On Being First-Timers at Lake School
Frances Devlin-Glass and Bob Glass
Koroit is a village that does not stint on welcoming Lake Schoolers annually and has done so for nearly 30 years. The participants (around 300-400 this year) are most obvious on the northern verandah of Mickey Bourke’s Hotel where at any hour of the day, they may be found in big groups sitting around tables generating Irish music. But they are everywhere. Pass through the Botanic Gardens, and there are folk playing in small groups or practising what they’ve learnt at classes during the day. The giveaway sign of an attendee at the School is an instrument case or a badge. Bob and I met someone carrying a smaller-than-usual case and asked him if it was a concertina (about the right shape), and he did not waste words on his answer: he opened the case to display triumphantly an entire set of keyed harmonicas, probably 16 of them, maybe more. We later heard him featured in a session at the Stables in Blues and Bluegrass.
Spread out over different venues in Koroit, one didn’t get a sense of how big and varied the School was until attendees of all ages assembled for the Parade from Mickey Bourke’s to the Showgrounds at the end of the week. Then, in addition to traditional instruments, Parade Master Andy Rigby used both traditional instruments of all sorts and improvised percussion instruments to dance and swing a big group of paraders along the High Street footpaths with great good cheer to the annual photograph.
How does the Lake School work? As first-timers, it was rather mysterious, but community members were ready to answer questions and to direct us and befriend us. Its principal mission, according to its driving team (Felix and Christine Meagher, Jim McAlinden, Margie and Vince Brophy, Louis Hesterman and others) is to train up the next generation of Irish-Australian musicians in the oral music-making tradition. I was aware of some, like those who typically learnt from print, who bristled at the idea of learning by observing and following more experienced players, but as Felix Meagher explained, they’re free to learn any way they can and they do. Most of the performers became adept, seemingly quite speedily, at playing by ear and learning by observing and following more experienced practitioners, building their repertoire of ‘tunes’. A very experienced practitioner might have as many as 600 to draw on. The gatherings of musicians at the ‘other hotel’- Duke’s Commercial at the opposite end of the main street from Mickey Bourke’s- were like an orchestra without a conductor, something Bob, a choir singer of many decades, found disconcerting, and fascinating to observe.
Classes were offered for beginners, intermediate and advanced players (sometimes ‘Vintage’) in many different musical instruments – harp, uilleann pipes, whistles and flute, bodhran, fiddle, guitar, ukelele, pipes, mandolin, piano accordion, harmonica, as well as singers and pub singers (groups with very different styles). It’s a huge logistical exercise to provide classes in so many disciplines and age groups (from kids to octogenarians). It’s this multigenerational feature of the Lake School that seems to us to be its major achievement. We enjoyed being flies on the wall observing the rich interactions between teens and between age groups with a shared passion for music-making that was collaborative and non-competitive. The licensee of Mickey Bourke’s commented to Bob about how, even though his takings were less during School week than between Christmas and New Year, it was a much better quality of experience for him as he had no yahoos to contend with.
There were also classes for those looking for cultural pursuits beyond music —Irish language, soda-bread baking, reed making, a Harari reading group (led by Jeremy Meagher and thought-provoking) and a James Joyce beginners (that was my [Frances] very energising privilege to teach). Calm by the Lake (Polly Christie led this) was another popular offering with its focus on waking to song and relaxation yoga. If you needed revving up after lunch, Marie Brouder who taught Dance was your woman. We were drawn, but only took part at the (OpShop) Ceilidhe, and found it fast and furious – all power to Marie’s elbow. Impressive. The final Ceilidhe ball was nuts. Christine Meagher set the protocol: the tradition is to go to one of the local Op Shops, buy up big (bad taste preferred) and then donate it back the next day. The costumes ranged from elegant (rarely: Polly took out top honours in that field) to low: the Ceilidhe bandmaster wore a woman’s swimming costume with modesty under-garment and provoked continual mirth by his flaunting of chesthair, his male legsprawl, and sang-froid. A very different performance from others who more subtly and tastefully gender-bent where artistry was all.
Apolline, young, driven and deeply talented.
The veterans were naturally enough really impressive (dozens of them professional musos) but the generations that kept drawing our attention were the Teens and those just out of their teens. They were at 20 veterans of the School (sometimes coming for a decade and a half ). There was an eye-popping effusion of energy, compositional inventiveness and deep skills on offer. Two concerts stood out: the feature concerts by Austral (a four-piece group drawing on didgeridoo, pipes, fast fiddling, vocals, and uillean pipes, flute and whistle). This began with a heartwarming welcome to Country by two young local men one of whom was new to such rituals. What was thrilling was the theatricality of their performance (beginning on the balcony of the Koroit Theatre and entering the auditorium from two directions before proceeding to the stage). What was even more telling was the reception by the young ones in the audience. They clearly embraced the men as belonging to the School. Austral, whose gig they preceded, is a fabulously named multiple award-winning ensemble with a sense of fun. They formed their quartet at the School some years ago and they are making their way now sure-footedly on the global festival scene. The other astonishing group was this year’s Stars of the Lake, a string trio of women, called Apolline (after the Greek god of music). They played games with key changing and tempo. Sisters Tess and Luisa Hickey have chosen to work in the folk scene and have migrated sideways from their classical roots. Tess’s playing of the cello was like none Bob or I had ever experienced – her melodic attack on the cello was unique and visceral in its effects. She became emotional in describing how her musical career had undergone a Lake School transformation that life in an orchestra may not have enabled. There was not an ounce of affectation in either of these accomplished group members, and they earned their standing ovations.
Bob, my spouse was not the oldest in the Beginners Bodhran class, which, guided by long-term Koroit resident Leamon Chambers, was taken progressively through the simple ‘pineapple/apricot’ routine to more complex ones including how to change the sound of the the instrument by moving one’s free hand across the underside of the drum. Inclusiveness in this case was demonstrated by having Leamon’s assistant Peter provide special help to an almost blind member of the class.
Those studying got in extra practice in what were termed ‘Slow Session House Parties’, led by Mark and Lisa McDonnell, where the tune was taken slowly and repeated in increasingly fast tempo with the smiles of the experienced players getting wider as the tempo increased and the participants got onboard. These sessions were very popular with the young but featured players of all ages, and even included a culturally foreign instrument, the Chinese violin (the Erhu). She was seamlessly slotted into an ensemble that numbered more than 50 players.
Suzette Herft, generous performer of Gospel, among other genres.
If you didn’t make it to a Slow Session at night, there were other events that were like concerts, and except for Wednesday Night and the concerts on Saturday, you had more than one style of music to choose from. We squeezed in a fabulous night at the Noodledoof Brewery (check it out!) at (Nashville habitué) Suzette Herft’s Gospel session. It was participatory, and she was assisted by a wedding singer (Alison Walsh from Trentham) who sang descant above the melody line and another singer whose harmonies were superb who sang below the melody line, and also by other instrumentalists on harp (Andy Rigby), fiddle (Felix Meagher) and guitar (Denis Walsh). Louey Hesterman ran a Blues and Bluegrass session which was very popular with players, and they outnumbered the listeners ten-fold. The atmosphere was pulsing with angst, and while there were some solo instrumentalists whose work I didn’t fully grasp, they were warmly celebrated by the players and audience: Louey seemed to specialise in bringing in those who were diffident about asserting themselves.
For a fine photographic and musical record of the school, see the Lake School Facebook page.
It was marvellous to be part of this community for a packed week and to experience a completely different face of the Irish community in Australia.
Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective. Bob Glass attended three classes and the School.
Irish Language in Bungendore
by Dymphna Lonergan
Bungendore is a rural village in country New South Wales on the traditional land of the Ngarigo people, a half-hour drive north of Canberra. Officially established as a mail service in 1837, the town grew from a population of 36 in 1841, to one needing churches, hotels, a flour mill, a courthouse, and schools. Local crops were wheat, oats, barley and potatoes. The population grew further in 1894 when gold was discovered nearby. In 1909 a rabbit-freezing plant relied on 250 trappers.
Bungendore has had a long connection with the Irish. Michael Dwyer’s sons settled here, and one son ran the original Irish Harp Hotel that is now the Lake George Hotel. The 1970 Ned Kelly movie starring Mick Jagger was based in part in Bungendore with local people as extras and a Canberra-based Irish dance teacher from Belfast teaching Jagger Irish dancing.
It is fitting, then, that Bungendore would be the first Irish language immersion activity following the pandemic. Irish language summer and winter schools have been annual events for over twenty years in Sydney and Melbourne. During the pandemic, Irish language enthusiasts have had to resort to Zoom contact, and so it was wonderful to have face-to-face interaction once more.
While the other summer and winter schools have taken place on a university campus and in a monastery, with classes and accommodation in the one building, participants in the Bungendore Summer School 2023 in January stayed in local accommodation such as the Carrington Inn, and others commuted daily from Canberra. Classes were held in local halls and the School of Arts.
My class was held in St Mary’s Hall, next to St Mary’s Church, famous for having been visited by the now Saint Mary McKillop. The Hall was once a school. While I taught during the day in the hall, the venue became a movie theatre and concert hall in the evenings, and in the afternoons a place where bodhrán lessons were taught. We had a very egalitarian teacher who made sure that the bodhráns and plastic plates that were their substitutes were passed around regularly. We managed to keep time following our leader, Ian, a fine Connacht-Irish speaker who learnt his bodhrán playing on the Aran Islands.
The other teachers were husband and wife team Mait and Máire Ó Brádaigh from Galway whose genial and calm demeanour encouraged beginners and the higher levels to dul i ngleic leis an nGaeilge, to get to grips with the Irish language. My own level four class enjoyed the opportunity to improve their speaking ability, and to experiment with writing in the language by creating Haiku in Irish.
In the afternoons, classes finished at 3pm, and then there was the opportunity for a rogha, a choice of activity from step dancing to singing. In the School of Arts rooms Máire held a singing session and next door Mait had one on Irish mythology. I moved between both. It was lovely to bring back to mind those songs and stories I learned at school.
Captain’s Flat Hotel
Wednesday afternoon was free time, and some of us headed off to Captain’s Flat to see the old mining town and the hotel. The new hotel owner’s son had taken part in the evening musical sessions in St Mary’s Hall, and now in his hi vis work jacket showed us around the hotel. Back in 1938, it boasted the longest bar in Australia, having once served hundreds of miners. The bar is still there along with a wealth of historical items that tell the stories of the once thriving town, including a player piano that has been restored and updated now to play ABBA and Elvis tunes. The new owners have many exciting ideas for reviving the hotel activities such as musical sessions and murder mystery nights. Another plan is to provide meals using local produce and local cooks. There will be a staged opening to the Captain’s Flat hotel starting on March 4 with a ‘Back to the Flat’ day.
This inaugural Irish Language Summer school in Bungendore was the initiative of Seán and Máire-Áine Curran, long-term Irish language enthusiasts and now retired to Bungendore. They are to be roundly praised for their hard work in the preparation for and during the week. Those of us who flew in were picked up from the airport in Canberra and delivered back. The Currans kept the classrooms well supplied with teaching materials and morning and afternoon tea, coffee, and biscuits. Seán was ever on hand to deal with technical difficulties and kept the clár ama running to plan. As the saying goes, ‘Tús maith, leath na hoibre‘.
The work of bringing back Irish language activities in Australia has begun. Fingers crossed we’ll see everyone again in June at the winter school in Sydney.
For the intrepid keen to venture out again into the world, see also a June 2023 summer school in Dublin at https://www.ucd.ie/irish/en/language/internationalsummerschool/
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective