Posts Tagged With: Northern Ireland

One Day. Six Counties. A Winter Tour through East Ireland

It’s a long drive from West Clare, my base in Ireland, to Carlingford in County Louth.  In fact it is across the country from one coast to the other.  So when you get there you want to maximise the time. Early in February a small festival known as Feile na Tana is organised by renowned fiddler Zoe Conway and she manages to attract some of the finest traditional musicians in the country.   I posted on this festival on my blog a couple of years ago (here) and nothing much has really changed.  Centered on instrument workshops the focus of the festival is on reaching out to the young and to try and restore and invigorate a once strong musical heritage on the edge of Ulster. The other thing I love about coming to Louth, the smallest county in Ireland, is that it and the neighbouring counties of Armagh and Down has unrivaled beauty and such unique landscapes, geology, ancient archaeology and recent history.   I relished the chance to explore this while playing music at the same time.

I was blessed on a number of accounts this time.  The weather was relatively fine (let me translate: ‘it didn’t rain’) and I found a marvelous place to stay through AirBnB.  Eve, another expatriate drawn to leave her life in the US behind and put down roots in Ireland, was the perfect host.  With views toward the Mountains of Mourne and in the shadow of Slieve Foy, I could come and go, I could practice the fiddle or settle down by the fire. And then she was instrumental in convincing me to stay an extra couple of days to experience the coming snow.  Thanks Eve.  I was well rewarded for that decision.

And that’s what I want to talk about in this blog.


Looking from Louth across to the Mountains of Mourne


Slieve Foy near Carlingford


Carlingford nestled at the foot of the Cooley Hills

Coming from the Land of the Midday Sun (I’ve just renewed my Poetic Licence!) I have little experience with snow.  Except that I love it and the spectacular images that may result if the light is right. This lack of experience however led to some interesting learnings about coping with ice and snow on the road

In West Clare when it rains or hails you certainly know about it. The sound of the rain on the slate can be deafening. Here if it snows at night you sleep through the silence. The flakes drift to the ground steadily and quietly building up anywhere where gravity is only mildly resisted.  This is what happened on the Monday night. After an unusually undisturbed night snuggled up with the thoughtfully provided electric blanket (surprisingly unusual in an Irish BnB),  I looked out the window in the morning, with no great expectation, but was dazzled by brilliant blue sky and a sparkling carpet of fresh white powder. And remember I was at sea level.

I had a loose plan. I would take the ferry across the Carlingford Lough to County Down and explore the Mountains of Mourne, which I could see from the window of my second story bedroom.


Looking across the Lough from Greenore towards the Mountains of Mourne


View across the Carlingford Lough to the town of Warrenpoint


Another view across the Carlingford Lough to the town of Warrenpoint

However the best laid plans. The ferry was closed for ‘adverse’ weather conditions. Hardly surprising really with a strong wind now making life difficult and whipping up the waters of the Lough. In Ireland you always have to have a Plan B, so I drove north towards  Slieve Gullion.   Lucky really as in retrospect driving through County Down would have been treacherous.

My vague plan was to revisit some spots on the Ring of Gullion but really I was dictated by which roads were passable.  I had earlier spent a couple of days exploring this stunning area of South Armagh .  A blog on this is on the way.  I was curious to see what this ancient world looked like under a white blanket.  My route took me through Carlingford to Omeath and up to Flagstaff Hill. Mistake. There were stunning views on the way up.   But.


The Cooley Hills between Carlingford and Omeagh


Rock and Ice


View across the Newry River to County Down on the way up to Flagstaff Hill.  The tower house on the River is the Narrows Keep and the site of the most deadly attack in the Troubles, by the Provisional IRA in 1979, which killed 16 British paratroopers.  

My car struggled to deal with the icy hill and only after some hair raising moments did I make it to a relatively ice-less part of the road to pause.  Up ahead the road continued to climb with even more ice and snow.  What did they say about discretion and valour?  So I did an 11 point turn and gingerly pointed the car back down the hill.



Flagstaff Hill is actually in County Armagh.  But are they miles or kilometres?

Having got this far though I decided to walk to the top of the hill.  So glad I did.  I actually didn’t realise that this was Flagstaff Hill which I will talk about in another blog but the snow certainly added another dimension.  Flagstaff Hill is actually in Northern Ireland.    There are no border signs so you don’t actually know.  In fact the only way you know you have passed into another countyr is that the road signs and Google Maps switch to miles.  Honestly I can’t conceive of an hard border here.

The fine white powder transformed the green rolling hills of the elevated Cooley range into an Alpine wonderland. The biting wind and an outside temperature of 1 degree though did nothing to dampen spirits.  I actually didn’t want to leave but I was worried about how the car would handle the trip back down the mountain.


View down Carlingford Lough from Flagstaff Hill


View across to the Mountains of Mourne from Flagstaff Hill in Armagh


Flagstaff Hill

It was nerve wracking I have to say.   Slipping and sliding with shuddering and totally ineffectual brakes I edged back down the hill to Omeath and then on to Slieve Gullion by a more circuitous and less treacherous route.

Naively I had expected to be able to drive to the Summit but luckily the road was closed because I might have been tempted to give it a go.

Thwarted again, I made my way west to a castle I had visited a couple of days earlier (Castle Roche).   Only a light dusting of patchy snow remained at this lower level but this is one of the most imposing ruins in Ireland and the patches of snow added to the mystical quality of the fortification.  I will have more to say about it in my upcoming blog on the Ring of Gullion.


Castle Roche


Fields surrounding the Castle

Suddenly the blue skies weren’t blue anymore and snow showers would sweep across the fields.  Not enough to settle and they were only intermittent but they reminded me how quickly the weather could change.


A dark sky looms over a bucolic winter scene


Moments later snow sweeps in 


By now it was approaching 2 pm and  as I had to be back in Clare I reluctantly headed south.

But my adventure was not over.  Driving down the M1 towards Dublin the snow continued to blanket the cuttings along the motorway. Skirting Dublin on the M50 and then south west on the M7,  I could see plenty of snow in the distance and I just couldn’t bring myself to speed past it.


Snowy hills around Kilteel in Co Kildare


A rural scene in County Kildare

So so I left the Motorway at Rathcoole in County Dublin and headed east, I had never been here and had no idea where I was going. I love that.  The only thing on my mind was to get closer to those white hills.  My confused route took me through the west of  Dublin to Kildare and then crossing into the edge of Wicklow.   If anything the snow was heavier here than further north and there were unrivaled picture postcard views of snowy villages and of winter landscapes revealed around every corner.  The ranges in the distance I later discovered were the Wicklow Hills.


Kilteel, Co Kildare


A snow covered barn in Kilteel, Co Kildare


The charming village of Rathmore, Co Kildare


Great weather for sheep.  Co Wicklow.


Abandoned farm buildings, Co Wicklow


Co Wicklow


Co Wicklow


Co Wicklow


Something was drawing me on but common sense intervened.  As the bright blue sky turned orange with the disappearing sun, and darkness descended, I headed back to the Motorway.  Continuing to Limerick, as if to tease me in the fading light, drifts of snow reflecting in my headlights, continued to tantalise .

A marvelous day and indeed a rare day and I think I took full advantage.  I manged to experience and observe snow-draped winter terrains under largely blue skies across Six Counties – Louth, Down, Armagh, Dublin  Kildare and Wicklow.


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A Quick Trip to the Otherworld. Marble Arch Caves, Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

I hadn’t intended to visit Marble Arch in Co Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. No particular reason but tourist show caves are not really my thing. I guess over the years I have seen many and some like Jenolan Caves in NSW take a bit of beating. But I found time one wet morning and headed out there. In Irish legend, caves are the entrance to the Otherworld, inhabited by deities or perhaps the dead.  I was prepared.

A unique feature of this particular cave is that you can explore some of the way in a boat but not this time. There had been too much rain. So we walked in, down 154 steps. And up those same steps to get out.


Certainly there were more formations to see than at Ailwee Cave in County Clare . Passages were large and impressive and as a show cave they have done a great job with concrete paths and steel steps.  IG3C2056

Pretty much all the known speleothems are represented and well preserved. There are stalactites, soda straws, veils, cascades and curtains, flowstone, rimstone, dams, ribbons, one near column and the occasional stalagmite.



The caves had been known for hundreds of years but never explored due to the high water level.  At the prompting of amateur geologist and the third Earl of Enniskillen, William Willoughby Cole, French cave explorer Edouard Martel entered the caves in 1885 for the first time with candles and magnesium flares.  One hundred years later it was opened as a show cave. This is the second longest cave system in Ireland and only a small part can be visited.

The tour was a bit quick for me; not giving enough time to get good photographs so most are point and shoot. Still I think you get the picture.

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The Torr Road Drive, Co Antrim. Lime Kilns, Game of Thrones and sublime beauty.

Travelling by car along the north coast of Antrim is spectacular to say the least. As seems to be the way of the world the drive has to have a label. So this is the Causeway Coastal Route because it features the Giant’s Causeway. I will blog on this and other places in due course because they warrant attention. But after Ballycastle, if you are heading east, the Causeway Coastal Route turns inland (away from the Coast – go figure!) towards Cushendun and Cushendall.  So most travellers miss a little pocket of Antrim that is staggeringly beautiful. This is the Torr Road which hugs the coast to Cunshendun.  Ireland is noted for its green of course but in many parts that green turns brown and red in winter.  Not here.  In this part of Antrim you seem to get the Forty Shades all year.


View from the Torr Road, Antrim


Green and gold.  Just add sunshine.  Torr Road.  Antrim


Green slopes that run down to the sea.  Torr Road, Antrim. That current looks pretty treacherous.  Scotland is visible on the horizon.


Coastal view, Torr Road.


Fences need repair whatever the weather.  Torr Road, Antrim.

Of course the road leads to Torr Head.  This is the closest point to Scotland and from here you look across to the Mull of Kintyre.  It was very cold this morning, so I resisted the temptation to climb to the top. At the top of the headland is a tower which watches over the Sruth na Maoile (Straits of Moyle), a former haunt for privateers, and acted as a signal tower, passing on messages of ship movements to Lloyds of London.  There is also a now ruined, customs station which was abandoned in 1922. Its stark ruin brings an evocative supernal element to the gorgeous views both along the coast and back towards the hinterland.  Awaiting you, at the end of this drive at Cushendun, is the gateway to the Glens of Antrim, but that’s another story.


Torr Head.


Ruined Customs House, Torr Head.  Antrim.


Ruins of Customs House, Torr Head



Phone Box looking towards, Torr Head.

On my first drive along this road I went past a turn off to Murlough Bay. It was an inconspicuous sign and nothing drew my attention to it. If it hadn’t been for my B&B hosts that night at Teach an Cheol, just out of Ballycastle then I would have missed this little gem entirely. They insisted I go back there before leaving Antrim. Thank you  Micheál and Catherine.

The single lane road to Murlough Bay snakes off the Torr Road across brilliant green paddocks, and then suddenly drops off the plateau winding both perilously and picturesquely down to the sea. Remarkable views open up.


Limestone cliffs at Murlough Bay.



I passed a solid stone structure which intrigued me, so I dragged my eyes away from the view.  It was like nothing I had seen before and I later discovered it was a lime kiln where broken limestone rock was melted to produce quicklime. This was used for mortar or for agriculture. It was a thriving industry wherever limestone and coal (for fuel) was found.


Lime kiln near Murlough Bay.  Front view.


Lime Kiln from above.  Showing hole where lime and coal are loaded.


Limestone cliffs

A little simple chemistry.  Limestone with the application of heat breaks down to lime with the release of carbon dioxide gas as in the following reaction

CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2

The reaction requires about 1000 °C. They were extremely common around Ireland and Britain, indeed in the mid 1800s there were believed to be 23,000 in Cork alone. There was plenty of limestone here with the surrounding cliffs. I’m guessing there was also a good supply of coal nearby too. I am always impressed by the beauty and solidity of the industrial architecture I come across here in Ireland. The stone work of the multiple arches over the air intake is stunning.


So continuing down towards the coast I see a sign reminding me that this area was used to film episodes of Game of Thrones that hugely successful television series, still running. Of course you can see why. Film tourism has always been a big thing in Ireland what with The Quiet Man, Ryan’s Daughter, Father Ted, PS I Love You, and it continues with Game of Thrones and Star Wars.

Murlough bay is a place of singular beauty. You leave the car and walk along the track which follows the coast to a whitewashed cottage with the most perfect location in Ireland. There is a second small abandoned cottage; padlocked but in reasonable condition. A peek in the window and I can see some bottles of disinfectant and cloths suggesting a level of optimism by the owner. What a place for a holiday batch. Nearby there is another lime kiln.

This place is everything that makes Ireland beautiful. Cliffs, washing waves on rocky shores, boulder beaches, jagged headlands, green fields rolling into the sea, craggy islands, little coves. The surprising variety of landscape is a result of a rich geological melange which I might talk more about at another time, but I saw metamorphosed schist and gneisses, basalts, sandstone and conglomerate, limestone and of course the ever-present carpet of bog over it all. A geological history of 600 million years on display in this little bay.  Again a sign tells us a little cove here was used in another episode of GOT.


Distant view of Murlough Bay


Murlough Bay looking east.


Murlough Bay looking west.


Basalt outcrops forming islands and bays


Murlough Bay.


Murlough Bay.  Sandstone rock platform with narrow bands of conglomerate.


Murlough Bay.  This view has sandstone, basalt, gneiss and limestone.  A geological melange.


Murlough Bay.  Abandoned cottage on the shore.


Another lime kiln on the beach at Murlough Bay.

Again a sign tells us a little cove here was used in another episode of GOT.

It is hard not to use clichés in describing this spot. I was the only one there and it was so quiet and so still. the only activity was a fishing boat, way out in the channel and the only noise was the ripples lapping the shore and the occasional squawk of a gull. There was an undisturbed equanimity and you could feel tension disappearing with the tide. Just me and my thoughts. I didn’t want to leave. I have been to so many beautiful places in Ireland, but not felt this way before. Surrounded by natural beauty, yet somehow otherworldly.




Categories: My Journey, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Surprising Belfast

I hadn’t planned to go to Belfast.  After the glorious weather at the Carlingford Festival in February 2015 (check blog here) I decided to head up to the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland but, as I travelled up the motorway, the mist set in and it seemed rather pointless, as I was hoping to do some photography, so I diverted into the city.  I had never been to Belfast.  On my first visit to Ireland in the mid-90s we had given Belfast a wide berth. Travel warnings and all it wasn’t considered safe then.

This time I drove into the city with no plans and virtually no knowledge.  I stopped at the first hotel I found, which happened to be Jurys and they had a special rate – not that much pricier than a B&B.  It was right in the centre of town and within walking distance of all the major attractions including the session bars.  So that was lucky.


Before I had even entered the lobby of the hotel I became best friends with Bobby who it turned out runs a taxi guided tour and before I knew it I had agreed to go with him.  So without even finding my bearings I ended up in the back of the Belfast version of a London cab.  This turned out to be an inspired choice.  He called it a ‘political’ tour and despite his ‘green’ (as distinct from ‘orange’) credentials, which came through occasionally, it was presented in a dispassionate way with both sides of the argument presented as we visited both the Catholic and Protestant hot spots.  I learnt a lot, given that most of what I knew was picked up on Australian television via the ABC or BBC (and presumably ‘managed’ so not necessarily reflecting reality).  Even so I back then I had been detached from it and it is surprising how being there on Falls Road or seeing the Wall or the memorial garden or the segregated living areas puts it all in context.  Not being Irish I don’t think I will ever fully understand it but Bobby was able to give me a lot of the background.

We drove up Falls Road where the murals depict episodes important to the Republican struggle.  I got detailed explanations of each of these including the gassing of Long Kesh, the dirty protest which turned into the hunger strike at Maze Prison, the rights of  travellers,  The Titanic “built by Irishmen and sunk by an Englishman”, the killings at Ballymurphy, the Falls Road taxi killings, the Gibraltar Killings and the Milltown massacre.

There ar01-IMG_1803.JPGe also more recent murals depicting incidents or struggles that resonate with Republican sentiment. I heard about the shipyards which employed up to 35,000 people; all Protestants.  And the Linen Mills with separate gates for Catholic and Protestant workers



We visited the Sinn Fein office in Sevastopol Street with the famed mural of Bobby Sands. He died in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike and his story still causes rancour with many.  His legacy remains however and he is credited with inspiring a new generation to take up the Irish language, something that Sands and his fellow prisoners did in the tortuous conditions of H Block.


Particularly moving also was a visit to the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden.  This is a very simple walled space located at the spot where the troubles really kicked off with the burning of catholic houses.  A few hanging pots and some benches in a paved area allow quiet contemplation. The names of victims of the Struggle are listed on plaques and there are images of some of the fallen. What struck me was the extraordinary youth of many of the dead.  Most in their 20s and 30s but some as young as 16.   The memorial is adjacent to the dividing wall which looms overhead and the houses backing up against the wall have cages which used to protect them against grenades and other objects lobbed over the fence before the Peace deal.



On the protestant side I signed the Wall, along with thousands of others, with a felt pen thoughtfully provided by Bobby.  This seems to have become something of a ritual and names and messages from all over the world are dotted among the graffiti.



We visited Shankill, an exclusively Protestant area  where I walked around the incredibly quiet streets.  Presumably everyone was at work or school but the place seemed deserted.  Murals on the end walls of rows of tenement houses are a feature and these depict events significant from the Union side.  There are recent murals celebrating individuals such as Stevie ‘Topgun’ McKeag who died in 2000 and is credited with a dozen killings, and William Bucky McCullough who became a martyr after being killed in an internal dispute in the UDA.

There is another celebrating the formation of the Ulster Defence Union in 1893 and the Ulster Defence Association in 1972.  For reasons unknown to me there is one depicting the Bloody Battle of 1809 in which Napoleon secured victory over the Austrians,  More obviously there is one remembering the founding of Belfast in 1609 and others celebrating legendary hero and defender of Ulster, Cuchulainn, and a somewhat gory depiction of the Red Hand of Ulster among many others.



Houses here proudly fly the Union Jack.


The tour was good value and highlighted to me the many injustices and the essential futility of it all.  The song ‘There were Roses’ was going around in my head.  It also made me reflect on the extraordinary achievement of Peace in Northern Ireland after so long.  The protracted negotiations through the 90s that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the subsequent massive endorsement at the referenda in both the North and the Republic,  the decommissioning of the IRA’s weapons in 2005 and the ultimate end of the Process with the elections of 2007.  Many however appear to hold on to their part in the Struggle.  There is massive progress but I think there is still a lot of work to be done with 93% of kids in Northern Ireland going to segregated Catholic or Protestant schools.

By now I had my bearings and in the evening I continued my unguided walk and found myself at the Crown.  A truly extraordinary bar.  I have seen nothing like it. It is owned now by the National Trust.  The bar was renovated in its current form in 1885 by Michael and Patrick Flanigan and then restored in 1980 and again in 2007. Things that drew my attention include the amazing tiled façade and stained glass windows, a massive granite topped bar with heated footrest, ten snugs with a bell system so ladies could call for their drinks without going out, plates to strike matches,  a mirror damaged by a bomb blast and since restored, a wonderful mosaic at the front door showing a crown (said to have been installed there so patrons could walk all over the crown!) and incredible carved woodwork finials, a magnificent ceiling.  I could go on and on.  Just marvellous.  I had a very enjoyable lamb shank pie there (and a Guinness of course) and indeed went back there for every meal.



Opposite the Crown is the Europa Hotel.  During the Troubles it was damaged 33 times by IRA bombs including one massive explosion which wounded 20, punched a hole in the side of the adjacent Grand Opera House, shattered virtually every window in the Hotel and caused extensive damage over a wide area of the city center.

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The city itself is full of remarkable architecture and is great to just walk around and soak up.  Many of the buildings date from Victorian times and reflect the wealth brought to Belfast by the ship building and engineering industries and the linen and tobacco trades.  This includes the outrageously ostentatious City Hall built in 1906.  This building was considered more befitting of the City’s status than the previous modest building.  It cost £396,000 to build, an enormous sum, perhaps the equivalent of £150 million today. It was funded by two years’ profits from the City’s gasworks!

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I did not go inside; but having read about it later I have put that on the list for my next trip.  Many statues dot the gardens including a memorial to the Titanic which includes the names of all those lost.

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The City Hall lies at the end of Donegall Place one of the main thoroughfares, Along one side of this avenue are a series of sculptures of uniform design reminiscent of a sail, depicting the great ships built in Belfast.  Included of course is the Titanic, the largest ship ever built at the time and which was sunk on its maiden voyage in 1912.  It figures greatly in the psyche of the city and is a major attraction to visitors.

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Many other fine buildings grace the wide streets.  For the keen observer there are many delights to be had. Largely pedestrianized in its city centre it felt relaxed and uncrowded.  The people were chatty and friendly.  I ended up playing some tunes on a Romanian version of a Stroh viol offered to me by a busker.  My playing was well received and led to the crowd cajoling the busker to play some Irish stuff instead of Romanian folk tunes; good craic.

Belfast architecture Belfast people

Musically my experience was mixed. My timing wasn’t good and the session at Maddens on Monday was definitely not my cup of tea.  It reminded me of that Maori anthem of the 60s – ‘Ten Guitars’ because, no exaggeration, that’s what we had, along with a harp a couple of banjos and a fiddle.  It was all songs and while the craic was good it was not for me.  Then next night I heard it was ‘real’ trad at Errigle Inn, a little bit out of town. So a short taxi ride there and immediately I saw I wouldn’t be disappointed.  Great music, great craic and some familiar faces from my festival travels.  This went a long way to supporting what I had been told that Belfast had some of the best traditional music in Ireland at the moment.  It was fast and enthusiastic and inclusive; a fine way to end my short stay.

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When I visit a city I rarely go to the tourist hot spots.  I walk around and try and soak up the atmosphere.  So I can’t tell you about galleries, museums or the Titanic Experience.  I’m sure they are brilliant and there are plenty of places you can get that information. But I really enjoyed Belfast.  The rich history both old and very recent, the great architecture, surprisingly friendly people and most importantly for me, good music if you look, make it a top spot to visit.  I’ll certainly be back.

If you are of the same bent then you might be interested in the offerings of GPSmyCity (google it!) They have an app for IOS and Android that provides detailed city walks.   They have kindly offered to give away to my readers some prizes of a free download of one of these.  You choose.  No Belfast, but plenty of others to choose from.  A list of all the cities they have guides for is here     Here’s what you have to do to win one of the promo codes (unfortunately Apple IOS only…sorry about that)

I am soon to set off on a road trip to discover parts of Ireland I’ve yet to see.  I’m looking for suggestions of places in Ireland that you think I should visit or that you would like to see me blog on.  Just respond in the comments to this blog.  That’s all.  One of the city app prizes to the first 20. Oh and don’t forget to nominate the city you wish to receive the free app for.

Take care in your travels.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

St Patricks Day in Ennis. Fifty Shades of Green.

My first St Patrick’s Day in Ireland.

It has always been something I have avoided in Oz. An excuse for all and sundry to parade themselves as being Irish (whether they are or not) fuelled by green beer and endless renditions of Wild Rover and the Fields of Athenry. Not always a pretty sight. And sessions on St Pats Day are non existent as every person who can hold a fiddle or accordion is gigging somewhere that night. So I was keen to find out what it was like back here.

St Patrick’s Day honours the death of St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, in 461 and it is celebrated as a national holiday in Ireland and Northern Ireland and around the world by the Irish diaspora. It has moved from being a religious holiday to a day of secular celebration much to the chagrin of the church. I like this quote from Father Vincent Twomey who wrote in 2007, “It is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival without mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry” and concluded that “it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.” This plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

March 17th was a glorious sunny day in Clare so I headed into Ennis. The place was decorated with bunting and flags in preparation for the Parade, which kicked off at 11.00. Parades are a big deal here and every town and village has one. Not as big as Dublin of course which is now supposedly beats that in New York but definitely not as small as the one in Dripsey in Co Cork (which celebrates the fact that it has the shortest parade in the world – 100 yards between the village’s two pubs).


They are often staggered so the limited number of brass bands and prime movers can rotate between the villages. Community groups and schools go to a lot of effort and there are prizes for the best float or display. And everyone dresses up, with green of course being the dominant colour. At least fifty shades of green. Somehow it’s not tacky as it tends to be in Australia. It is the Irish celebrating their Irishness. So I saw nothing incongruous in leprechaun beards and green wigs as I might have in Australia if worn by Australians.

The other thing that struck me as the Parade moved past me was that just as in Australia now, Ireland is a multi-layered society and a quick flick through the photos shows groups with a diversity of ethnic identities. There is a strong representation of support groups for people with special needs. It was quite a window into what is important to the people of Clare. The whole thing is very much a family day and this spilled over into the pubs and restaurants with family groups continuing the celebrations as others geared up for a big night.

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I had heard there would be tunes all day at Cruises so at 1:00 I joined Eric and Hugh Healy with Brian O’Loughlin and Catherine for some great tunes.  Energetic and fast – great fun. Accompanied as we were by a young lad who practiced his dance steps continuously for well over two hours! Gradually the families left the pub and by 4 pm there was a change in musicians to Eoin O’Neill and Quentin Cooper and friends.  The pub was rapidly filling up but at 6:00 I decided to head back to Friels at Miltown Malbay where there was a session in full swing when I arrived with with Damien O’Reilly, Caoilfhionn Ni Fhrighil, Eamonn O’Riordan, Brian Mooney and Thiery Masur .  The pub was packed like I haven’t seen it since Willie Week and there was plently to like about the music. At 8.30 it wound up and my next stop was Liscannor where Ennis band Los Paddys de las Pampas were playing at Egans.  I have to say I had never heard them before and wasn’t sure what to expect – Ireland meets South America?  But with talent like Adam Shapiro and Kirsten Allstaff involved it had to be good.  And what a great night.  The music was surprisingly infectious and even a boring old fart like me was up on the dance floor bopping along.  There were some great cameos from Clara Buettler and two flamenco dancing sisters (can’t remember their names) and then Lenka Hoffmanova took to the floor looking resplendent in her dress of orange white and green.  Flamenco meets sean nos!  Great stuff!

Now that was how St Patricks Day should be celebrated.

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Categories: Real Ireland, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Feile Na Tana, Carlingford Co Louth.

Carlingford is the prettiest of towns in the very north of the Republic of Ireland. It is situated on a beautiful Lough and across the water is Northern Ireland in the shape of the Mountains of Mourne. It has ruined castles and abbeys and medieval gates and quaint contorted narrow streets and beautiful done up pubs and a backdrop of the Cooley Mountains dotted with the patchy remains of a recent snowfall. The perfect location for a Festival?

The Feile Na Tana is a new weekend winter school and was held in Carlingford on the first weekend of February. It is the brainchild of renowned fiddler Zoe Conway and her partner guitarist John McIntyre. She managed to assemble an extraordinary array of top class musicians for a programme of workshops and concerts. Zoe herself, Seamus Begley, Noel Hill, Mary Bergin, Gerry O’Connor and many others gave one day workshops to packed classes. There were a number of concerts where the talents of these musicians were on display to an enthusiastic audience of grateful locals.

The opening night had Zoe and John with some local young talent. I was blown away by the two youngsters who kicked off the night (sorry can’t remember their names) particularly the bright yellow bodhran doing a remarkable impersonation of John Joe Kelly. There was also a group of young musicians from Dublin, Caiseach, who put in a great set and Zoe and John did not disappoint.

Workshops the next day were split into two sessions – a great idea. I can only speak for the Fiddle but the tune choice from Zoe Conway was excellent and there was plenty of good advice to improve tone and feel. Well worth the trip alone.

The main concert was played to a packed house and was kicked off with a work entitled “Re imagining Songs and Music of Oriel”. It was performed by a huge ensemble of students from four local schools and included some of their own compositions. This was a wonderful experience for the kids and well received by the audience, filled no doubt with many proud parents. A great initiative and something that will hopefully stay with these kids and fan the musical fire within them. There was also a smaller group of young musicians from Wicklow and some wonderful songs from renowned local singer and author Padraigín Ní Uallacháin. And then the main act of the night, a brilliant performance from Seamus Begley and Donogh Hennessy joined later by the incomparable Noel Hill.

The tutor’s concert on the Sunday afternoon however was the highlight for me. An extraordinary line up of talent playing together and individually left the crowd wanting more.

I met some great new people especially at the Session on Sunday at Omeath, about ten kilometres away, including Rose, Clayton and Stuart from Boston, Kenji and Satoko from Japan and local musicians Gearoid, Ciaran and Andrew among others.

Thanks Zoe and John. See you next year.


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Categories: Festivals, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Road Bowls Armagh

During my recent visit to the Armagh Piping Festival I went for a drive through the pretty countryside around Armagh.  As I noted elsewhere it is very “English” and very ordered, in contrast to the wildness of Clare, and the last vestiges of Autumn gave it a colourful tinge that would soon disappear.  About ten kilometres west of Armagh, I was privileged to encounter a game of road bowls (or ‘long bullets’ as it is also known in Armagh). This involves two players who project a steel ball about the size of an orange along a predefined course on public roads with the aim of reaching the finish line in the fewest throws. A brilliant concept when you think about it, except for the obvious hazards.  A crowd of participants (all men) follow the progress. Some of these men seem to have a specific role with one advising the thrower and another standing with his legs apart and arms up in the air to show the best throwing line. Others are charged with finding the ball when it leaves the road and disappears into the long grass with one carrying a 7 iron for this purpose. The end point of the throw (which is where the ball comes to rest, not as you would expect where it leaves the road) is marked with a pile of grass placed on the road and this becomes the next throwing point. There is much barracking and I was told there was significant betting though I saw no evidence of this. The throwing requires a degree of athleticism and great distances are achieved. An athleticism not however displayed in the assembled crowd, except maybe in dodging the speeding cannonball at the last minute – but nevertheless what a great excuse for a Sunday stroll.

All the participants seemed comfortable with the obvious dangers inherent in a crowd of twenty men standing in the middle of a narrow twisting and hilly Irish road. There seemed however to be a tacit understanding between drivers and pedestrians and this was entirely consistent with the great other Irish leisure activities that I have observed all over the country, such as stopping your car in the middle of the road for a conversation oblivious to the waiting traffic or standing in the doorway of a pub to have a cigarette ensuring no one can get in or out, or parking on double yellow lines (which seems to be ok if you put on your hazard lights). Don’t you love it?

One man stopped to tell me that I shouldn’t park where I had as the Guards will book me. I looked again and sure enough there was a tiny No Parking sign in the lane where I had stopped. I was thoroughly bemused that I might get booked for parking miles from anywhere while the law turned a blind eye to the obvious hazard of using a public roadway for a sporting event.

I felt lucky to have witnessed this. An event that I have only seen in documentaries and to have experienced this insight into an activity that dates back to a very different country in the 17th Century. Ireland continues to surprise and enthral me.

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Categories: Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

William Kennedy Piping Festival Armagh

The sounds of the Ennis Trad 21 had hardly faded away and I found myself heading to Northern Ireland for the 21st William Kennedy Piping Festival. Piping you say? Well it wasn’t just pipers and I was attracted by the list of performers which included Dezi Donnelly, Mike McGoldrick and Peter Carberry along with a who’s who of piping and the chance to session with a variety of new musicians. And to visit another country.

I arrived just in time on Friday night for what they called a ‘Hooley’. This involved simultaneous concerts at three venues within the same theatre complex. A great idea and a chance to catch at least bits of every act. Highlights for me were the exquisite combination of box and pipes of Peter Carberry and Padraig McGovern, a great set from Tola Custy, Laoise Kelly and Cormac Breatnach with Tiarnan O Duinnchinn guesting and of course Dezi Donnelly, Mike McGoldrick and John Joe Kelly. Electrifying!

The remainder of the weekend involved a fiddle workshop (of course) with Tola Custy who was in great form and then sessions in cafes and pubs and an Uillean Pipe concert in the Cathedral and well, more sessions. The Cathedral was a fantastic venue for the pipe concert, though the night was cold and many of the pipers had trouble with their tuning. This aside two and a half hours of pipes was a little too much for me though there is no doubting the quality of the music.

On Sunday morning I needed a break and took a drive to Dungarvan and the through the Armagh countryside. Much more ‘English’ than Clare with grand homes, very ordered fields and the last vestiges of autumn colours appearing on the nearly bare trees. It was on the way back that I came into contact (nearly literally) with Road Bowls. I will blog on this separately, but it was a great insight into a pastime that I am told is mainly practiced here in Armagh and in Cork.

Back to town for the best sessions of the weekend. At Turner’s I joined the McCusker family, three sisters (Brenda, Marlene and Donna) and brother Paddy playing fiddle, concertina, box and guitar. They are from near Armagh and Brenda told me that there were two other musical siblings in Belfast and Australia! And that between them they have 19 children, most of whom are learning trad instruments. Wow! What a musical dynasty developing here. I am seeing this all over Ireland and it is just tremendous for the future of Irish music. This session was a treat for me and the other visiting musicians which included four pipers (naturally). After this folded I was privileged to join a session in the same pub with Tiarnan O Duinnchinn on pipes and fiddler Danny Diamond among others. This was the icing on the cake for a fabulous afternoon of music but I had to drag myself away for the long drive back to Caherush – getting home at 1 am.

After what started out fairly indifferently for me, turned out to be a fabulous weekend. Now I definitely need a rest!

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