Ireland is a country that has long loomed large in my imagination, both as a place of tremendous natural beauty and a hotspot of fiddle music. Of course, many places in the world have folk music traditions worth studying, but it would be difficult to overstate the impact this island has had on many of the musical styles I play and love. Through immigration and back-and-forth cultural exchange, Irish music would be one of the main influences behind the development of old-time fiddle, bluegrass, folk, country and rock musics of North America. (Indeed, it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that much of American music can be described as a long-term musical exchange between marginalized immigrants from Celtic cultures and enslaved and oppressed people from Africa.) England may have outlawed and tried to stamp out singing, harp playing, and the Irish language – possibly even with the threat of death in some cases, but Irish culture survived, a vibrant and very musical island with a global influence.
For these reasons, I was very excited to have the opportunity to go to Ireland and experience the music firsthand, and share it with my wife alongside other adventures for our anniversary. Here are just a few of the things I saw and heard, and some of the lessons I want to share with you.
After an exhausting 10-hour flight, we landed in Dublin and began slowly exploring this vibrant city. An issue we had to deal with was the “problem” of tourism. It felt like almost every corner had a “pub” designed to play up visitor’s expectations, particularly in the Temple Bar district. Music, both recorded and live, was blaring out of most of them, but it felt like a little bit of a struggle to find one whose embrace of Irish culture and music went beyond a superficial performance for tourists. As is the case in any music scene, sometimes what is the easiest to find might not be the most artistically rewarding.
Enter the Traditional Music Pub Crawl to the rescue. Fiddle master Oisín McAuley was our host as we visited a couple traditional, family-owned pubs and listened to him play traditional songs and regale us with stories and jokes that helped to put everything in context. His skillful playing and humor made for a really fun evening, and a great introduction to my time here.
We took a train, and then a bus from the island’s east to its west. It was among one of the most beautiful days of travel I’ve ever experienced on a vacation – passing by lush green meadows accented by bright yellow fields, stone walls, and gatherings of sheep and cows. We ended up in Dingle, a small town on the Atlantic coast in County Kerry. It is deeply beautiful place surrounded by ancient stone settlements, a church with amazing stained glass windows, as well as an official town dolphin – which is all very nice. But most importantly, this town of a little more than 2000 people is a hotbed of traditional Irish music.
We were not starved for choice but eventually settled on the concert at St. James’ Church. Eoin Duignan, a master of the Irish native uilleann pipes kicked things off with plaintive air (a slow song with free rhythm), and then, without pausing, slipping into a fast danceable jig – making for a deeply exciting emotional journey.
One of the highlights of this performance was Aine Uí Laoithe and Eilín Ní Chearnat. They are sisters from a family that once lived on the Blasket Islands, a very remote, all-Irish speaking area that has been uninhabited since the 1950s. Their duets were a stunning example of sean-nòs singing – or traditional singing in the Irish language. Their songs are deceptively simple acapella, with only the lightest of harmonies and filled with trills and slides. I had the feeling that I was listening to songs that may be centuries old – connecting with this music’s true roots. My previous experience with Celtic music has always involved a guitar or piano accompanying, but the most traditional style is, like this singing, heterophonic (all different instruments playing the same melodic line together). All the energy and excitement that this music creates really comes from the melody, and the steady beat of foot-tapping ornamented (sometimes heavily) but never lost.
The next evening found us at the famed O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub, at first crowded at the bar, but slowly making our way closer to the music as people leave. We saw the musical team appropriately named Duò, consisting of vocalist and fiddler Niamh Varian-Barry and her husband Peter Staunton on accordion. You might not think that just two acoustic instruments would be able to generate much energy, but I have rarely seen a performance less boring. They took a creative approach to the Irish custom of grouping songs together in “sets” (multiple tunes streamed together without a pause). Amid highly skilled performances of traditional jigs (dance tunes in 6/8 time) and reels (fast tunes in 2/2 or 4/4 time), they would slide effortlessly and playfully into covers of “Seven Nation Army,” “Hit the Road Jack,” and other popular tunes – all of it filtered through the energy of Irish music, as if it all belonged.
These two Dingle adventures reveal some of the contrasts that reflect the full picture of the richness of Irish music. On the one hand, there is a strong sense of identity in tradition, and many people making an effort to keep old art forms alive. At the same time, there are many people playing with the tradition and faithfully adding to it and transforming it. When some folk musicians can be guilty of a cultural snobbery that resists innovation and seek only to replicate what others have done before, what I saw in Ireland demonstrates a wonderful way forward in being grounded without being too conservative or limiting. It is a musical tradition in which people playing in older ways coexist with The Pogues and Planxty, all of it celebrated as maintaining and adding something to a very musically rich island.
After another day full of bus rides, we ended up in the slightly larger, but equally musical rich, town of Galway – and just hearing the name made me think of the Steve Earle and Sharon Shannon song “Galway Girl”
This was not atypical, looking at a map would frequently cause a song to get stuck in my head. The Aboriginal Australians sometimes used songlines to mark the landscape and create a “musical map,” of the land. It’s not dissimilar to the way the Irish song tradition has created tunes associated with its different towns and natural landmarks. Like the music of many places on earth, this is a tradition whose songs have a very strong sense of place.
We found ourselves in the Latin Quarter, a crowded, tourist-friendly district filled with pubs – a very crowded but walkable neighborhood my wife compared to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. We were looking for a session (in which a group of musicians gather casually to play traditional songs together and for each other, rather than performing to an audience). We went to Tig Coili (http://www.tigcoiligalway.com/about-us.html), a very crowded pub, but also one legendary for featuring and preserving “trad music” and found three musicians playing in the corner – a banjo, accordion, and fiddle all playing in unison and providing an endless cascade of tunes. Space was crowded and noisy, so those of us interested in the music had to crowd around and shut out the background noise of chatter.
A word many tour guides and books use to describe Irish culture is craic, which essentially means vigorous and fun conversation built on a pleasurable experience of people being together. The noise of people experiencing, or perhaps attempting to manufacture, craic was unavoidable throughout our trip. All accusations that a sense of “craic” is a cliché aside, I felt throughout this trip that I was among some of the friendliest and politest people I have ever known. Generally, I am a proponent of people shutting up and listening when music is going on, so at first I found it frustrating to have to hear such amazing music in a place where other people weren’t listening. However, the musicians ignored the noise all around them, and kept on playing, focused on the pleasure of playing for themselves, rather than expecting an audience. I can not say for sure what the music meant to people talking, laughing, or living life on top of it – but I do know the space was made so much richer and livelier because of the energetic and complex melodies
Irish music is a musical style rooted in appreciating, giving meaning to, and enjoying life to the fullest. It is a part of a culture, that, in spite of a history of suffering, has found many ways to create beautiful, high-spirited, and deeply emotive works of art and music. It was a huge privilege to be able to just explore a little piece of this rich culture, especially with someone I love so much. I look forward to many more adventures exploring and learning about the musics people develop to celebrate who they are and the lives they live.