I have now been in Ireland over six months.
I was going to write some profound piece about my time here and reflect on my experiences since I arrived at Dublin Airport with my fiddle on back in mid-May. I was going to write about the fact that I have played music at an organised session every night since I have been here, about the fact that I have played in at least 400 sessions possibly as many as 500, about the fact that I have attended over twenty Festivals and Summer Schools, about the fact that I have played music in Clare, Sligo, Lietrim, Mayo, Offaly, Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Dublin and Armagh, about the fact that I have had lessons from Tola Custy, Siobhan Peoples, Maurice Lennon, Yvonne Kane, Eileen O’Brien, Martin Hayes, Yvonne Casey, James Kelly, Liam O’Connor and many others, about the many ‘famous’ musicians I have played with and met, about the wonderful places I have visited in Clare and beyond, about my house by the sea, about….. But no. I won’t even mention those things.
Instead I just want to talk about the music over the last three nights. Firstly at PJ Kelly’s Bar in Ennis on Saturday night, then at Pepper’s in Feakle on Sunday, at home on Monday afternoon and at Fitz’s Bar in Hotel Doolin that evening. Because these three nights say everything about why I am here and why I can’t see myself returning to Australia for the foreseeable future.
Saturday night had kicked off with a CD launch upstairs at the Old Ground. Dymphna O‘Sullivan, wonderful Ennis based concertina player had gathered together an eclectic collection of musicians who entertained a large crowd for well over two hours. There was great variety with visiting musicians including Joe Carey from Mayo and members of the Droney family, and a whistler (the ‘put-your-lips-together-and-blow’ type of whistler), along with elite players from Clare including Eoin O’Neill, Eileen O’Brien, Joan Hanranhan, Eileen Cotter and many others. There was dancing including sean nos, step dancing and a set to finish it off. While I love listening to Irish music in the concert situation it always leaves me wanting more and the desire to play becomes overpowering. So the word was that some of the musicians would be heading down to Kelly’s. This is my regular Saturday session as I love the tinge of Tulla provided by regulars Andrew MacNamara, Brid O’Gorman and Joan Hanrahan.
I arrived at 11:00 to an already packed bar. I knew half the musicians there, which was great as I felt welcomed but it didn’t help get a seat! I was lucky to get a stool just outside the circle. They were already in full swing so I wasted no time in getting the fiddle out. Plenty of tunes I knew and at a good steady pace – just the way I like it! Though as the Guinness flowed of course the music got faster. More musicians arrived as the CD launch wound down and there were soon 14 musicians playing. Other well-known musicians arrived but could not get a seat. Unfazed, they were happy to stand at the bar and listen. And that’s what makes nights such as these special. Egos are put to one side. It’s all about the music and the craic. It’s when the realities of being a working musician get subsumed by the sheer pleasure of making music and listening to music and being with others who are making music. The music lifts off the page or from out of the cd cover and becomes real.
This was indeed one of those nights. The music might not have always been to everyone’s taste with four accordions but it’s hard to imagine how you could have a better time in a pub. There was impromptu dancing, some gorgeous singing, waltzes and of course the Guinness and the cider. The music didn’t even stop when an older guy, who I had noticed earlier, head drooped on his chest sleeping at the bar, fell off his stool, crashing to the floor among the musicians. It was in the middle of a haunting air being played on the accordion and while a few concerned punters went to his aid the tune carried on and by the time the air had changed to a reel the fellow was back on his stool and his coke refilled (yes the tap had been turned off for him) as if nothing had happened.
As a couple of musicians drifted away I took a seat near the fire in the thick of it relishing my privileged position. I could not wipe the smile off my face and I observed that sense of joy in all the players and I should say the listeners. The music and craic went until 2 am by which time the increasingly panicky publican was desperately trying to clear the bar for fear the Gardaí might pay a visit.
This experience only happened to me because I live here. A visitor might stumble on this session if he or she is lucky, but would they feel part of it, or would they just be an observer. This is a dilemma for those irregular visitors. Sure you can find great sessions in Festivals but it is somehow different. I was the only foreigner here. In a Festival situation the session might be dominated by visitors . Not that that is necessarily a bad thing but it does change the tone and quality. This was ‘real’. This was Irish people enjoying their music and tradition for themselves. This was as close to ‘authentic’ as I can imagine a Session in 21st Century Ireland could be. I arrived home at 3am satisfied and fulfilled.
A friend had told me there was to be music the next day from 4pm at Pepper’s Bar in Feakle. This was to celebrate the 40th year of management by Gary Pepper. For those who don’t know, Peppers is one of the iconic venues for East Clare music. A favourite haunt for Martin Hayes and his father PJ it is still a great place for the craic. Where better than to celebrate my 200th continuous night (sorry, I said I wasn’t going to mention it) than here. And what a fabulous night it was. It was like being back at the Feakle Festival, one of the summer’s great events, but without the crowds. The music was in full swing when I arrived at 4pm being led by Pat O’Connor, and Padraig MacDonncha. They were joined later in the evening by Andrew MacNamara, Eileen O’Brien and Deidre McSherry. When I left exhausted at 12pm after eight hours of pretty much continuous playing and surviving on bar snacks, they were still at it. There’s not much more to say except that it was a privilege to be there. I never got home that night though as I realised too late that I didn’t have enough petrol to drive home to Caherush and when I got to Ennis at 1am could not find an open garage. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this but with my car computer telling me I had 8 km left in the tank I knocked on Graham’s door at Kilnamona. It was 3.30am and a few whiskeys later that I finally got to bed. Thanks mate!
Not long after I eventually got home on Monday I was disturbed by a knock on the door. Disturbed is not the right word as it was John Joe Tuttle, long time resident and fiddler from Crosses of Anagh just outside Miltown Malbay. I had played with him occasionally at Friels in Miltown and had invited him to call in. Here he was taking me up on this and we settled down in front of the fire with a cup of tea (he did refuse my offer of a whiskey) for a couple of hours of wonderful tunes and reminiscences. John Joe knew PJ Talty, whose house we were in, as well as Willie Clancy and Paddy Canny and everyone else since. He had played with them in kitchens, in Ceili Bands and from the late 50s in pubs. It was an absolute treat for me as he shared tunes he learnt from his early days in West Clare to ones he had learnt just this week. He had a particular liking for the tunes of Sean Ryan and said they were very popular in those days. I then joined him for a few tunes which was the icing on a wonderful afternoon.
That night I headed to Hotel Doolin for the regular Monday session. This session is led by Eoin O’Neill, Quentin Cooper, Adam Shapiro and Jon O’Connell. In the short while it has been going it has become the session in Doolin and for that matter in the whole of West Clare. The pub is always full, with locals and visitors alike and attracts wonderful musicians such as Conor Byrne, Luka Bloom and Noirin Lynch. What sets this session apart is that anything goes. Of course it is rooted in trad and you will get driving reels and haunting songs but you will also get some blues, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley or something from the Balkans. Every night is different.
When I walked in there was a buzz already and that was before the music had even started. There was standing room only and a sense of eager anticipation. From the first tune the night did not disappoint. There was wild applause after each number and reverential silence for the songs. Wonderful singers from the floor and the pace didn’t let up until after midnight.
This was not just a show for the tourists. It felt like the real thing. The musicians gave their all and the punters lapped it up. This is the picture of Ireland that visitors take away and talk about and why they come back year after year to Doolin. Kayla and Emily from Canada, Emma and Becca from Melbourne and Ro from Adelaide and the many others I didn’t meet who were here for one or two nights went away with the experience of a lifetime.
So these three nights say everything about why I came here.
The Ireland I have discovered is surprisingly close to the romantic vision that I came here with. Of course I have had issues, particularly with bureaucracy and rules and regulations, but probably no more than a foreigner would have anywhere else in the world, but the folks of Clare are friendly and welcoming. I have met a host of wonderful people and have been made to feel part of this community, when I was at Kilnamona and now at Caherush. Maybe it is the same all over Ireland I can’t say but when I come back from my travels it is like coming home.
I would like to thank all the musicians and lovers of music and dancing who have made my first six months in Ireland so special. I can’t possibly name everyone but I should single out the people I play with at the regular sessions around Clare – in Ennis, Ennistymon, Miltown, Lahinch, Doolin, Feakle and beyond. People who put up with my musical inadequacies and make me feel welcome. People whose playing from the heart keeps me grounded and ensures that it will be a long time before I have ‘delusions of competence’ but who at the same time inspire me to keep going. To the many people with whom I have shared a Guinness and a story and to the many, many friends I have made from Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, the US, Britain and wherever who share this passion for Irish Music and the Irish experience.
I don’t regret for a moment my decision to base myself in Clare as the words of Christy Moore ring constantly in my ears – “Flutes and fiddles everywhere, If it’s music you want you should go to Clare”.