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Return to the Irish Reel

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.


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