Maybe I live in an unreal world but I went to two events in the past week which have highlighted for me the hugely important place traditional Irish music has at the centre of Irish culture and celebration.
One was a funeral and one was a birthday party.
For a birthday party fair enough, but you may think ‘celebration’ is a strange choice of word for a funeral. Let me try and explain.
All of Ennis and the broader Clare and Irish Music communities were saddened by the untimely death of Dympna O’Sullivan. A noted concertina player and stalwart of the Ennis music scene, I met her briefly and played in a couple of sessions with her last year. You could not fail to like her and to be inspired by her playing. I attended her funeral mass at Lissycasey on Sunday 22nd November. I had not been to a Funeral in Ireland and, though I knew they were a big part of the Irish fabric, I was unsure what to expect.
What I saw when I arrived was a village choked with cars and the spacious church filled to capacity. Family and friends included many musicians and many brought their instruments. The traditional mass was interspersed with not-so-traditional traditional Irish Music. And it made for a wonderful service at times moving and reverential and then stirring. This brings me back to the ‘celebration’ word. Yes it was truly a celebration of a wonderful joyous musical life and there was no incongruity in the long line of mourners queuing to pay respects to the relatives while friends and fellow musicians played spirited jigs and reels. At least thirty musicians played in the packed church and their contribution made for a unique send off. Later at the graveside a solo accordion player from the village played a haunting air which lingered in the cool crisp winter air. I can’t think of a better way to remember a life.
The other event was a 60th birthday party for Christy Barry. Christy is one of Ireland’s most respected flute and whistle players. He spent much of his life in the States but for some time has lived back home in County Clare. His birthday party filled the function room in Fitz’s bar in the Hotel Doolin with family coming from all round the world. This was more than a birthday party though. The gathering was an excuse for a mighty session. The word was out and upwards of forty musician friends of Christy’s turned up. The music continued with hardly a break from around 8 until I left at 1.30 am. Christy was at the centre of it driving many of the sets whether he was on the flute, whistle or spoons. At the same time he found the time to welcome and embrace every new arrival. The session ebbed and flowed as musicians came and went. One minute Christy was leading a set with half a dozen whistles and flutes. Then the fiddles took over, including James Cullinan, Joe Rynne, Michael Kelleher and Paul Dooley, and then there was a duet with Christy and John King and then there were forty musicians belting out Lucy Campbell. There were songs interspersed and of course some impromptu dancing. This was true craic. Christy also formally received his delayed Lifetime Achievement Award from the Doolin Folk Festival to rousing applause. A well-deserved accolade.
As I said Irish music was at the centre of both events. This was not a pub session or a concert or something laid on for the tourists but this was real; an integral part of life and living.
I really don’t have the words this time to explain the connection adequately. Maybe these photos from Fitz’s will help. But you have to experience it to understand.