Last weekend I headed for Galway and Connemara. I had had a previous brief visit to Connemara when I attended the TraidPhicnic in Spiddal, but never Galway and I have to say I loved it.
The immediate reason was to attend a Master Class and House Concert by Maurice Lennon at Bridge Barker’s house deep in the wilds of remote Connemara. A great initiative from Bridge to open her house for this – hopefully the first of many.
The trip up from Clare was treacherous with my first experience of driving in sub-zero temperatures and on slippery roads. There was definitely no hurrying. I collected Maurice in Glaway on the way and became so engrossed in the conversation that we managed to end up on a detour along the shores of Lough Corib, that meant the trip took an extra hour. Once we got there the weather was kind enough, so that while Maurice took the kids’ class, I went for a short walk with Vince, Bridge’s partner. They live with their family in a stone cottage that, chameleon-like, blends into the rocky Connemara landscape. Bridge tells me it has been in her family for generations. They have turned a traditional stone cottage into a wonderfully warm and welcoming family home. Adjacent is an abandoned cottage, apparently formerly that of a tailor. It seems to have been empty for decades but still stands remarkably intact as a reminder of the hardship that must have been life in these parts. There was no road and customers would have to ride up the rocky ridges to be fitted. The house has a central room with a large fire place and a door on either side. One can imagine this was the kitchen and the centre of family life. Maybe even where music was played. On either side of this is what would have been the bedrooms each with a smaller fire. Relics of a tough existence are everywhere including bottles and empty containers, an old Singer sewing machine stand and empty and derelict hand crafted furniture. The roof is made of timbers nailed together and filled with bog material and then presumably covered in thatch but now corrugated iron. The windows small anyway are almost completely blocked with stone allowing only a tiny opening to minimise the ingress of rain and wind but making the house very dark. There were no windows on the western and southern sides speaking eloquently as to where the weather comes from. A marvellous window into a past world but not too far distant from the reality of living here now.
Nearby in the rocky bog-covered landscape was a delightful creek with water cascading over granite boulders and flowing through the brown tufts of grass, dotted with patches of bright green where richer glacial tills have provided more fertile ground. Numerous walled fields provide evidence of a much more intensive agriculture on the slopes of the barren hills.
This area was a renowned location for the manufacture of poteen, the famed liquor made traditionally from malted barley but later from corn or potatos. Poteen manufacture was and is of course illegal and so it prospered in remote areas like Connemara where unwelcome visitors could be seen coming for miles. It is said that from the top of the hill behind the house you could see someone coming from Oughterard, 20km away as the crow flies. Vince showed me an old still, one of four in the immediate area. These are used to build a turf fire and heat the wash for several days while guards stood watch ready to respond to anyone attracted by the smoke. The quality of the poteen was highly variable and it needed a fair bit of skill. A bad batch is said to cause blindness. I was given a taste by a fiddler friend when I visited Cork City recently, and I have to say it was terrific. Sure packed a punch though.
As the misty rain set in and hid the snow-capped hills in the distance we returned in time for me to join Maurice for the workshop. There were seven of us and it was a delight. Plenty of good advice on how to hold the bow and how to get a better sound and we learned a couple of Maurice’s own tunes in an intensive hour and a half. Then a quick trip to the nearest pub (about 20 minutes away) for a cleansing ale and some fresh air with Maurice. I don’t want to offend anyone who may come from this part of the world but you could hardly say we were welcomed, or if we were it was with suspicion. There was no small talk as the half dozen or so punters went about their business as If we weren’t there. Slightly uncomfortable.
Returning for some tunes and some curry we then settled in for a concert in the front room of Bridge’s house, in front of a roaring fire, comprising a couple of hours of solo fiddle and viola from Maurice. There was some inspired playing. We all joined in for a couple of sets at the end. Really a special night with the stone walls reflecting a brilliant sound. Those who travelled into the Connemara wilderness were well rewarded.
I was very kindly put up by Bridge and even before the scrambled eggs were put on the stove next morning I joined Bridge and her talented daughter Siofra in some tunes around the kitchen table. When Maurice arrived back from his lodgings he joined in. A true ‘kitchen session’.
I had decided to spend a couple of extra days in Galway and catch some of the sessions of which so many people had raved. So dragging ourselves away at lunch time I returned with Maurice who was also staying in Galway. There was a slight detour as I stopped every now and then for some photos and a further delay as we caught the second half of the Manchester United – Liverpool game (won by Man U) in a pub in Oughterrard.
Arriving late in the afternoon I went on a search for music. I ended up meeting fellow Aussie friend , Alice at Taaffe’s Bar where there is a 5:30 session every day. So civilised. Why don’t they do this in Ennis? This was the first of three sessions I attended that night and over the three days I was there I went to eight. There was a memorable session late on Sunday at the Old Forge where we were entertained among other things by a Santa-clad mini-skirted drag queen doing an Irish step dance with a packet of Tayto’s in one hand. Brilliant. It was great craic everywhere and hopefully the pictures give some idea of it. I met some wonderful people with as much passion for the music as I see in Ennis. Plenty of blow-ins who have made Galway home. As well as Alice from Oz, there is Ana from Brazil, Brandon from England, Anders from Netherlands, Patrick and Sean from San Francisco, and others from Spain, Germany and the odd Irishman. Lots of interaction too between the musicians and the punters, many of them tourists hearing Irish music for the first time and having a fabulous time. I was kindly invited to a great house session on Tuesday, led by Sean Flanagan, a box player, designed for intermediate players to learn and share tunes. Brilliant idea. I returned to Ennis renewed and inspired and vowing to visit Galway again soon. Thanks to everyone who made me feel so welcome.
The sun shone briefly on Monday and I took the opportunity to go for a drive through the magnificent Connemara hills to Clifden. Glorious. I will post some photos from these travels soon in another blog. The photos here are all from near Bridge’s house or in Galway City.