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Return to the Irish Reel

Up the steep lanes, I find my way to Main Street and a quiet string of shops and hotels. A short walk along the road and I'm in the countryside, abruptly, climbing toward magnificent views over the bay to the Iveragh Peninsula. To the north looms Mount Brandon, the second-highest peak in Ireland; to the west is a scattered trove of archaeological sights. These things I will explore tomorrow. For tonight, I find what I'm after on Main Street, where a sign in the window of a pub called An Droichead Beag (The Small Bridge) announces that Séamus Begley and Stephen Cooney will be leading a session. Begley is a Dingle dairy farmer from a well-known musical family; his prowess on the button accordion and in sean nós (old-style) singing is widely admired. When he teamed up a few years ago with Cooney, an eclectic Irish-Australian guitarist, the duo became notorious.

The pub is a dark, atmospheric place with stone walls and low beamed ceilings, a fireplace, and two small bars. The musicians play in a corner by the front window, sitting on wooden benches built into the wall. When I arrive in the evening, savvy locals have staked out the best spots, but there's still room up close for a listener who doesn't mind getting jostled a bit.

As soon as Begley and Cooney begin to play, everyone seems to lift off the ground by a couple of feet. There's no space for dancing, but no one is standing still, either. Begley, a handsome, muscular man with a mad gleam in his eye, plays upbeat polkas and slides in the brisk, heavily accented west Kerry style. Cooney's sometimes manic rhythms drive him on. Yet when Begley stops to sing, an altogether different spirit seems to take control; he becomes an ethereal soul with a surprisingly reedy voice, singing Gaelic songs of love.

About half an hour into the session, a distinguished-looking gentleman enters the pub. Begley waves him over to a place on the bench, the newcomer takes out a tin whistle, and all the other musicians listen as he plays a slow air. The sad melody swoops and soars, wound about with ornamentation. Listeners lean in to hear, even as the din of conversation continues in the rest of the pub. When the white-haired whistler segues into a brisk reel, everyone is hopping again.

I ask a tall fellow standing beside me if he knows who the whistle player is. "Oh yeah," he says. "That's Sean Potts."

My jaw drops. Potts was one of the original members of the Chieftains, Ireland's most famous traditional ensemble. For years, I've been listening to his recordings-- I can't believe I've caught him playing in a session.

It's often said that there is no star system among Irish musicians, and now I can see this principle in action. Begley notices I seem a bit awed at shaking hands with the whistler. "Here's the real VIP," he says, introducing me to Bridie Potts, Sean's wife. "Shake the hand that rocks the cradle. He's just a freakin' whistle player."

Traditional music in the city is a different creature from the one that inhabits the countryside. After my visits to Ennis and Dingle, I move on to Cork and Dublin, Ireland's two largest cities. The musicians I encounter there are no less accomplished than those in more rural areas, but their playing often has little sense of regional style; at times it seems disconnected from the pastoral spirit that gave rise to the tunes in the first place.

Not that I disliked the cities or the music I heard there. In Cork, once I got past the hellish traffic and bewildering one-way roads, I found a pedestrian-friendly downtown area full of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, broad boulevards, attractive shops, and surprisingly good restaurants. As for the music, after finding nothing but rock and blues on a Monday night, I tracked down three quality sessions on Tuesday.

In Dublin, too, I found ungodly traffic jams, but also a beautiful city with a profusion of music pubs. Nonetheless, when I left Dublin to head for Donegal, I was glad to be returning to the countryside, and to the west.

Donegal, the northernmost part of Ireland, is a realm of craggy ocean cliffs and high peat fields studded with rocks and overshadowed by scree-sided mountains. To a European of the Middle Ages, when St. Columba and his band of monks came here to set up places of worship, this was the remotest spot imaginable-- the end of the earth.

Sometimes, in spite of the thriving towns along the coast, it still seems to be. In the interior, roads wind through mile after mile of high bogland where the black-faced sheep roam freely and even lounge on the pavement in sunny weather. At the shoreline the land drops down to the sea with a precipitous finality, leaving strips of beach here and there exposed to the lashings of tides and weather.

On the night of my arrival in Donegal, I stroll a beach near Ballyshannon with musician and scholar Caoimhin MacAoidh (pronounced "kwee-veen mac-ee"), a storehouse of knowledge about the music and folklore of the county. At nearly 10 p.m. in late May, the sun has just begun to set. It's low tide, and the broad strand below the Sand House Hotel is well populated with strollers, waders, Frisbee-players and their dogs. Cars drive up and down the sand, and a truck tows a parasailer back and forth overhead.

MacAoidh points to the largest of the mountains up the coast. "The one with the big cliffs is Slieve League. The highest sea cliffs in Europe, they say. Con Cassidy"-- a famous Donegal fiddle player-- "lived at the foot of that one." He proceeds to single out peak after peak and name a noted fiddle player associated with each.

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