This is why I am in Ireland!
But I did have a dilemma this last weekend . It was October Bank Holiday weekend and there were two Festivals within striking distance. Solution – go to both.
So Saturday I headed off to the Joe Cooley Weekend at Gort about an hour’s drive from Caherush. Gort is just over the border in Co Galway and a pretty town it is. There is a magnificent monastic ruin just down the road and the home of Lady Gregory nearby. The streets are unusually wide and it is situated around a spacious square with a number of pubs, all within a quick jog of each other. Necessary to avoid the wind and the rain! A perfect place for a Festival.
Where do you start when you arrive at 1:00 pm? Well you park the car and you wind the window down and listen and within moments you hear the strain of fiddles and accordions coming from inside O’Donnell’s Pub. So with my travelling companions, Danny and Nicolle, we headed in and immediately the circle widened to accommodate us. This doesn’t always happen and when it does you know you are in for a good session. It was led by box player Jim, who I am sure is the happiest man in Ireland, smiling and whooping his way through tune after tune and engaging all and sundry in continuous banter, and there were some older players and a good smattering of the next generation. So the music was a great mix and at a good pace. Plates of toasted ham cheese and tomato sandwiches kept arriving and even a special ‘order’ for vegetarian, Nicolle!
Around 3:00 we headed off to Sullivan’s Hotel for the highlight of the programme. This was the attempt on the Guinness World Record for the Largest Irish Band. The record is something around 270 held by nearby Kilfenora in Clare and only set earlier this year. There was palpable excitement as scores of musicians gathered outside the ballroom with their whistles, fiddles, banjos and pipes. Even a cahone (does that count?). Fevered last minute run-throughs of the chosen tunes created a somehow engaging dissonance, much as the expectation created by an orchestra tuning up. There was sheet music for those unsure of how the polkas went.
We all filed in shepherded by hi-vis vested marshals who almost outnumbered us, to take our places in rows of seats laid out for us. It looked like they were expecting around 300. There were cameras and videos including Irish TV there to record the event. Initially there was optimism but as the queues diminished and only half the seats were filled it became apparent to all that this was not to be the day. The scheduled start time of 4.00 pm went, perhaps in an attempt to scour the pubs for more musicians, and finally, it was after 4.30 when an excited announcer surprisingly proclaimed over the microphone “Congratulations! You have broken the record!” Looking at the empty seats I was a bit confused. “The largest Irish band in Connacht!”. There was excited applause as the crowd basked in the glory of being an ‘almost-Guiness World Record’ holder. To confirm the record we of course had to play and after a run through off we went launching into Maggie in the Woods. The sound was fantastic and it was actually quite thrilling to play with such a large ensemble, roughly in time and close enough to being in tune. There was genuine enthusiasm in the playing and in the reception from the assembled crowd, many of them proud parents. Then there were more tunes (not rehearsed!) and even a set dance. Was this the world record for the biggest Ceili Band playing to a set dance? Perhaps just in Connacht! Anyway it was all great crack and we queued up again on the way out to get a certificate to record the Attempt. There’s always next year!
The search resumed for the ‘killer’ session. So back to O’Donnelly’s where there was a new crowd of musicians but equally welcoming and then to Johnny Ward’s. This session was in a separate room with no bar and was as close to a house session as you could get. It was unfortunately marred by an extremely drunk bodhran player, with a Walton’s instrument and while it had a lovely celtic design the music did not match as he proceeded to beat it mercilessly and a whistle player who certainly made his presence felt. I watched as this man, already finding it hard to stand up demolished his next Guinness in two swigs. Despite these ‘distractions’ which contributed to a sometimes messy sound there were moments of absolute magic in the music. Concertina player, Patrick and a couple of box players and a banjo drove the session and I provided the only fiddle – an unusual event. Tunes were played fast but with a real skip which gave the music a lovely rhythmic lift. It was absolutely fantastic to play along with. After this session fizzled and a plate of Taco Chips from Supermac’s there was another great session at Sullivan’s populated mainly by Galway musicians and three hours went so quickly as we cycled through a familiar array of reels and jigs. Bed was very welcome at 3:00am after close to 12 hours of playing.
Sunday morning arrived, with all good intentions to head to the Willie Keane Weekend at Doonbeg (about ten minutes drive to the south of Caherush) in time for the Trad Breakfast, I have to admit the late night proved too much of a barrier and I didn’t get there until 2pm! There was music in four pubs on the main street of the village, famous more for the Donald Trump Resort a couple of kilometres out of town than anything else. But this weekend it was all about the music. Some of the best music you will hear and most of it coming from the unsung and the unheralded. Highlights for me included:
A wonderful set from Tony Linanne and Padraig Mac Doncha (in an Eb session) at Madigan’s, the brilliance of Andrew MacNamara and Mark Donnelly, the surprise packet that was Scaradaragh (a group of Sliabh Luachra musicians from North Cork), just so much fun to play with – bring on those polkas!, the brilliance of the young musicians from Tulla and Kilmaley (Amy & Gearoid McNamara and Yvonne & Pamela Queally, joined by friends including the Murphy sisters from Dublin) and then a great exhibition of sean nos dancing to wind up Sunday night.
On my way home after a fabulous day, I popped into the bar at Tubridy’s to the sight of a table of well primed revellers enjoying the music of Roisin & Conor Broderick and Deirdre Winrow. One of them saw me come in with my fiddle on my back and yelled. “Here he is. I have been reading about you” Taken off guard I asked what she meant. “In the brochure – you’re the fiddler!” They then engaged me in a random conversation in which it became apparent they were down from London for a weekend of golf at the Trump Resort. Luckily they didn’t stay long and on her way out I asked the girl what she meant. She explained that it was me in the programme as a “fiddler’ from 10pm and they were waiting for me. I looked to the corner where Dierdre was quite expertly pumping out a reel on her fiddle and pointed out “but there’s already a fiddler here.” “No” she said in all seriousness “that’s a violinist!” And she retreated with her companions to their five star room in the Lodge at Trumps…..
One other quick anecdote. Sitting, engrossed in my playing at the Igoe Inn (great name!) I felt a hand on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear. “Kevin Crawford” was all she said. I looked around to see a middle aged lady standing over me. “What about him?” I whispered back. [Kevin, of course, is the well know flute player from Lunasa]. “Is he here?” she said seriously. “I haven’t seen him”, was all I could think to say and apparently satisfied she wandered off. I later found out she had done this with every musician in the place! He should be very pleased he has such a devoted fan.
Anyway, home by 1.00 am after another ten hours of almost continuous sessioning on top of the previous day. So I think I put in a good shift. A quiet couple of weeks now but really looking forward to the Ennis Festival coming up. Stay tuned.
Here are some pictures from the weekend. …….