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Return to the Irish Reel

Near the dunes, beside the remains of a centuries-old stone lookout post built when the British occupiers of Ireland feared a French invasion on this coast, a cluster of teenagers listen to American hip-hop from a boom box. "I wonder what Napoleon's friends would have thought of these fellows occupying their tower," MacAoidh says.

Up the road from Ballyshannon in Killybegs is the Sail Inn, a small and unassuming pub. Decoration is minimal here; what adorns the place is the people who crowd in, the friendliness of one and all, and the personality of Martin McGinley, part-owner and musician extraordinaire. McGinley is from Raphoe, a few miles to the northeast; after a decade in Belfast working for the BBC, he has returned to Donegal, bought the Sail Inn, and settled back down to the music.

McGinley is a robust man in his late thirties with a corolla of curly red-blond hair framing a round face. His voice, when he greets MacAoidh and welcomes me, has a nasal lilt like that of the uilleann pipes. He leads the session with a bonhomie that embraces not only all the players-- and tonight, that includes me-- but also all the listeners.

There are seven musicians altogether, but most of the playing is done by McGinley and MacAoidh and a guitarist and singer named Sean Con Johnny. These three have played together informally for years, and their enjoyment of one another is contagious. McGinley graciously invites me to start off sets of tunes on the flute, and when I do so he loses little time in joining in on the jig or reel and investing it with the Donegal fire he wields so masterfully. To play with him is what MacAoidh calls "a pure panic of brilliant music."

It is late by the time we leave the Sail Inn-- through the rear exit, since the pub officially closed more than two hours ago. When we arrive back at MacAoidh's house, at around 3 a.m., he and I stand outside in the cool air while the memory of the night's music settles into the silence. Already the sky is beginning to grow light. And then I realize that I have just attended the session I came to Ireland to witness; the fact that I've actually played in it is a bonus I hadn't even begun to hope for.

From Donegal I make my way south again along the west coast. I visit Westport, County Mayo, where I stop in at Matt Molloy's, the music pub owned by the flute player of the Chieftains. From there I head through acacia groves and hillsides overgrown with rhododendrons into Galway and the remote wilds of Connemara, and then on to Doolin, County Clare.

A few decades ago, traditional music seemed on the verge of dying out in Ireland. No place in the country is more tied to its revival than O'Connor's, a modest Doolin pub made famous by a farmer and whistle player named Micho Russell. But revival has come at a price. This once-sleepy town is now mobbed in summer; O'Connor's has expanded, but still overflows with visitors. For all that, Doolin remains essentially a village in the middle of nowhere, and outside of the high season, O'Connor's is a fine place to hear music.

When I catch Martin and Maureen Connolly (on button accordion and fiddle) there on a Wednesday night in early June, the bar is indeed overrun with noisy and inattentive people. But the music is like an antidote to the chaos. After the supercharged playing of Donegal and the pyrotechnics of the players at Matt Molloy's, this return to the easygoing swing of Clare is like a plunge in a tranquil pool after a day spent shooting the rapids.

I spend a couple of days roaming the misty, rocky coast of Clare, then take a ferry to the island of Inisheer, which is basically a big limestone hill rising out of the sea. Its few hundred inhabitants live amid sheep, seabirds, medieval ruins, and an intricate grid of oddly delicate stone fences. There, the ghostly sound of a chorus of whistles prompts me to climb a wall into a schoolyard, where I discover a music lesson in progress in an open-fronted shed. I get out my own whistle and play a few tunes with the teacher, accompanied by a student on the bodhran (a goatskin frame drum). When we finally get around to introductions, the teacher turns out to be Micheál O'Halmhain, who took Sean Potts's slot in the Chieftains for a year or so after Potts left the band. I tell O'Halmhain about my chance meeting with Potts a few days earlier, and he doesn't seem surprised. He just smiles and nods.

After so many days traipsing about the west of Ireland, I find myself wondering: Why did this music emerge from this place?Maureen Connolly's answer echoed what I heard from many. "It's the isolation, the quiet, the beauty of the country," she told me. "You should spend the winter here. It may be cool and damp, but when you step outside in the morning everything is so green. The birds are singing like crazy; if you take out an instrument and start to play, they go even crazier."

She wasn't the only person in Ireland to surprise me by waxing rhapsodic about the winters. The western part of the country depends on summer for an economic boost, but its soul is rejuvenated in the dormant season: the landscape empty, fog-shrouded, so that the old mysteries can regather. It's a land that has seen much hardship and deprivation, the heartbreak of families split by emigration, the sad sense among many that the best hope for a better life lay across the ocean. Those who stayed behind found comfort through the long nights of winter in the pub among friends, in a kitchen over tea, and in the sharing of some old treasures: a story, a song, a tune played on a flute or a fiddle.

"There used to be music in every house," an old stonecutter named Kevin told me as I sipped tea in O'Connor's one morning. "It was all we had for amusement, sure."

On my last night in Ireland, I find myself at the Killarney Grand, a tourist bar in a tourist town. The place has ersatz stained glass, fake stone walls, and, at 8:30 on a Saturday night, some of the most genuine traditional music to be found in city or country.

Mick Mulcahy plays button accordion with an uncanny soulfulness and an obvious deep affection for the music. Tonight, in a corner by the fireplace, he's playing with his two talented daughters-- 12-year-old Michelle on harp, concertina, and fiddle, and 14-year-old Louise on flute, whistles, and pipes.

Mulcahy's love of the tunes gives him a sad look when he plays, but that seems only appropriate to the music, finally. For beneath even the liveliest jig there lurks an awareness of life's difficulties, of the often harsh conditions in which this culture was bred. When Mulcahy leans over between tunes and says to me, "Those were a couple of good old hornpipes-- and these are some polkas from west Cork," there's a wistfulness in his tone, as if he is speaking of faraway friends he can visit only through the melodies.

At the end of the evening, I bid good-night to Mulcahy and his family and walk through the rain to my hotel. Contemplating my return to the States, I don't feel as sad as I might.

Next morning, I hum all the way to the airport: a couple of good old reels I learned from Mick Mulcahy.

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