Going Home

So what do I take from this my third trip? Well firstly, I love my brothers in music. This shared journey cements a bond of music and friendship worth more to me than any other form of wealth. 

Second, the friendships we’ve made in prior trips are now stronger, cemented and more real. As Morgan stated, the friends here that we share with, feel like a part of our every day reality, not like some special area, far removed from the rest of our lives. The sharing of music with Julie Langan, Joe Carey, Pat Eades, Seamus Dean, Adam Shapiro, the Dave’s from Australia, Jackie Small, Padraig McKenna, Johnny Curtis, Tony Reidy, Gary Leahy, Hugh and Eoin Quinn, Richie Tisdall and Billy Archibald. Our new friends we met in Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna, Kilcrohan, Inch, some new some old its a bond that goes deep. Tommy Neilan said just yesterday, when you can share the music, sit down and play with others it’s like having a secret passport. The smiles, joy and craic crosses every border and forms an international language. This shared experience is borderless. The Foley’s in Inch, Co. Dingle showed their regard by not letting us pay for our rooms that night, we wanted to pay them, they wouldn’t hear of it. We value this kind of generosity and openness more than anything. I carry these friends in my heart, all of them, they live inside of me and are part of me now. John and Maggie McGing taking my wife and daughter and I into their home and showing them and I such generosity, because of our past visits and shared experiences. They’re extended family each and everyone. The world needs so much more of this kind of sharing. Tear down the walls, suspicion, bigotry and hatred. This is the healing our planet needs.

A Great Evening at Jordan’s

We drove south to the Neilan’s whom we got to know last trip. They live on a 200 acre farm in an area of East Galway part of Shanaglish. It’s beautiful country and the Neilan’s are a wonderful family. We arrived late afternoon and were greeted by Tommy Neilan. Tommy’s getting on in years but is still young in spirit. We were all pretty tired and took the night easy. We conveyed Jackie Small’s greetings, as they are old friends.

Next day, Friday, was warm and sunny we asked Tommy and Martina if they’d spoken to anyone regarding a house session. Tommy and Martina said they were waiting for us to arrive, but they would now ask some friends. We visited Ennis and knocked about for the afternoon. We got back post dinner to find out that there were going to be guests so we rushed to make the space welcome. Over the space of an hour our guests began arriving and we were glad to see young Neil Martin. We last saw him 2014 and in that time he’d won the All Ireland for under 12 for his flute playing. He’d accomplished a great deal since our last meeting. Mary and Andrew came playing flute, box and pipe, Katherine, another box player and nice person, Martina and Tommy joined in on box, and Neil’s brother Liam played bodhran. P.J., the Neilan’s neighbor added some funny story songs and part way along Eugene Lamb came. We met him in 2014 as well. He’s a great player and this time he gave us some pipes, whistle, great stories, jokes and songs as well. The evening was great fun.

Saturday we took easy. Months before we left the U.S. we’d contacted Tom Cussen our good friend and banjo maker of renown. We’d tried and failed in 2012 to meet Tom for a session, and we had one short session when we played at the Clarinbridge Banjo Festival in 2014, but we wanted to sit in a more intimate session with Tom and his friends. This trip we made sure that it was planned in advance so that nothing would interfere.  We headed up to Clarinbridge early so we could go to an antique shop we’d been to last trip. It actually belongs to a cousin of James’ wife Bridget, whom she met in Jordan’s Pub quite accidentally last trip to Clarinbridge in 2014. We then took some small roads out along the bay and walked across a field to the edge of Galway Bay. We could look south to The Burren and north toward Connemara, a breathtaking sweep of a large part of that section of coast. We got back into town had a meal, grabbed our instruments and went into Jordan’s early. As we stood outside with our pints Tom Cussen pulled up with his lovely wife Mary. We said hello and not 5 min. into conversation Tom and I are talking shop, he the banjo builder me the repairman/ builder, its in the blood, get two or more luthiers together and we’re gonna go there. The session was great, lots of fine players, young Neil, who kept up very, very well, I’m amazed at how many tunes he knows already. Neil, the boy not long to be a man will be a force to be reckoned with in the world of Irish flute players. Katherine who we played with at the Neilan’s showed up after hitting a session in Galway first. A woman named Maureen was there with her partner and she sang a song by the late Tony Small (Jackie Small’s brother) that James and I said we must learn. [Update: We did! Here it is.] Tom is a very fine banjo player, he describes himself as a good band player, but his skills are considerable. I love watching his right hand, very economical of motion, his triplets look effortless, he’s got a very strong sound. Katherine who we played with at the Neilan’s showed up after hitting a session in Galway first. A man we met on our flight in showed up with his octave mandolin, that was fun. The session was jamming, very strong playing and LOUD! A great evening.

The Reek and Coda

Morgan, James, Bridget and I fit as many things into our last day in Westport as we could. Don, Sheila and Claudia had a hawk walk scheduled down near Gort, so left a day before us. We saw posters in Westport for CODA, who are a wonderful vocal and instrumental group from the area. Our previous trip in 2014 our friend Brian Lennon, a membner of CODA brought a few of the members down to a session we were playing in at Matt Molloys and sang acapella  for us. They sing 6 part vocal arrangements that are really beautiful, gorgeous harmonies and very tight arrangements. We didn’t want to miss them. They were playing in the large room at Matt Molloy’s which is a great space. 

James kept looking at Croagh Patrick and decided he just had to climb it. For those of you who don’t know, Croagh Patrick is the highest point in Ireland, a beautiful mountain that from Westport looks pyramidal. It’s been a sacred site for millennia, but since the Christian era has been associated with Patrick and is now a pilgrimage spot, a must climb for Catholics. We woke to a beautiful sunny, warm day, our first such since we arrived. A nearly cloudless sky. The mountain looked just over the hill from Newport, but was in fact many miles away, that’s how clear the air was. We got ourselves together and drove to the mountain, dropped James off told him to text us on his progress and headed down the Louisburgh Road toward the coast. Morgan thought it might be fun to see if we could catch the Clare Island ferry over to the Island and explore it a bit while James was climbing. We followed some very small roads to the ferry terminal only to find out that the only ferry was much later in the afternoon, so we scrapped that plan. The tide was out so we explored some tide pools looked out to Clare Island and into the Atlantic. We drove further, tried exploring some of the small lanes, had fun getting semi-lost in some wild looking country and found a local postman who helped us get our bearings, he also told us the only food we’d find was going to be back in Louisburgh. We were getting hungry so back to Louisburgh. James texted that he was half way up. We stopped in a small cafe, had coffee and some lunch and heard from James that he’d gotten to the top. Hooray! We drove back toward Croagh Patrick and stopped at Staunton’s Pub where we’d had that great Sunday session, grabbed a pint and waited to hear that James was back down. He got back down, looking happy and tired. His photos of Clew Bay from the top are amazing. We joked to him in a text that we’d need photographic proof that he’d gotten there and he showed that to us. Well done James. Back to Newport for naps and to get ready to hear Coda.

Back to Westport and to Molloy’s. We got in line early and it was a good thing we did. Standing in line we found some familiar faces, Tom Doherty, who we’ve played with at the session in Newport was running sound for the show, Brian Lennon one of the members of CODA whom we met in Newport came through and said hello, we’d seen Norman Wylie from Westport Radio we’d seen a bit earlier, soon the area in front of the door started getting crowded. One couple tried to get in but were rebuffed, a young fellow from Clare Island looked at me and I said “the doors are open, but they’re not open”, “Ah, that’s a question for philosophers”, says he. The Irish sense of humor, laced with irony, God I love it so! The doors finally “officially” opened and by that time the waiting area in the smoking yard was crammed. In we all went grabbed a seat and sat down to a tremendously entertaining show. If you’re at all curious get their first album or listen to them on YouTube

A House Session at Maggie’s

We were hoping to get together with some of our music friends a last time before we had to leave the area. There weren’t any scheduled sessions and Maggie suggested she’d be open to hosting a house session if we were willing. Maggie and John know many of Westport’s musicians so we knew they’d get the word out, we also have our friends in Newport, so we asked Julie Langan if she’d come and to ask anyone she knew to come as well. Maggie organized the food and laid out quite a tasty spread, vegetable soup with soda bread, cheeses, bean salad, egg salad, etc. she’s a great cook.

People began to show up, among them Tony Reidy, a neighbor of the McGings, Dan Delany, but he had to leave early, Julie, Padraig McKenna, Johnny Curtis, Pat Eade, Brian Lofthouse, a very talented luthier who brought two new instruments with him, Maggie Neilan and a few others who came to listen. We had some great tunes and sharing. Pat played some wonderful songs (we love his singing) and Maggie Neilan sang for us as well, we love her interpretations of the old songs, she’s a wonderful singer. All in all a nice small sharing with some of people we’ve come to respect and treasure.

Farewell to Ally

We had to say goodbye to Ally and get her on the bus. She had a busy schedule back home so we spent the afternoon knocking around Westport doing a last bit of gift shopping for grandkids. We got her down to the bus stop, no real station found the correct bus and waved goodbye. I was really pleased that she enjoyed Ireland, met our friends and shared the week with me and everyone else. She now understands what goes on here and why we come back.

The Towers and Staunton’s Sessions,

Sunday is session day and evening in Westport. The town is well known for its musical focus and Sunday each week is “the” day where it’s all going on. Ally and I have been staying with John and Maggie McGing, friends and hosts extraordinaire! The band and I first met Maggie and John in 2012. They both love to go to the sessions to listen and we happened to be in town that year. I first really remember Maggie and John at Bould Biddie’s Pub that year, that was a truly memorable session, that’s when we really started to visit and get to know one another. We’ve corresponded via email between visits and spent more and more time with them when here, and they’ve become great friends, true friends, and now Ally and I are talking about meeting them for vacation in some lovely part of the world in winter. John used to own McGing’s pub, just down the hill from where they live. It had been in his family for years and he’d grown up in the home that was above the pub space. Westport has always been home to John and he knows everyone and they know him. He’s 6′ 6″ and impossible to miss, is a very quiet man, with an extremely dry sense of humor, a quick, observational mind that misses nothing and the ability to make a wry comment that has you laughing uncontrollably. Maggie’s a perfect match, she’s a keen mind herself, a quick tongue that’s never cruel, and a lively commentator on life and social goings on. We love them both. Maria lives next door, and you’ve read about her in previous postings. She became our social liaison our first trip in 2012, introduced us to the McGings, Maggie Neilan, Padrig and Els McKenna, Mick and Mary Mulcrone, Pat Eade, Matt Molloy, Johnny Fadgin, Dan Delany, and many others, everybody that’s become part of our life each time we come here. Some have become good friends and some casual acquaintances and they form the web of connections that make our time here so wonderful.

Maria’s been really ill, she contracted pneumonia this winter and is still having a tough time. We’ve seen her some, and she’s had a few good days, but the illness has left her weak. We’ve missed her terribly this trip. She’s funny and great company. (I just was speaking with Maria over Maggie and John’s fence and I’m happy to report she’s feeling much better today). So, back to the Sunday sessions.

We headed first to The Towers, a nice restaurant with a little snug in front where the session is. When we arrived Jackie Small, Pat Eade, and Johnny Curtis and Padraig McKenna were just getting started. We’d met Pat our first trip here, he’s a great singer and bouzouki player, Johnny remembered meeting us previously, but Jackie was new to us. He plays box and we found out is an Archivist and Ethnomusicoligist with a deep knowledge of Irish music and a mind full of great tunes, and Padraig of course you already know. With my guitar and Johnny and Pat’s octave mandolin and bouzouki we had a lot of strings jangling. Morgan showed up with James and Don came through the door, so a lively session ensued. Another bouzouki player and singer showed, whose name I failed to get, and Mick Mulcrone and his wife Mary came in as well. At some point I put my guitar away and enjoyed listening to the others. Too many strings is too many strings! Listening and socializing is just as much fun as playing sometimes. By 8:30 the session wound down and Jackie and Pat invited us to a session at Staunton’s out the Louisburgh Road. We sat down to dinner with Don and his wife Sheila and their friend Claudia who’d just arrived in Ireland, James and Bridget, Maggie and John, Morgan, Ally and I, we’d become quite a group. The Tower has great food so we had a fine meal and headed out to Staunton’s. 

We arrived close to 10:00 and stepped into a pub that felt like some of the cozy country pubs we’ve encountered. It’s a local pub, where good friends meet and swap stories, sing songs they know and play tunes. Jackie, Pat and Johnny were already there and invited us in. It had all the joys and intimacy that a small session gives. Spontaneous stories, jokes, songs. Some wonderful singing by a woman named Nancy, who had powerful interpretive abilities. When she sang a song you felt it in every part of your being. We played til near 12:30, then had some wonderful talk with Pat, Jackie and Johnny as well as Terese the owner of Staunton’s. She’s a really nice woman running a pub that’s been in her family for 100 years.

A princely gift

Morgan and I had agreed to meet Julie in Newport at the National School. We waited a little while and Julie pulled in and guided us out to the hotel in Mulranny, situated further north along the shore of Clew Bay. On the way she diverted to a lane marked Kilbreen Cemetery. Down a twisting little lane that eventually opened up to a very old cemetery along the shore with a breath taking view of Clew Bay, Beare Island some of the smaller islets and Croagh Patrick looking down on it all. The cemetery is dominated by a circular stone wall in its center that is built atop a much older pre-Christian burial site. There’s no earth visible within the circle but it is filled with stones, large flat stones, like you would see over a sarcophagus inset into a floor. Very old inscriptions, many so weather worn their difficult to read. In the center is a standing slab with a carving of the Goddess Mother, the pagan quite at home with the younger religion. Morgan and I were very touched that Julie chose to show us to this spot. It has a very peaceful feeling.

We wound back out the lane to the main road and followed Julie to the Mulranny Park Hotel, which has a magnificent view of Clew Bay and environs. We walked up the drive to the Hotel and found Joe waiting for us at the main door, dressed in a three piece suit! Casual indeed. Morgan and I figured that between Joe and Julie they’d know many great musicians and that we’d be joining them, but it turned out to be the four of us. We were honored as well as a little afraid. Joe sat down gave us quick snippets of the tunes, told me the keys and away we went. Joe’s playing flows so easily and his assurance so sure that we soon relaxed and got in the flow. There were a few tunes I didn’t know that had tricky turnarounds so I’d play quietly until I could get back in, Morgan found himself doing the same, but on the whole we felt pretty good about our playing. At one point Joe got up to speak and gave his box to a young man who sat down with us. He introduced himself as Seamus Dean. He started a set and played at a level equal to Joe’s, except he had all the vigor of youth. I took a break needing to get rid of some of my Guiness and met Joe in the loo. I told him I was really impressed with Seamus’s playing and Joe said “perhaps you noticed an influence”. He’s a neighbor of Joe’s and has studied with him since he was little and obviously has learned well. We played a few more sets and it was time for the wedding party to go to dinner. Joe said he’d meet us in the parking lot, that he had a little gift for us. We met Seamus on the steps going down to the drive and he told us he enjoyed playing with us and hoped we’d get another opportunity. We heartily agreed. Joe met us as we walked the hill down to our car and handed us a wrapped bottle. We thanked him, told him how much we enjoyed playing with him and hoped to see him again. When we got to the car we pulled the wrapping aside and he’d given us a very special bottle of Jameson’s. A princely gift indeed.

Onwards to Mayo

We left Fanore and headed north to Co. Mayo. We’ve good friends in Westport and Newport and were looking forward to seeing them. We drove to Knock where there’s a small regional airport. James and Bridget needed to rent a car so they could journey north to Port Stewart in North Ireland and Don grabbed a car so he could pick up his wife and a good friend who will be with us for part of the trip. I checked my messages and email since I could get wifi in the airport and saw I’d gotten an email from Julie Langan. Julie is a very talented and highly regarded fiddler fro the Newport area. She’s known well outside the region and we in the band love her playing, she’s also a lovely person. We met her at the session in Newport both previous trips and loved the session and her playing partner Tom Doherty who plays box. 

She wrote: “did i hear rumblings that ye are ‘at large’ on the West Coast of Ireland???? I’m hoping it’s true!! I’m playing in Westport on Friday nights weekly at the moment. And the next seisiun in the Gráinneuaile is tomorrow wk the 20th. I hope we get to meet up, let me know where you are and i’ll try and come to ye either. it’s like the return of the cuckoo! summer must be on it’s way!!”

Were we excited about that? Oh yes! I answered her and hoped we’d connect.

We bid James and Bridget goodbye and Morgan and I got in our vehicle and Don followed us and we headed for Newport to find the house we’d rented. As we neared Castlebar the top of Croagh Patrick showed. It’s a beautiful mountain that dominates the southern shore of Clew Bay. Its the kind of mountain that’s difficult to take your eyes off. Before it became associated with St. Patrick it was a sacred site for the earlier Irish peoples. We found our place in Newport and dropped off our stuff, kept our instruments and headed to John and Maggie McGing’s. They became our friends in 2012 on our first trip. You can’t find a more generous pair. They’ve made us feel welcome from the start and Maggie and I have kept in touch since then. My wife Alison is staying with them, as is my youngest daughter Tahlia. Maggie and John hadn’t met them but welcomed them in with the generosity that is their natural state. Alison and Tahlia had spent a week visiting her mother and brother in England and caught a jumper flight to Knock where Maggie and John picked them up. I had lots of reasons to be pleased to get to the McGings. Tahlia had been texting me and said that Maggie had dinner waiting for us and knew of the session with Julie and where it was. We sat down to a fabulous home cooked meal caught up on some news and headed down to McCarthy’s Pub to find Julie. 

We got there to find we were a bit early, so we ordered pints put our instruments in a corner and had a seat. About 20 minutes later Julie showed up, it was great to see her. We heard she was playing with a box player but we had no knowledge of him. He turned out to be a man named Joe Carey. He pulled out his box sat down and we introduced ourselves to one another. Once we started playing it became apparent that Joe was a master. His command of the tunes and his instrument are superb. He plays with a strength and fluidity that only comes from years of playing. He plays similarly to the great Joe Burke, but his voice is his own, with power and grace. He also plays a Paolo Soprano box from the 1940’s which is what Joe Burke played. I now know why the accordions of that era are so esteemed. The sound of it surrounded me and carried me away. I’d never experienced anything like it, a really glorious experience. 

Julie plays with a mastery that fascinates me as well. Some players use a lot of motion in their playing, fingers flying, big bow strokes, lots of movement and show. Julie is an elegant player, with great economy of motion. Her left hand shows such little movement that it’s difficult to reconcile all the music leaving her fiddle with such a small amount of effort, but great music comes from her, absolutely beautiful phrasing and real soul to her playing. It’s an honor to be able to listen and interact with her. There’s times I just want to not play at all and just listen and there’s times I have to pinch myself and wonder why she wants to play with me. I didn’t grow up in the tradition like she or any of the other native players have, so I still feel self conscious. On the other hand my bandmates and I keep getting invited back to play so my self consciousness is something I’m putting on myself. Anyway enough of that!

We also got to play with another fiddler named Siobhain whom we met last trip and Tony Reidy a great song writer and guitar and mandolinist. Our friend Padraig McKenna sat in on banjo as well as a drunk with no sense of rhythm trying to play spoons until one of his mates grabbed him and took him away. Great fun and music, great craic. At the end of the session Julie and Joe approached us and asked if we’d be willing to come to Joe’s son’s wedding reception tomorrow and play tunes with he and Julie. Morgan and I accepted without hesitation, Don needed to drive to Shannon to pick up his wife Sheila and friend Claudia, so it was Morgan and I representing the group. We told Joe we had no appropriate clothing for such an event and he and Julie told us that the musicians could get away without dressing up and that would be OK.

Joe pointed to his clothes and said he’d be dressed like he was, so not to worry!

Session at Cooley’s, Ennistimon, with Adam, Paul Dooley, Stefan, 2 Australian Bob’s, etc. 

We made up our minds that we’d not hesitate the next session. So off to Cooley’s House in Ennistimon. We were told that this was a really good session.

Cooleys is a cozy narrow pub very similar to the old Bould Biddy’s in Westport, but much warmer feeling. The session was to start around 9:30 and we got there at 8:00, staked out our spots and stayed put. When we arrived a woman was tending and we found out her name was Joan. We mentioned why we’d come and she assured us that we were very welcome and that musicians were more than welcome, the session was open and that Adam and his friends would be glad to see us. She also assured us that being American wasn’t and issue as there was only one player that usually came who was Irish, all the rest were from other points of the compass.

We ordered pints sat down and a colorful character showed up carrying a fiddle case. His name is Bob and he’s from Australia. Great guy, very open and talkative, as curious about who we are as we are him. The topics range from him learning fiddle by playing America old time music in Australia, to traveling to Ireland and settling here, to buying houses, etc. Then another man steps in with a fiddle and he too is Bob, Bob Singer another Australian. He’s also very open and friendly. Then the flute player whom we heard at The Roadside two nights before stepped in. He’s Stefan who’s not very talkative, and we believe is French.

Then Adam came in, young, energetic and greets us warmly. A few others show up and the fiddler we liked so well at at The Roadside steps in. He’s Paul Dooley the Irishman. Another American is there, Richard whose wife is the niece of Chris Droney a pretty famous concertina player from Bell Harbour. Richard’s a nice fellow, tells us not to hide our light, that he’d heard about our playing at The Roadside and wished he’d been there. We were getting a lot of positive comments from that. Greetings are exchanged, cases opened, strings tuned, flutes adjusted, all very unhurriedly and Adam and Stefan agree on the first set and away we go. The first tune is new to me, I’ve almost got it and Adam calls out a change for me, nods when I get it, and then to the next tune. When the set is finished conversation continues, pints sipped and the next set is determined with glances, a few opening notes played so the starters know what’s coming and off we go. This is the very kind of session we come for. It reminds me of the session we had in Kilgarvan in 2012. I’m starting to feel physically very hot. Adam says “Cooley’s is the hottest pub in Ireland”. I start stripping layers. He and Morgan continue the thread and Adam states that when they get a lot of players in it’s like a steam bath. They invite us to do a song, I sing The Mountaineer and it’s well received. I feel the tension ease inside of me and even Stefan is smiling at times. We’ve made the connection with fellow musicians and it feels like we’re in the right place at the right time.

We step outside to cool off and have a hysterically funny conversation with a young man from Scotland. He’s full of funny remarks and has Morgan and I laughing uncontrollably. Soon a friend of his also Scots comes out and we have a nice exchange. He fills me in on the state of the economy and how their banks were handing out loans like candy and all the people he knows that are in their homes upside down financially. The evening is a great success. We’ve met some nice people, played some great music, had interesting conversations, made connections, which is what its all about and there you have it!

A Session in Kinvarra

Ennistimon, lunch with friends and Kinvarra with Dermot Byrne, Florianne Blancke and others.

Spent a little time waking up, playing tunes (if you’re not a musician our schedule would drive you crazy). We live for the music on this pilgrimage, we eat, drink, breathe and bathe in the tunes. Often we’re playing before we’ve even really woken up, individually working aspects of a new tune or set we’ve wanted to learn or just heard the night before. Some might call it a madness, we just call it playing tunes!

Janelle texted then called wanting to set up a meeting and lunch. She suggested 10:00 and I countered with 11:00. We’re a bit bleary early, session start at 9:30 or 10:00 and end at 12:30 or 1:00, sometimes later. By the time we get back to our place and calm down we’re in bed at 2:00 or later, musician’s hours. We drove in to Lisdoonvarna met John, Janelle, Cathy and Timothy and guided them up to our eyrie on the hill. We had a nice lunch which Morgan presented beautifully as he always does. He’s an artist in so many things. Our guests had to drive back down and all the way to Shannon since they flew out the next day. We said goodbye and grabbed naps.

We were told by the musicians at The Roadside there was to be a session in Kinvarra so we headed over there in the evening. We didn’t know what pub it was in so we drove there, parked and scouted  until we found it at Connolly’s We saw a poster on the wall stating that Dermot Byrne and Floriane Blancke were at this place every Monday. As soon as we saw the name we knew who they were. Dermot is a great box player, he toured with Altan when they played in Spokane back in 1996 and has been an active musician for decades.

Florianne is a marvelous harpist and Don and I have played the CD they put out together on our radio show. The two of them together make very lovely music. By the time we got there the session was packed. Once again we were a bit late and didn’t feel like crowding in. A little more intimate session is what we crave, and as Morgan states, once you get a certain size it seems like it becomes about proving you can play the tunes and keep pace. They took a break and when we had a chance we said hello to Dermot and in the conversation it understood we were players. He said that we should grab our instruments that “it would calm down a little later” but we demurred. Morgan mentioned to him that he could play about half the tunes they played and Dermot with a moments hesitation said “well, why don’t you just play over the second half” Irish wit, man their fast.