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The late Robbie McMahon, watched by his wife Maura and granddaughter Clodagh Quinn singing Spancilhill during a Clare County Council Civic Reception held to honour the singer at Aras an Chlair. Photograph by John Kelly.

Spancilhill singers still going after 20 years

Champion Chatter Podcast

IN late 2001  Spancilhill publican Mike Duggan approached the late Robbie McMahon about starting a monthly singing session.

 Local resident Pat Liddy quickly got involved and in January 2002 the first session was held in Duggan’s Pub in Spancilhill.

Twenty years on, the sessions are still going, and while they are online for the moment, they will hopefully be going back to a local pub in the near future.

After they first began the sessions quickly gained in popularity primarily due to the legendary Robbie.

The first Friday became known as a welcoming session for singers of all standards with as many coming to listen as those who came to sing or recite on the night. People travelled from all over to spend a night in good company.

Camper vans parked overnight were regularly to be seen as people arrived from all over the country. During the tourist season singer’s from Canada, the USA, Britain, France, Australia, Argentina all frequented the session.

Many great nights of singing and story telling were held in Spancilhill with many past and future All-Ireland winning singers taking part. It wasn’t unusual for singers who were performing concerts in the county to drop in afterwards and sing a song.

The sessions generally ended with a rousing rendition of Michael Considine’s original 11 verse composition of Spancilhill.

Robbie McMahon died in December 2012 and since then John Condon has chaired the session. The All-Ireland Fleadhs in Ennis breathed new life into them in recent years and there was usually standing room only at the monthly gatherings.

March 2020 was the last session in Duggan’s Pub before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. But the session has adapted and moved online, usually twice a month. The online sessions saw singers from all parts of Ireland easily link up with Spancilhill.

Specific sessions with singers in Australia and another with the US were big successes and a night in January celebrating completing 20 years was particularly enjoyable.

Speaking this week John said that there will be another online session this Friday, (February 5) and its hoped that in person sessions in a local pub will start next month.

“Feakle have restarted, Cooraclare are waiting until September, Ennis haven’t made a plan yet, Shanaglish are hoping to start in the next couple of months. Slowly people’s confidence in going back into that environment will return.”

January 7 was the 40th online session, and it was around that time 20 years ago that the first one had been held in Duggan’s. John said that Mike Duggan had been crucial to their success over the years since.

While a virtual session is a bit different, he feels they have had some advantages.

“It’s different in that people are singing on their own, nobody’s going to be joining in, with the format as it is, it doesn’t lend itself to people in different areas singing.

“What it has done is that people who might never travel to Spancilhill have sang. We’ve had people from probably every county in Ireland, from Luxembourg, from France, from Britain, from America, from Canada, from Australia, all joining us.

“We linked up with an American session, it was 9pm our time and 4pm on the east coast of America, 14 or 15 from America joined us.

“Another day we had a session at 10am to link up with people in Australia, it was night time there. We had a dozen or so from there and a dozen or so from here and 30 or 40 listening.”

They also gave a focal point for people to interact, allowing people a precious outlet when they were barely allowed to leave their homes.

“The one thing several people said to me was that it was great to have contact with other people. Some people wouldn’t have seen a whole lot of people and it was great to have that interpersonal contact, even if it was only online.”

Sadly some of the stalwarts of the sessions have passed away since the move to online, and while sometimes attending funerals were not an option, they could still be honoured.

“Unfortunately we had singing members who died and we didn’t have a chance to go to their funerals or mourn them properly, so we did that at times with singing session dedicated to people.

“Pat Liddy in Spancilhill springs to mind, we had a session dedicated to him in January of 2021, he had died the previous month. It was just a way for people to say goodbye.”

Owen Ryan
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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.