his music.
“He worked on the tunes in so much detail. You never hear Micho making a mistake in one of the recordings because he was so well prepared. I think Micho Russell was a full-time, professional traditional musician before that was even a thing.
“He dedicated his life to it. He also did an incredible amount of work collecting the folklore as well. He went around with a tape recorder collecting songs. He lived for the music.”
As well as gathering information about the three Russell brothers, Charles has also gathered some information about the Russell sisters, Mary-Kate and Bridget.
“The Russell family have been incredibly helpful. I have been talking mostly with the grand-nieces of the brothers and they have been so very helpful,” he said.
“As well as talking about the brothers, we have also put together a piece on their two sisters, Mary-Kate and Bridget. They are not talked about as much, so we thought that it would be nice to have a section about them and their lives. The sisters didn’t play music, I think one of them sang. They ended up leaving Doolin when they got married and left the three brothers there.
“Other people have been very helpful as well, both in talking to me and also in guiding me towards other people. Eugene Lambe and Michael Hynes have also been incredibly helpful.”
While Charles has collected countless artefacts and interviews about the Russells, it will take some time to process his collection and add it all to the online archive.
“I have had to stop collecting information at the moment. I have actually collected so much that I need to put it up on the archive. The collecting part is the fun part, you meet and interview amazing people,” he said.
“The people who knew them best are in their late 60s and 70s or older at the moment. So I have been calling up to people’s houses, listening to old stories and having the time of my life.
“But I have had to pause this for a little bit to do the technical work of uploading and archiving the information. After I am finished with this first phase, I think the project will keep going and going. I have no doubt that there is a lot more stuff out there and a lot more people who have more stories to tell. The project itself is never going to be finished, I hope.
“I have collected about 200 items and the first few of those are live on the website at the moment, but that is only a fraction of what is going to be there. I am hoping that over the next couple of months that much of what has been gathered will be live on the site.”

The archive has been made using funding from the Irish Arts Council under the Traditional Funding Scheme. The website is located at therussellsofdoolin.ie.

Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is a journalist, writer and podcaster based in the west of Ireland.

About Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is a journalist, writer and podcaster based in the west of Ireland.

Check Also

Brennan is back and raring to go

Cillian Brennan is Clare captain like his brother Gary before him, but that honour aside …