May 29

Foley’s Bar Inch, Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry

May 29

I’m going to sum up the last three days. We’ve been very busy taking Peg to some of our favorite spots along the Dingle peninsula and in Dingle Town. This part of the trip is and has been the least session centric part of the trip, we simply love the area, if we get a chance to play with some local players that’s great, but if not we’re not bothered by it. The weather held the entire time, we got sun and heat, the locals shaking their heads at this marvel of nature. The temperature held in the high 70’s F. unlike any other trip to Ireland we’ve taken. We drove out to the end of the Dingle peninsula to Blasket Center and gazed across at the Islands. The Blasket islanders were a hardy group of less than 200 people. It was never an easy life and they got what they could from the sea and what they could wrest from the land. Irish gaelic had been systematically eradicated by the British. It was an act of defiance to speak it, punishable with prison. Due to their isolation, the people of Blasket spoke the pure Irish language. When linguists learned of this they went and studied with the Blasket people, cataloged the language and thankfully it was saved. Before the Uprising it was taught in secret and after the Free State was established taught openly. You can hear it spoken all over Ireland now. The problem for the people of Blasket was that contact with the mainlanders and immigration to America slowly depopulated the Islands. The children saw the possibilities of an easier and less isolated life so life on the Islands became more untenable. In 1953 the last of the Blasket people were moved to the mainland and a unique culture and way of life ended. We explored different sections of the Dingle area, drove up over the Conor pass, which is an incredible sight, dipped our toes in the sea, had a great picnic next to a little inlet and went into Dingle and heard Eoin Duignan and Tommy O’Sullivan play, in other words we allowed ourselves to be tourists.

May 28

Tunes with Katie Foley, Foley’s Bar, Inch, Dingle, Co. Kerry

On Monday we were getting ready to go into Dingle and Katie requested that if we could there was a tour bus stopping for lunch and would we mind playing some tunes while they were waiting for their lunch to be served? The Foley’s treat us like good friends and when we can return the kindness we do. We said of course we would, so we went to the back dining room, set up and waited. As the people came in we started up some tunes with Katie playing box with us. I think the people from the bus actually thought we were Irish at first, but we let them know we were visitors just like them. They enjoyed the tunes though. We later saw some of them when we were wandering about Dingle Town and they told us how much they enjoyed our playing for them. We caught up as best we could with John and Fidelis, but they had two tour buses stopping in as well as a gathering for a local funeral, so we headed into Dingle Town and had dinner there. Tuesday we finally had a chance to spend some time with John and Fidelis. They’d had only a few hours sleep on Monday. They flew into Dublin from Mallorca and arrived in Inch sometime around 5:00am and had to hit the ground running. They were originally supposed to get back Saturday which would have been much easier, but they got through it all and finally got a good nights sleep. Through hard work they’ve made a really good life for their family. John’s family has had the pub for five generations, John being the fifth. The old cottage across the road that John is restoring belonged to the family and was the original pub in the 19th century. The paved road that cars and lorries run up and down now was a dirt track then. So much personal history. Fidelis took us for a short walk up the road yesterday and showed us a holiday home they invested in so they could rent it it to families or larger parties who want more space. All in all they’ve created a really good life for themselves and their children.

We bid goodbye to Fidelis and John on Thursday morning, hoping we’re all alive in two years to see one another again, and off to Clare!

May 30

James, Morgan, Christy & Terry Roadside Pub, Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare

May 30

We left Inch, Dingle late morning heading north to Clare to our rental home above Fanore. We’d rented the same home on our last trip in 2016. It’s in an area known as the Burren, huge outcrops of limestone with scrubby growth of shrubs and grasses. The home in Fanore sits high up on a shoulder with a commanding view of the sea, the Aran Islands to the near South and the village of Fanore tucked into the landscape to the North. We drove down to Ennistimon where they have a good size market to buy groceries for the week. We rent homes so we have our own space and also so we can cook meals. Eating out is fine and fun, but it gets expensive as all of you well know and we like our own cooking. On the way back to Fanore we stopped by the Roadside Pub, where we’d had a lot of fun in 2016, to see if there was a session. I jumped in while the others waited in the car and asked if there was something scheduled. The young woman I asked said there was at 9:00. I asked who might be leading it and a young man said Christy Barry and Terry Bingham. To be certain I asked if it was an open session and was assured we’d be welcomed. Some sessions aren’t wide open, sometimes they’re invitational, there’s an etiquette involved. I excitedly ran out with the info and told the others. Christy Barry, amongst Irish tune hounds, is famous. We play a couple of his jigs in our sets and have for years. It turns out we’d met Terry in 2016, he’s a very fine box player.

It also turns out that a good friend of ours, Dave Lewicki has been in Ireland since mid April. James and I met him through Morgan at Irish Tunes Camp over at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. He does the kind of technical work where he can work remotely, so he’s been in Ireland for over 6 weeks finding sessions, meeting many fine musicians and studying with some as well. Dave’s a good player and listener and to play this music well you have to know how to listen. Good music is a conversation, that’s where the joy and fun is! Dave was meeting us at our place and as we turn in to go up the hill Dave’s in front of us. Perfect timing. We got home with all our groceries and sundries, made dinner, had good conversation and got ready and headed into Lisdoonvarna and The Roadside Pub. We arrived at 9:00, Christy was out front and we recognized Terry. They welcomed us and we sat down for some musical conversation. There’re some sessions where the tunes are fast and furious and some where they’re unfamiliar and you have to let the tune go around once or twice to catch its shape before joining in. Christy being the gracious host asked Morgan to start, but Morgan demurred and Christy and Terry started a tune we all knew. The ice broken the tunes flowed and a fun evening followed. It’s tourist season, so the Pub was full of listeners, some from France others from the USA, a few locals. Two women sitting next to me were from Pennsylvania and they really enjoyed the tunes. They remarked that it sounded as if everyone playing had played together before. They were amazed we could sit down and play like that. That’s what it’s all about. Christy at one point got his whistle out and remarked how much he didn’t like it. It looked like a plastic Susato to me, but James handed Christy his Sindt whistle. It’s a lovely thing, a sterling silver body and brass head joint. Christy gave it a little tweet and launched into the jigs we knew and have in our repertoire as well as some other tunes. He sounded great and so did the whistle. At the end of the set he looked at James and said “that’s a fine whistle, I love it. Don’t go leavin’ it here, we won’t be postin’ it on”. At one point Christy went out for a break and we got into a conversation with Terry about young players, tunes, style and other things. Terry isn’t that old probably 50’s and he prefers the older approach to the tunes and the playing. He’s not that enamored of the schools like University of Limerick that teaches traditional music. He say’s and not unfairly that they’re technically brilliant but they all sound the same. Back in the day you’d pick up the instrument you were attracted to and teach yourself. You’d learn from others as you could but you developed your own techniques and style, and truth to tell a lot of the old recordings we’ve listened to for reference bear this out. Patsy Twohey and Seamus Ennis, Joe Cooley and Micho Russell and so many others, they all have their idiosyncratic styles. I asked him when he started box and concertina and he told me when he was ten. He’s one of the least physically active players I’ve ever played with. His economy of motion is miraculous. I kid you not, he doesn’t look like he’s doing anything, his fingers barely lift from the buttons and yet all this music is flowing out. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and he’s so relaxed you’d think he was semi-dozing, but he’s totally aware of the music around him. As the evening wound down Christy asked us to play with him at Donohue’s in Fanore at 7:00 and then follow him to the Roadside in Lisdoonvarna at 9:00. Friday is taken care of and we’ll see what happens after that.

June 4,

Christy Barry and Colin Nea with a bunch of Yanks, O’Doherty’s Pub, Fanore, Co. Clare

After the night of fun and frolics at the Riverside Pub in Lisdoonvarna, we woke up to a cloudy day. Peg is leaving for Spokane on Monday and we really wanted her to meet our good friends Tommy, Maura and Martina Neilan. Peg had heard the stories over the years about the Neilan’s and how important to us they’d become, they are our last stay here at the end of this years adventures, but we wanted Peg to meet them. Also the last trip Martina let me keep my big guitar flight case at their place so we didn’t have to drag it all over Ireland. I’d emailed Martina to ask if that would be OK this time and to tell her we’d like to come by for a visit and she responded saying she’d be happy to see us and it’d be fine to drop the case off. Down to Gort we drove, taking some of the smaller roads across the Burren. One of the delightful things about Ireland is how close things are. When you’re in West Clare and think about visiting friends in East Galway the tendency is to think it will be quite a drive and hours away, but it isn’t. To get to the Neilan’s from Fanore is just about an hour of driving on small roads, passing through beautiful country. We made a stop in Kilfenora to visit an old ruined Abbey that had been partially restored. It had some lovely stone crosses that were preserved within it and on the grounds.

Just as we arrived at the Neilan’s, pulling into the lane that leads to their farm, we saw their car coming towards us. We hailed them and there was Maura and Tommy. We were all glad to see one another and Tommy told us to go to the farm, that Martina was there and they’d be back in a half hour. We got back in the car and drove into the farm. James called for Martina but didn’t raise her, as he went around to the front of the house he told me he was sure she was in there and for me to give it a try. I stepped in towards the kitchen and yelled for Martina, she answered asking “who is it?” I responded “Rick” and she came out and gave me a hug, really pleased that we’d come by. We introduced Peg to her and greetings were made all around and before we knew it we were seated at the table and Martina was bustling in the parlor and kitchen, and against our protests, laying out a high tea for us. Tea, scones and jam, toasted sandwiches, digestive biscuits, and lots of conversation. I sensed that Martina was happy for the company. Tommy’s 85 and it’s only been in the last few years that he and Maura have started having health issues. Martina used to work in a school nearby, I don’t remember if it was teaching or administrative work but she’s had to give that up to take over the responsibility of running the farm. Tommy can’t keep up with it and Maura’s slowed down as well. Martina and her brother who has his own small farm east across the fields from theirs, now maintain the family farm. Martina’s added a nice large shed for the tractor with a workshop and storage for firewood. She’s cleaned and tidied the farm up, cut down some old dying trees, cleared brush and her brother strung. new fence all down the lane. It looks really good for all their efforts. Martina told us that they were down to 20 cows and not that many sheep. It had been a hard Winter with 3 months of rain until it turned to snow. It sounded like there was a good 2′ of snow on the ground and drifts far deeper. They lost a lamb and one adult sheep that they didn’t find until the snow melted. Besides that they all had a nasty virus, so they were grateful for the recent turn of weather. Soon Tommy and Maura were back and we were busy catching up. Tommy is always great craic, he’s a charming man and a great one for the jokes. My wife Ally fell in love with him when we were over in October 2016. We are so grateful for their affection and friendship that seeing them is always a high point of our trips. Tommy was spinning tales and jokes, showing us pictures of his mother and father when they were young, he in his Garda uniform when he lived in Dublin for 5 years, he said he left Dublin and the Garda because “they couldn’t understand my accent and I couldn’t understand theirs.” There’s another photo of his old Irish draft horse with him behind the plow and many others. Maura always has a look of bemusement when Tommy spins his stories, they’ve shared so much over the years and she seems content to listen with an occasional comment here and there, sometimes a wry aside taking the mickey out of Tommy. We visited for nearly 2 hours and reluctantly took our leave. We told them we had a session with Christy Barry whom Tommy knows, he knows so many Clare and Galway musicians, being one himself. The only thing that made the parting tolerable was knowing we’d see them in 2 weeks.

We drove hastily back and realized we’d not have time to make a meal at home and get to the session on time so we stopped at a great little restaurant in Ennistimon, then home with just enough time to grab our instruments and head down the hill to Fanore and O’Donohue’s. We arrived close to 7: 15 and Dave Lewicki was there waiting and Christy had yet to arrive. Dave said he saw a box case inside so figured Colin Nea was there already. This being Ireland time is a bit loose, so we actually didn’t need to worry about being exactly on time but old habits die slowly. Christy shows up about 20 min. later and we have a few words and jokes, he’s a very charming fellow and we follow him in, pints in hand. He’s got a great head of curly grey hair and piercing blue eyes. Christy has told us that Colin is a great box player and that he plays a nice easy style, not too fast and not too slow, so we’re looking forward to playing with him. The older original pub section of the building is jammed and we’re wondering where we’re going to fit! Christy leads us around to a newer restaurant section where there’s a small stage. Christy had said outside that there was a stage that was just a little bump up that could fit 20 people and still have room to dance, he must mean dancing in the restaurant because the six of us barely fit it. It’s certainly not feeling like a session. An important Hurling match is on so everyone is glued to the big screens, we’re certainly not the focus of attention, which we weren’t expecting. Generally the musicians are there for themselves and one another but there are environments conducive to that and some that aren’t. We’re learning that Christy has the gift of, shall I say, elaboration? It’s a skill that’s highly appreciated in Ireland. I’ve heard it said “never let the truth get in the way of a good story!” A “character” is prized in this country. “Oh Paddy who just lived over in Kilshanny, now he was a real character, he’d bring his pig with him when he’d come to visit!” Ireland allows for all sorts, which doesn’t mean you won’t be talked about and stories told at your expense. It’s best not to be too prideful. So Christy introduces us to Colin, a big man with a large appetite for pints of Guiness. Christy tells us he can down the pints and then proceed to crank out the tunes and in this he wasn’t elaborating. We launch into the first tune and it’s run, run, run and grab hold of the moving freight train. Colin has one tempo, presto and one volume, forte’. Christy was definitely elaborating on this part of the man, who is a fine player, note perfect and highly ornamented and hard to keep up with. A couple of amusing moments was when Colin had some business on his phone, so off he goes and Christy got up saying “Rick, give em’ a song, I’ll just stand over here and listen, this is a good room and I want ta’ hear how you carry”, and after listening a moment scurries off for quite awhile as the four American lads are holding down the fort. We played a couple of sets and Colin and Christy drift back in, this happened several times. We don’t mind. Hell, if you can get a break, lean on the visiting lads who hunger for the tunes and have the music keep going, why not? Colin comes back after a break and says we’re going over into the Pub, there’s a spot opened up for us. This feels more familiar, a dark little room, jammed to capacity, crammed into a corner around the table, making sure my guitar head isn’t hitting the drinker next to me. We play a set and suddenly I’m really hot. I strip off down to my T-shirt and climb aboard the Christy & Colin express. Around 10:30 we’re all tired and hot and ready to find a quieter session. We drive up the hill and drop Peg off, she’s not used to this kind of madness and is ready for some quiet space.

We take our leave and head down the road to Lisdoonvarna and the Roadside to see how the session is going down there. James is looking in the window and see’s Dave who got there before us and grabbed a stool. Terry Bingham is there with Paul the fiddler and Frenchman Stephan the fluter and it’s a madhouse, the crush of people and their voices come out of the door like an explosion, not a chance of wedging our way in. So much for a quieter session. I look around the corner and Terry sees me, beckons me to come round’ but I just can’t get motivated to push through all the drunk and shouting tourists, it’s just too much for my nerves. Dave texts me to say the crowd is going back to their tourist bus in 5 min. and we should stay, but even after their departure we can’t quite handle the crowded space and go home. We agree that we love this warmer weather, but honestly we prefer to be here earlier in the season and not have to share Ireland with so many other tourists. If James’ schedule allows in the next trip we’ll return in early April like we have in the past. Everything’s so much quieter and easier to negotiate. And so ends the day.

June 5, Yesterday’s Adventures and Last Night’s Fun, Part 1


Morgan Walking On The Moon without a space suit

Yesterday Morgan had to drive Peg down to Shannon for her flight back home. James and I are sorry to see her go, she was a great traveling companion, took to Ireland like a duck to water and fit right in to our traveling ways. Now that she’s experienced it Morgan will likely find it easier to entice her over again. Safe journey Peg, Wishing you the best, Ádh mór agus gach dea-ghuí.

I was busy typing up the previous day’s experiences and James was falling asleep reading a book when Morgan returned. After about an hour he asked us if we felt like going out on a walk. We needed some energizing and thought that sounded good. There’s an area of The Burren north of us that nearly defies description. The entire Burren is a thick crust of ancient limestone. It dominates this whole section of the coast and is quite dramatic, full of broken sections, stacked walls, huge boulders with little gullies carving through it here and there. There are small shrubs and grassy sections hanging onto a thin topsoil, yet there’s one area to the North that we can see from here that looks as if it has snow or frost on it. In this large area the topsoil has been stripped away, the rock laid barren and forbidding and it has an otherworldly quality. High up on the top of a vast field of broken and fractured limestone sits the remains of an old ring fort. It’s been dated to around 500 B.C. At that time the soil was intact and it supported a small population. Where the soil went and how it disappeared I do not know, but walking across the landscape now it’s hard to imagine how it could have ever been any different.

We drove up to the trail head following directions that Dave Lewicki gave to Morgan, down a little lane, up an even smaller one to where it dead ended next to a farm house. The day was getting warm, the fog beginning to burn off and I realized I wore pants that were too heavy for the walk. Oh well, there’s nothing for it but to keep going. Over a stone stile and on to a grassy path that appears to be heading toward the base of a large hill that looks frosty. As we get closer and the stacked walls closer we are gazing at what I could easily mistake for a Moonscape. It’s the same color as a full moon, dirty bone white and utterly inhospitable. It’s forbidding yet strangely attractive. We followed a wall to a spot where we could hop it and headed up hill. This fractured landscape that Dante could have used in one of his levels of Hell is criss-crossed with long chest high walls of limestone. I’ll post photos of them in the website gallery so you can see how they’re constructed. The three of us can only guess as to their purpose. We doubt that they’re as old as the ring fort, some research is in order, but why they’re here and what they’re protecting is anyone’s guess. If there were grassy fields with livestock grazing within them that would make sense, but they’re only walling off fields of fractured rock that only mountain goats can cross easily. There’s areas of scat we can see but it’s not cow pies, it looks more like goat or sheep, but again we don’t see any animals in evidence. We cross some small areas of grass and gorse with pretty little wild flowers, but it’s few and far between, certainly not enough to support any livestock.

My cotton canvas pants are feeling like they’re heavy wool so I roll up the pant legs to my knees in an attempt at some ventilation. The sun is beating down on us as we continue up, crossing a perpendicular wall, hopping on larger rocks while avoiding sections of scree and ankle breaking crevices. I’m walking with as much intention as I can muster, visualizing a broken ankle or leg to keep me focused so I won’t end up with one. We stop to catch our breath and sip some water as we get swallowed up into this bizarre landscape, little human creatures inserting themselves into this maze of rock and rubble. We slowly make our way up and just as it seems that we’ll never find the top and the ring fort, there on the other side of yet another wall, it is. It’s actually rather impressive, some good sized sections of it still intact with a commanding view of Galway Bay to the North and North East and the Clare coast and Fanore to the South with a huge wall of limestone to the direct East. The people that put this together had to be tough. Morgan says that he’d heard that what modern man is calling a fort was actually a place that livestock could be collected and guarded. Clans would raid one another’s stock. Even humans with bow and arrows and imagining the “fort” intact it doesn’t impress me as the remains of a true fortress. We scurried around the perimeter of it and climbed a rock field above it for a different view, running into tiny pockets of vegetation and wild flowers in this wasteland, a seeming miracle in such a place. After a bit of time we headed back down the mountain, picking a diagonal through a fractured landscape we didn’t cross coming up that was even more forbidding. There were limestone flakes sticking out presenting edges that could easily slice you open if you were careless enough to fall on one. We made it safely down to the path and made our way back to the car. We had seen these odd creatures that looked like a cross between a goat a sheep and or alpaca. It was pure white freshly sheared of its wool, had more massive shoulders and thick powerful front legs and had ears that can only be described as rabbit like. We joked that there must be some gigantic hares in the Burren that were breeding with sheep. We’ve described them to some local people but no one has been able to enlighten us. We kept going down the path and saw our car, grateful for the experience and happy to be back down.

June 6, Yesterday’s Adventures and Last Night’s Fun, Part 2


Seamus Hynes (left) Paul Dooley (right)

After our Burren adventure we got back to home base and cleaned up. Dave Lewicki had given us a list of possible sessions and we were mulling them over. In Ennis at Cruz’s Brid O’Gorman was leading a session that Dave warned would likely be crowded. She’s a fabulous player, but none of us were in the mood for crowds or long drives. Also in Liscannon there was supposed to be a session lead by fiddler Laura Ungar whom we’d heard playing in 2012 out on the Beara Peninsula at the Allihies Michael Dwyer Festival. She played there with Martin Quinn on box and John Rhynne on flute. She’d just graduated from the Limerick School back then and showed great promise. A session with her in Liscannon would be great but again Liscannon was a good long drive from here. Since we’d been lucky at the Roadside since first finding it in 2016 and having met Christy and Terry there this trip we thought we’d go there, catch up with mail, they have WiFi, and if we didn’t hear anything we liked we’d head to Ennistimon and see what was happening.

As we sat doing our mail and listening to some lovely modern music played by a French violist and a guitarist, sipping a pint, I heard the door open and spotted Paul Dooley coming in. I said hi to him, and of course he didn’t remember me, no surprise there. We’d met him at a session in 2016 at Cooley’s in Ennistimon. He’s a great player and seemed like a nice man, but we didn’t get to know him then. Seeing him walk in though promised something interesting so we stuck around. After about 15 min. James and I heard Paul playing with a flute player. I got up and moved toward the area where it was being played and saw Morgan standing at the end of the bar with a smile on his face. The music sounded great. They played a couple of sets and Morgan and I walked over to them. Morgan introduced us and said “would you mind a few Yanks joining you if we promise to play only what we know and not feck up the rest!” Paul laughed and said “get in here.” We got our instruments out of the car and made our way in, sat down and tuned up. I reminded Paul that we’d met him 2 years previously at the session that he and Adam were leading at Cooley’s in Ennistimon. Paul introduced us to Seamus Hynes on flute. I recognized Seamus but couldn’t recall where we’d met before. Paul began to remember our previous meeting and it felt like a connection was forming, when we started playing tunes with them it all fell into place. There’s times you get lucky and meet the right players and this was one of those occasions. Paul and Seamus are both brilliant players who were happy to share the space. They kept asking us to start tunes, for as Paul said, “we play the same shite all the time, it’s good to hear something new.” We kept saying we wanted to hear things we didn’t know, so a good balance was struck between things all of us knew and didn’t know. It’s always great ear training to have to catch something new on the fly, so rather than being intimidated you go with the flow. Paul said that it’s nice to have a little uncertainty in the tunes, so it’s not formulaic. There were tourists coming and going and a few who stuck around to listen. One couple from Los Angeles sat listening through the first 2 hours and were really into it. Billy Archibald the publican came over and told Morgan that there were three pints of stout on the bar for us and the gentleman from L.A. had gotten them for us out of appreciation. We turned to their table and thanked him and his wife. They told us how much they enjoyed hearing traditional Irish music. James told them we were tourists as well, but they said we played so well with Paul and Seamus that they hadn’t noticed, that it didn’t matter, it was a pleasure for them to be there. Another couple from Idaho were taking tons of photos and couldn’t believe we were from Spokane, WA. Paul and Morgan were talking fiddles and bows and swapped instruments and bows to try out. Paul liked Morgan’s bow (one Morgan made). Seamus who is a true lefty plays flute left handed and was telling us he has two brothers who are actually right handed play left handed because their father who is left handed like Seamus taught them. After we wound things up around midnight we chatted and it turns out that Paul makes harps, actual copies of early Irish wire strung harps, Morgan had told him I did lutherie work as well and that he was a bow maker. That opened a whole other door for connection since we spoke one another’s craft language as well. I told Paul I’d read that the sound boxes of the early harps were carved from Willow. He nodded yes and that he’d done so and that it was very uncooperative wood to carve, stringy and tough with interlocking grain but that it sounded glorious, like nothing else. That led to tool talk, this is how things go when luthier’s get together. Shop talk! Billy wanted to close up so we had to say goodnight to them both, I gave Paul one of my business cards and told him if he ever considered visiting he was a welcome guest. The five of us were happy for the meeting, Seamus in a very understated way said that it was a great evening.

A night like that is why we come to Ireland, to connect and share our joy of the music. After we got back to our house in Fanore we were all wound up and high from the playing. It took us over an hour to come down and get tired enough to go to bed. So ended another great day.

Northern Ireland

We left Dublin on Friday morning heading for Northern Ireland. James is the only one of us who has visited the North and that’s because his sister Euphon and her husband Steven and their friends Dave and Denise have homes in the North. He and Bridget went up for a few days on our 2016 visit. I didn’t know what to expect, had no idea what the country looked like, in other words I was wide open to being surprised. When we crossed the border there was no perceptible shift, no British troops in Humvee’s (or their British equivalent), no concertina wire demarcating “no man’s land”, we slipped over the border as if it wasn’t there, like crossing from one county to the next in the Republic. This border zone is sparking a lot of discussion throughout Ireland since the Brexit vote. No one in Ireland wants a hard border between its two parts and if it’s reinstated there are fears that it could become a flashpoint for more of “the troubles” of the 1960’s and 70’s. That aside what I was surprised by was the beauty of the land. We skirted around Belfast, another big city, which after Dublin we weren’t eager to enter. Honestly, Ireland is so filled with natural beauty that’s paved over in the cities. Beautiful country, every shade of green imaginable, pastoral settings versus pavement, man made canyons and the seedy melange of garbage and urine you’ll find in most major cities. For me it’s an easy choice. I know there are points of interest in places like Dublin and Belfast, places of great historical significance but still, being in a noisy, grinding man made environment like a city is often more than I can bear and Morgan feels similarly. We find ourselves tensing up both physically and mentally. If we have a specific reason to be in a city, be it business or pleasure that’s one thing, we can do it, but coming to Ireland for us is a chance to feel the land, the people and its natural rhythms. James and Jack can handle the city environment better and seem able to absorb all the input without being tossed around by it. I actually envy their ability to find the beauty in it.

We kept moving North and the land got more and more beautiful. Rolling hills, acres of deciduous trees, and as we headed back out towards the coast, gorgeous ocean with dramatic views. We looked North East across the water and could see a little section of Scotland in the distance. We rolled into Cushendall around 2:00pm, a rather lovely village and apparently part of the chain of small towns and villages that form a good deal of North Ireland’s summer vacation destinations. James’ kids are all meeting us here for three days and then off they go back to their respective lives. James rented a place for them in Cushendall and we have our place further North which we’d yet to see. James got the keys to the kids’ place and called Carmel who has the place we were renting up the Glendun, above Cushenden. Her partner Sean drove down to guide us up the road and along a small, and I mean small even by Irish standards, boreen (lane) to the second house they have on their farm and which they rent. It overlooks the Glen across to the hill opposite where you can see the pre-famine potato drills (the rows that were plowed for potato plantings) that can still be read beneath the grass that has covered them 170 years after they were abandoned. Even though the famine is long over, the Irish diaspora absorbed into the New World and other places in the old one, and the Irish have proven their resilience and brilliance so many times over since those dark days, you can still feel the sorrow in this beautiful, green land. It’s in the landscape and the music, art, poetry and song. Memories like that run through a culture like the cord that holds a strand of pearls. You don’t necessarily see it but you know it’s there.

Our hosts, Sean and his wife Carmel showed us around the place. It so happens that the farm is in Carmel’s family and she and her sister grew up in the home we’re renting. James’ family has arrived and his sister, brother in law and Dave and Denise want to see us. We hear there’s a Trad session up in Ballycastle, which is about 30 min. North. James has driven down to Cushendall just South of us to hook up with his kids, Ceilan, Zeke and Fionn. Soon we hear the cars coming up the drive and there they are. Ceilan has arrived with her partner Harry. They’ve been living in Edinburgh, Scotland soon moving to Leeds, Yorkshire. Zeke’s flown over from, Nantes, Brittany and Fionn flew over from New Orleans. James is very excited to be with his children. We heard about a session happening in Cushendall at J. O’Connors Pub and it sounded good but opted for one we’d heard about north of us in Ballycastle. Much of the reasoning for that was that it was halfway between where we were and Port Stewart so Dave, Denise, Euphon and Steven wouldn’t have to drive so far. When we arrive we step into this gloriously old Pub, full of beams, dark wood paneling and an enormous polished bar. It dates back to the mid 18th century. We hear some tunes coming from somewhere in the pub and as we head toward a back room for seats, pass a small room to our left in which are seated three musicians. Two fiddles and a flute. We settle in listening to the tunes and they sound good. I’m visiting with everyone and Morgan has gone to investigate the music. He comes back a few minutes later to report that they’re happy for us to join them. I grab my guitar and follow Morgan. The room is tiny and they happily slide over to give us a seat. I grab a stool and position myself so I can play without poking anyone with the head of my guitar. The room we’re in used to be the Snug. All the old pubs had one or more of them. The women used to be relegated to them as they were barred from drinking at the bar or tables with the men. So the women got their own space in which they could visit and in which I suspect they commented on the sometimes absurd behaviors of their husbands. We introduced ourselves to Ciaran Kelly, violin and box, Dick Glasgow, fiddle and Daithi Connaughton, flute. Good natured fellows, and as it turned out excellent players. They were remarkably open and non-judgmental and we were able to find our blend pretty quickly. Ciaran put his fiddle down and pulled his box from under the small table that held our pints. He started a set and it became very apparent that he was a very fine player and that box was really his main instrument. We also began to take note of Dick’s fiddle playing. He looks like an old time player, really attacks it, but he is actually very refined and his use of bow ornaments is excellent. Daithi really leans into his flute, attacks it but flows through the tunes. It slowly dawned on us that these fellows weren’t just country amateurs they were very capable, knowledgeable players. Soon Dick and Ciaran started in on Kerry polkas and slides. I had to sit back and admire them on several sets because I was unfamiliar with most of the tunes and some were pretty tricky. Not something I was going to fake an accompaniment on, and anyway it’s nice to hear the tune as it’s delivered, not mucking it up with a poor attempt to join in.

We played until closing time and well past. In Ireland the Pub will close the doors, draw the curtains (in one’s that have them) and if your inside the publican will let you keep going. If it’s friends visiting or musician’s playing your welcome to stay and finish up. Ciaran told us we were 23 minutes past closing but we’d keep going. He and Dick pulled out some killer tunes, real show stoppers that were a delight to hear. Then the young man who’d been tending bar came in with a short glass of stout and joked that we could keep going while it settled. I wrote this poem back in 2014, describing the settling ritual.

Table top like a mirror, polished with generations of sleeves and pints
Glowing with a welcome, burnished by stories, secrets, jokes and lies.
I watch the pint settle with a patience learned and take the coin
Between thumb and first finger and gently tap the glass.
There’s an art to it you see, the pleasure’s in the waiting,
The anticipation and the banter. It tastes so much better
When the laughs have reached a pause and the dark pints reverently lifted.

The young man was pleased to be able to sit down for the first time all night and listen to the music. The evening ended with a few more tunes, contact information exchanged and a feeling that good things had occurred.

Northern Ireland Part 2

The area of the North that we’re in is the Glen’s of Antrim. It’s an achingly beautiful region, each glen has a unique character, all lovely. We also are piecing together that this area is a heavily Catholic part of the North. What that means is if you’re used to Republican sentiments, i.e. believe that Ireland is one country, artificially divided and should be united then you’re in a comfort zone. There are very little overt displays of this, but if you’re looking you’ll find signs of it. In Cushendall James found two placards on the side of a building to the memory of Civilians Murdered By British Crown Forces in 1922.
Next to it is a placard In Memory Of Those Who Died On Hunger Strike In The H-Blocks of Long Kesh 1981. There are 10 names the oldest being 30 the youngest 23. Below that… And Their Comrades Who Died While On Hunger Strike In English Gaols, 2 names, one aged 34 the other 24. There’s a quote at the very bottom, “Our Revenge Will be The Laughter of Our Children” attributed to Bobby Sands who was one of those who starved to death. Speaking for myself my sympathies are always for those oppressed by any colonialist power, any bully be it an individual or a nation that believes it has the right to decide for others what choices they have in their own home and land deserves to be bloodied.

We made it known to our hosts that we were looking for a session and Sean told us that there was music at J. O’Connors Friday-Sunday which was the same thing we’d heard from a fellow washing windows in front of said pub the day before. We told Sean and Carmel that we would take our instruments and head down there. We stopped at the new Fish & Chips shop and ordered dinner. James and his family were meeting in Bushmills for a family dinner, so it was Morgan, Jack and I. The Chippy was crowded with customers, the staff were bravely cooking fish and chips, it was a long wait but worth it. When we arrived at J. O’Connors there was no session to be had. We stuck around hoping some other musicians would show, but no go. The fellow behind the bar opened a back room for us to play some tunes (Morgan appealed to him) and we saw Sean, Carmel and her sister and their friends Philip and his wife. They followed us into this nice space and so did this very noisy party of people from Belfast. We played two sets and disgustedly put our instruments away. Morgan and I were touching knees and Jack was nearly that close and I could barely hear them. The Belfast crowd definitely found partying the priority and the music an inconvenience. We apologized to Sean and Carmel, we could sense their disappointment, and told them we were going back to their place, and our rental, and they were welcome to join us. Morgan put a CD on their table and said “if you want to hear what we sound like you can listen to this.” So, back up the hill to Cushenden where we sat in the kitchen. There was a knock at the door and it was Sean and Carmel. We welcomed them in and they were soon followed by Carmel’s sister and husband as well as Philip and his wife. Soon we had a full on party going, a bottle and a half of whiskey was gone, the beer everyone brought with them was disappearing and we were having a very merry time. This is what we love about Ireland, the spontaneity. James came in expecting to pick up a couple items only to be confronted with a roaring party. He tried to beg off, but we weren’t going to let that happen, soon Ceilan and Harry, Zeke and Fionn were in the kitchen, declaring that they weren”t in any hurry so James surrendered. Chairs were procured from other parts of the house and we were all crowded into the kitchen. Sean was begging to hear James’ pipes (the Uillean variety) and soon we were playing tunes and singing songs. We’d managed to have a session after all! Our new friends were welcoming and made us feel easy and at home, Irish hospitality is second to none.

Northern Ireland Part 3

We took a day to follow James and Ceilan, Harry, Zeke and Fionn up to Port Stewart which is close by the Giant’s Causeway and other wonders. It’s pretty close to the very Northern tip of Ireland, with only a part of Scotland, the North Atlantic and Iceland above it. We met Dave, Denise, Euphan and Stephen in Port Stewart, went for a walk along the nice strand of beach they have and had a great lunch. On request we played some tunes which they loved and then headed out on a sight seeing jaunt. We stopped at Dunluce castle which was originally built in the 13th century by Richard Og de Burgh then acquired by the McQuillan’s in the early 1500’s who lost it to the MacDonnell’s in the latter 1500’s. Their dream was for it to become a mercantile village in the early 1600’s which had some success but lacking a true harbor lost its status only to be destroyed in the rebellion of 1641. It’s a rather splendid ruin, partially restored and it certainly must have been a grand place, surrounded by a village that’s only been recently excavated. Then off to Giant’s Causeway, which was crowded with tourist’s, us among them but still a marvelous formation of columnar basalt.

We headed down to Cushendall grabbed a quick dinner and then to J. O’Connors pub to see about a session. When we arrive P.J. was behind the counter, a soft spoken man and a fine gentleman who poured us some fine pints of Guiness. We asked about a session and he didn’t seem to think there’d be anything, so we fell into an easy conversation. P.J. was born in New York and his entire family were from the Antrim region. They all returned when he was 17. I asked if he had any regrets and he said not really. New York in the 1970’s wasn’t all that nice. He had to adjust to the slower pace and more limited choices, but he’d met his wife here, raised a family and was happy. I really like him, he’s a gentle, soft spoken man who really considers his words. From him we learned about the local politics, the general knowledge that most in the Glen’s of Antrim region would be happy to have a unified Ireland, but he quietly told us you had to be careful about voicing such sentiments. What is clear is that no one, be they Protestant or Catholic wants a return to the troubled times of the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s. There was too much loss and heart ache on both sides and no winners, only losers.

Harry, Ceilan, Zeke and Fionn joined us and we adjourned to a nice glass covered courtyard that is very snug and warm and as we were talking lo and behold a session materialized. Morgan and I were the first into the tiny front parlor. An older gentleman on my left, Ciaran was on piano accordion and another fellow on my right on piano whose name is escaping me on my right. I was wedged between them, Morgan on a bench across from me, another young woman playing fiddle, a fluter, a blind whistle player all playing pretty well. James found himself wedged into a corner next to a window that got increasingly steamy! The pianist seemed to like my contribution, but what I was noticing was the rising temperature! I visualized myself as a thermometer and the mercury was about to explode through the top of my head. I stuck it out as long as I could and then got up, begged my leave and headed out to a place that was cooler. The covered patio was now filled with some new locals and the atmosphere was really to my liking. There was a small group at a corner table 4 women and one man, who were spontaneously singing songs, another group of mostly young men huddled at a small table in the opposite corner and we had taken over the long bench and tables on the other wall. Soon the man sitting with the women came over and asked about my guitar and how I tuned it, he introduces himself as Liam. I explain that it’s tuned in DADGAD and he tells me he’s been wanting to learn that tuning, so I give him a little demonstration. He asks if I can accompany him on Feelin’ Groovy, the Paul Simon song. I take a couple of moments to outline the chords and off we go. He’s got a great tenor voice, a truly stunning voice coming out of a rather burly looking guy. We get through the song and everyone erupts in applause. This is how it goes in an Irish Pub, unless you sit in a corner casting dark looks and muttering to yourself you’re not going to be left alone for long. If you’re a social creature like myself you’ll love it here. If you’re a wall flower you may find yourself squirming. Curiosity is not in short supply in Ireland. Soon Morgan and James and Jack come out for air, see the scene that’s created itself and join in. Songs are traded, tunes played. One of the young men sitting across from us asks if I will sing Peggy Gordon, everyone joins in. More tunes, dancing and banter. The craic is great! Fionn sings Swing Low, he’s got a gorgeous voice (he’s continuing his music studies in Operatic singing, and his Great Grandfather was Frederick Fuller). We find out after the fact that this great spiritual has been co-opted by English rugby fans, and here’s Fionn singing it in a Catholic part of North Ireland, oops! We’re educated by one of the men straight away and all is forgiven. A young man who’d been quiet all evening came up to talk with me, he’s from the area but has been living in Montana, he loved the evening. James, Morgan and I were very glad that Harry, Ceilan, Zeke and Fionn had gotten a taste of the spontaneity we’d been telling them about. As Harry said to me, “we thought you were making it up, but it’s really true!” They were all very pleased to have been part of the evening. We end up closing the Pub, it’s nearly 2:00am and everyone’s had a great time.