Return to the Irish Reel
Published: May 2009
By Michael Cain
An Irish-music devotee gets to the roots of his obsession
It was the music that drew me to Ireland: the lilt and wail of the fiddle, the bright laughter of the accordion, the windy purl of the flute. This was the music of my father's forebears; once it got ahold of me, a few years back, it never let go.
There's a power to this music that comes of its roots in the wild landscape of rural Ireland and in the deep recesses of the country's history. Most traditional tunes are of uncertain age and have no known composer. It's as if they have arisen out of the distant past as a birthright of the musicians who play them-- yet there's nothing antiquated or musty about their haunting, driving energy.
My first real encounter with this phenomenon occurred in a series of New York City pubs. Before I stumbled upon them, I'd been playing rock and jazz on various instruments for years. Afterward, as some of my friends scratched their heads, I became a devoted student of Irish music. I put away my classical silver flute in favor of the wooden, Baroque-style instrument more common among Irish players. I took up the tin whistle. Eventually I formed a band and started playing in pubs myself.
What remained was to go to Ireland and hear the tunes played and sung in the places where they originated, by the people who have kept them alive down the centuries. I pictured myself at an intimate session in a dimly lit pub, welcomed into a charmed circle of timeless music.
I decided to make my pilgrimage in springtime, when the dark Irish winter was well past but before the onset of the tourist season. I would start off at a small festival in County Clare, and follow my ear.
Fleadh (pronounced "flah") is the Irish word for "festival." There are all sorts of fleadhs in Ireland throughout the year, most of them centered on music and dance. At the Fleadh Nua, in Ennis (the principal town of County Clare), I kick off my musical mystery tour with a glorious 48-hour immersion.
On my first afternoon in Ireland, I listen in on a crowded session (or seisiún-- pronounced "say-shoon"-- an informal gathering of musicians) at the pub in my hotel. Then I meander through the narrow streets of the town center, back and forth over the river Fergus, past the ruins of the Ennis Friary (founded in 1240), and finally up the hill to O'Connell Square, where a stage is set up on the back of a small flatbed truck. The clouds make way for warm sunshine (with which I'll be blessed for the next 10 days), and the music, by a series of groups and solo players and singers, is bright and joyful. A troupe of young step dancers in colorfully embroidered costumes arrives and performs in the percussive, straight-armed Irish style on the street in front of the stage. Later, when a funeral procession rolls through the square, everyone is respectfully silent for a few minutes; then, at the all-clear from a policeman, the musicians break into a rousing set of hornpipes.
Up and down the streets, the sound of accordions, flutes, and fiddles pours from the doorways of pubs. In the evenings there are also concerts and dances. I hear the fabled Clare fiddler Paddy Canny, nearly 80 now, in suit and tie but with a farmer's sturdy build, easing through jigs and reels he's been playing since he was a boy. I hear famous players and discover others whose names are new to me. And on my first night, I go to the ceili ("kay-lee").
A ceili is an Irish party with music and set dancing-- a bit like American square dancing, only more complex and usually faster-paced. Inside the hall on a large octagonal dance floor, dozens of dancers, divided into sets of four couples each, swirl and step and swing through intricate patterns while accordionist P. J. Hernon's Swallow's Tail Ceili Band provides irresistible accompaniment. The dancers are working up a terrific high-spirited sweat; it won't be the last time on this trip that I will wish I knew the steps.
It's a long walk from the dance hall back to my hotel. I get there well after midnight, only to find a session in progress in the lobby. And another one in the pub. I've been in Ireland less than 24 hours. I'm in heaven.
Sunday afternoon, following a long, breathtaking drive through the wildflower-studded mountains of the Dingle Peninsula, I arrive at Dingle town, on a precipitous hillside facing Dingle Bay. The harbor area is clogged with tourists; fortunately they all choose to mingle within a few blocks of one another, so I have the rest of the town to poke around in peace.
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.
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.