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Landing in Shannon back in 1982, on our way to home leave in the States at the halfway mark of my assignment in Geneva, 14-year-old Chris and I spent some ten days exploring the countryside in the west-central part of Ireland, while Elsa took his two older sisters college-shopping at home. Since hearing traditional Irish music was one of our few explicit goals, we made our first stop the tiny village of Doolin, just a mile or so north of the famed Cliffs of Moher. There, we were told, we would find the true st form of the art – local and itinerant musicians coming together at the pubs on a pickup basis, and playing for the pure enjoyment of it, plus perhaps a free meal and a few pints of Guinness. “At all of the Doolin pubs?” we asked. “Oh yis,” was the reply, “yis indeed, at both of them.”
We checked into Maeve Fitzgerald’s B&B, and walked to McGann’s pub about 15 minutes before the time she thought the musicians would arrive. I bought a pint of Guinness for myself and a half-pint of the creamy-headed black brew for Chris, warning him that this would be both his first and his last for the evening. Although we didn’t know where in the room the musicians would play, we judged that the large round table in the corner would likely provide good sightlines in any direction. After a little while, the pub had gotten rather crowded and the musicians began straggling in. To our dismay, they headed right for our table and started to seat themselves. Maybe our disappointment showed as we got up to search out a spot in the rear, or maybe it was just typical Irish friendliness, but they would have none of it. “There’s room for all” they said, “stay where you are”.
Well, surrounded as we were by the music, I doubt that anyone ever had a better seat for a performance of any sort. And, despite the fact that we later visited Galway, Limerick, Sligo, the Aran Islands and elsewhere, our two days in Doolin remained the high point of that trip.
And it became, 24 years later, the main target of this one.
Chris, by then 38 and a father himself, had a particularly good year at work and was named to his Company’s “President’s Club” – which meant that he became part of an elite group of 200 or so nationwide that was awarded an expenses-paid trip to Dublin for himself and a guest. Since his wife was very pregnant with our first granddaughter, he invited me along, and arranged to extend the trip for three nights to see whether Doolin could still work the same sort of magic.
We knew there would be changes in Doolin. The Irish economy had lately been booming, whereas it was far from that in 1982. And although, as President Kennedy once said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” picturesque cultures and old traditions can often fall victim to prosperous times. So Chris and I were mentally prepared for disappointment. A disappointment that I am pleased to report never came.
We stayed once again with Maeve Fitzgerald, who greeted us as old friends (but then I’m reasonably certain she does that with all her repeat customers), and who was obviously enjoying her share in Ireland’s new-found prosperity. As was her husband, who had turned the farm over to one of their three grown children, and was now running a crafts shop and deli. Doolin itself had grown, perhaps even doubled in size, but even so remained much too small to qualify for anything more than village status.
Happily, the music at McGann’s was every bit as magical as before. And this despite a bigger crowd making more noise; not to mention the excessive distance of our seats from the musicians’ table (we were a good 10 or 12 feet away!)
Since the musicians are nearly always pickup groups, you seldom know in advance how many will arrive, but it appears to average between five and eight. Nor will you know which instruments will be represented – although this never seems to present a problem because most of the players are adept with two or three. The essentials appear to be a fiddler and guitarist, a piper (bagpipes or pennywhistle or both) and someone on the bodhran –the round, handheld Irish drum hammered by a small two-headed instrument that looks for all the world like a leprechaun-size dumbbell. This night we had all of these plus two flautists, a concertina, a banjo and a mandolin. A bit unusual, but very effective.
If you think you’ve experienced all this on St. Paddy’s day at your favorite Irish pub in the USA, chances are you’re mistaken. You’re unlikely to hear “Danny Boy” or “Molly Malone” or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at a “trad” session. These are all fine songs that have their place, but they are a different genre entirely. Every Irish “trad” tune is built upon one of a finite number of irresistibly toe-tapping, hand-clapping rhythms, repeated over and over. You might think this could become tiresome, but it never does because one or more of the major instruments quickly lays a melody on top of that rhythm, which the others pick up and carry forward, each one adding his own special touches, yet never interfering with the coherence of the whole. You can’t miss hearing in these tunes the roots of American country music, especially Bluegrass, and – although less clearly – perhaps even jazz.
All quite wonderful. And if you somehow can’t relate – well, just have another Guinness or two and enjoy the atmosphere.
Before ending this tale, I was going to mention several other highlights of our trip, but this piece is quickly approaching its optimal length. So I’ll just limit myself to adding a few words about a different and, to most Americans, a more widely known genre of Irish music, one that we encountered in Dublin. This type is sometimes known as a lament, and as the name implies these are always sad and often deeply moving songs about lost love, death, or life during any of the many harrowing periods of Irish history. Near the end of a Gala Dinner hosted by Chris’ company, an entertainment included two of these, sung by an attractive and very talented lady.
The one that most grabbed me by the tear ducts, written just a few years ago by an Irish composer named Brendan Graham, imagines the feelings and the thoughts of one Annie Moore, a 15-year-old Irish girl who was the first immigrant processed through the Ellis Island Immigration Center on its opening day, January 1, 1892. Like thousands upon thousands of her countrymen, she fled starvation at home in the hope of making a better life in America, but in the full knowledge that she would never again see her home and family. Had Dickens written the song he might have called it “A Tale of Two Islands.” Graham named it “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears”.
Here is the six-line refrain, in which Annie’s thoughts of those two islands – Ellis and Ireland – encapsulate the risks and fears, hopes and tears of all those, including my own forebears, who made the momentous decision to emigrate. Like all great songs, the words and the music work together perfectly, so if my recitation fails to convey the emotion we all felt upon hearing it sung in Dublin, then I apologize. But the printed word, unaided, does have its limitations:
Isle of hope, Isle of tears,
Isle of freedom, Isle of fears,
But it’s not the Isle I left behind…
That Isle of hunger, Isle of pain,
Isle I’ll never see again,
That Isle of home is always on my mind.