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.