Wednedsday, June 5

Jackie Small and Brian Duffy, The Porter House, Westport, Mayo

On our drive up to Mayo we made a stop at Poll na brón an ancient megalithic site back in The Burren. It dates back at least 5,000 years and is a protected national monument. The entire site lies on limestone known as karst. It feels lonely, rather bleak and beautiful.

We made our way to Clarinbridge to visit Tom and Fintan Cussen. They make banjos under the name Clareen and are justifiably famous for their work. When my wife/partner and best friend Ally and I visited her brother in England back in 2016 we visited Ireland for a week. Tom kindly loaned me a guitar to play while there and has offered to do so again. It had been nearly 8 years since we last saw one another but it didn’t feel like it. Tom told us that their number of banjos sold have gone up steadily and half their sales are in the USA. Tom more or less retired at 72 and Fintan runs the business now. Tom admitted that Fintan has better business acumen than he and also has more exacting standards. “Where I would have let some little things slide in building a banjo Fintan won’t.” Those little things had to have been very small because I’ve never noticed what I’d consider flaws in any of the instruments I’d inspected. It was great to catch up with Tom and Fintan and Tom told us he really wanted to spend some time with us and play some tunes. We’ve arranged to meet back in Clarinbridge Monday evening.

We stopped at Paddy Burke’s in Clarinbridge for lunch. While looking at my messages I saw one from Padraig McKenna, one of our good friends in Westport. He told us that there’s an early session at The Porter House, led by Jackie Small and Brian Duffy. Jackie is one of our favorite people, a kinder soul you’ll never meet and as a musician he’s forgotten more music than we’ll ever learn. He was music archivist at ITMA, Irish Traditional Music Archives, is now retired and can be found in the Mayo area at sessions and festivals. He’s been an active part of the Irish Music scene since the 1960’s.

I texted Padraig and told him he’d brightened up our day with that news and we’d see him there at 6:30. We drove straight to Westport found the beautiful house we’re renting and had 45 minutes to get our stuff out of the car, grab a cup of tea and get to the session. Down the hill into Westport we go, find a place to park and into The Porter House where we find Jackie, Brian, Jim and a fellow who’s name I didn’t get. They’re taking a break so we find some stools, get instruments out and settle in. It’s pretty noisy in the pub. It looks like a lot of tourists and a few locals. I say tourists because they’re talking through the songs. Most people who grew up doing this know you don’t talk through the songs. You can talk through the diddly aye (music) but not the songs, that’s considered poor etiquette, but if you don’t know better……..well you don’t know what you don’t know. About a half hour in I look and see Padraig and his wife Els. It’s great to see them. He gets out a mandolin and banjo and soon he’s rolling with the rest of us.

We spend about two hours playing tunes, Jackie leaning across the table and signaling when he wants Morgan to start a tune, or add another. He asks me for a song. He winks and smiles and is disarmingly his gentle self. Padraig starts some sets on banjo. With Jackie everyone gets to start. After a good set and we break, he puckers his lips and hoots his delight. Jackie knows how to enjoy himself and share it with the rest of us. Jim sings a beautiful song in Gaelic that he learned from Mícháel O’ Domhnaill. Mícháel was a beautiful singer and guitarist who played with sisters Triona and Maighread in Skara Brae, his sister Triona in the Bothy Band, with Mick Hanly he released Celtic Folkweave, considered one of the seminal albums of the Irish folk revival. He also performed as a duo with Kevin Burke from Bothy Band. He had an ethereal quality to his voice and his guitar playing was sublime. Jim handled the song well. The session broke up around 8:30 and we had a dinner date with the rest of the family. Amy is 30 years old, so this is a big one! Jackie sets up a tea date for tomorrow. We agree to meet at The Wyatt Hotel at 5:00 Thursday. We’re looking forward to some quality time with Jackie.

After dinner we strolled over to Matt Malloy’s to check out a session that Padraig told us about. Padraig is there and signals me to come in. It’s noisy, there’s a fair number of musicians crammed into the corner and it’s not what I’m looking for. Morgan checks it out as does James and we’re in agreement that we’d rather go home. Here’s the thing, sessions like this are tough. For me I get overwhelmed with the sheer level of background noise, everyone talking loudly. Add then the music, the talking gets louder, it’s harder to hear the other musicians, I don’t find it at all pleasurable. There was a time, back in our earlier trips I would have thrown myself into a session like this like a punk fan into a mosh pit! I loved it and wanted the experience, give it to me, pour it on and rub it in, I couldn’t get enough. That’s changed. Our favorite sessions so far have been the kitchen session with Hannah Collins, our meet up with Macdara, Victoria, Conor and Masato in Cork. The small session at Eugene’s with Christy and Christy’s session at Cliffs of Moher Hotel. All of those were a delight. They were relaxed, you can focus on what you’re hearing and respond. I can still push myself into a big session, I can grab my guitar and play as loud as the rest of them, make myself be heard, but to paraphrase Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit”!

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