On our way back from Ireland Stephen asked me what my favorite thing was about the trip. I had to say that it was the pubs and music that impressed me most. I loved the atmosphere and life that radiates from those places. While they all seem similar and familiar, each is unique. If I could do one thing over, it would be to spend more time in the pubs listening to traditional music. Granted, we did quite a bit of that anyway.
This isn’t an in depth history of the pubs or the music – I was only there long enough to get a few impressions, and having spent time with an expert like P. J. Curtis, I’m almost embarrassed to broach the subject. However, I do have some impressions and experiences, and that’s what I’ll share.
First a word about architecture. Each pub seems to have unique characteristics. The architecture seems to be traditional, but colors and signage vary considerably. Most tend to be very colorful. Here are a few examples:
The pubs and bars are “licensed,” meaning that they can serve alcohol on premises. Liquor stores are called “off-license.” Sometimes the pub was part of a larger establishment, like a hotel, or B&B. The Rathbaun Hotel was a good example. Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Doolin and the Coachman House in Kenmare also match that pattern.
Food was always an iffy proposition with pubs, at least from our experience. The best food we had was in pubs…also the worst. Often we would wander into a pub in search of food, only to find out that they weren’t serving that particular day. Some of the these, like Eugene’s in Ennistimon, were quite interesting. Some, after close observation, were places that we decided that we DIDN’T want to order food from, regardless of whether or not they were serving.
Irish Stew always seemed to be on the menu, sometimes made with Guinness, sometimes not. I preferred the non-Guinness stews. Usually there was seafood chowder, and almost always there was fish and chips. Hamburger, steak, and one or two other dishes usually rounded out the menu. Fries (chips) were often served in a cup.
Some of the pubs actually had the name “restaurant” attached, and some that were called pubs kicked the cuisine up a notch.
Guinness, Guinness, and more Guinness.
Bushmill’s, High Commissioner, and other liqueurs peppered our evenings at our rental home, but when in the pubs we got Guinness. It was cold, reliable, and refreshing. There were other drinks available, but we tended to stick with what’s good.
I did managed to find a martini. I spotted Hendrix gin at Byrnes in Ennistimon, but the bartender seemed to be confused at my request. They figured it out, and I got a decent martini. Apart from one in an airport, it was the only martini of the trip.
There was one other beer on tap that we’d get if we wanted something a bit lighter. Some places had a lighter Irish red ale called Smithwick’s. This was often served with a Guinness cap, similar to a Black and Tan. However, you NEVER order a “Black and Tan” in Ireland, as this was the name of the ruthless British paramilitary force in the Irish War for Independence. The phrase “Black and Tan”, or simply “Tan” was often used as an Irish pejorative for the British.
Some of the more popular music pubs were mostly populated by tourists. Sometimes busloads of them would stop off at the music pubs in Doolin.
Some of the more out of the way places had interesting characters – locals, for sure.
Just about every quaint pub advertised traditional Irish music. Must be a law, similar to the one that says that everyone singer in bars in Florida has to sing a certain percentage of Jimmy Buffett songs. Not that I’m complaining – I love Irish music. I certainly prefer Irish Uilleann pipes to Scottish bagpipes. (Uillenn is pronounced like the name “Ellen.”)
Doolin advertises itself as a center of Irish music. The weekend that we were there they were holding a large national festival of music in town.
I started my musical journey the first night I was in Ireland at McGann’s Pub in Doolin. It was crowded, but we managed to find a small table. The woman who seated us, and later waited on us was Gwendolyn MacGowan, who would later be singing. Cynthia had met her on a previous trip.
We managed to move to a closer table. There we found out that another well-known Uilleann piper named Blackie O’Connell would be joining Gwendolyn. I mentioned both Gwendolyn and Blackie in my previous post. I found a video of Blackie on YouTube playing the pipes. It’s a tourism video, and he describes several of the locations that we visited on our trip.
The set up was what seemed to be typical for Doolin. There was no stage. The musicians set up in a corner. This particular night. Gwendolyn was on bodhrán, another musician was playing a bouzouki, and Blackie was on the pipes.
Twice we went to hear music at the bar in the Rathbaun Hotel in Lisdoonvarna. The first time we went, Stephen, Cynthia, and I were looking for food as well as music. As we were walking down the street to a different pub, the bar owner compelled us to come into his establishment. We were glad we did.
The band Ceolan was a group of young people, but they were quite talented. This evening they did a mix of songs, including one that the Russian tourists who were also there knew very well.
The second time all five of us went over to Lisdoonvarna. The name of the band was the same, but the line-up was slightly different. Our host at our rental house said that it’s hard for young musicians to break into the Doolin scene, so the surrounding towns are often used as training grounds. In this case there was a group that rotated their line-up each evening. They had to. The group played from eight until midnight without a break, and they did that seven days a week. They would have to figure out a way to give someone a night off.
Here’s a short sample of their playing, recorded the first evening with my iPad:
On our Ring of Kerry tour we had dinner at the Coachmans House in Kenmare. The musicians there were quite talented, especially the guy playing the button accordion. Here’s a sample of his work:
Our waitress even got up and sang a song entitled “Fifty Years Ago.”
Our last night in Ireland we went to Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Doolin. Cynthia had heard that Tara Howley was performing. She had heard her on a previous trip, and wanted to hear her again.
Tara is a beautiful young woman, and extremely talented. Her mother hovered nearby to make sure there were no inappropriate advances. She was also accompanied by a young man on the bouzouki and another on flutes and whistles. Tara sang, and played fiddle, concertina, Uillean pipes, and whistles.
Here’s a couple of samples of their music. Folks in the bar got into the jigs and reels, and began clapping along.
Here’s a video of Tara solo on the Uillean pipes.
And, of course, there was PJ Curtis with his extensive knowledge of Irish music. I was already familiar with much of the music. However, there was one type PJ told us about that was new to me. Sean-nós is an old style of solo, unaccompanied singing. It tells a story in Gaelic, similar to a ballad, but more like a lament.
One unusual feature of sean-nós is the practice of “hand-winding,” described as follows in a 1996 paper by Ciaron Carson:
In the “hand-winding” system of the Irish sean-nós, a sympathetic listener grasps the singer’s hand; or, indeed, the singer may initiate first contact, and reach out for a listener. The singer then might close his eyes, if they are open..and appear to go into a trance; or his eyes, if open, might focus on some remote corner of the room, as if his gaze could penetrate the fabric, and take him to some far-off, antique happening among the stars.
PJ said that the grasped hand was a way of grounding the singer to the real world, of bringing him back. He also said that this was a male-only practice.
One final note – not all pubs play traditional music. We did discover this gem in Killarney. We didn’t check it out, though. Who knows? Maybe they’ve developed some new death metal electrified bouzouki technique.
So, lots of great music, lots of great food, and lots of good beer. Sounds like an optimum combination to me. I made two resolutions for when I got back to the US. First, I’ve got to learn more songs, so that when someone asks me to sing something, I’ve got more of a repertoire than just classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs. Also, I decided I have to seek out more opportunities to hear live music, and not just choral concerts in which I am singing.