My husband Lee and I recently returned from a trip to Ireland. I have loved Celtic/Gaelic music for over a decade, and always wanted to go to Ireland to experience the country where this wonderful music originates. I finally got to make the trip, as I had a solo engagement at the World Music Centre at the University of Limerick. The whole trip was thrilling, and I admit that I am now an official (self-elected, no re-counts) Eire-ophile!

While there, what struck me most was how prevalent music is in the daily life of the Irish. From small children to the oldest of ages, everyone seems to be steeped in playing, singing, or dancing music. If they weren’t actually doing it, one could bet they had the ABILITY to do it, as they were brought up in it all. I found this amazing, as it is not so in our country. In fact, the only music we can collectively “do” in America is a few Christmas carols, and few people feel comfortable singing, let alone playing an instrument.

Our first lunch in Ireland was at some Pub on our way to Doolin. There were only a few people there, but right next to the fireplace was seated an old man playing harmonica and stomping his feet to the rhythm of the music he produced, laughing and telling hilarious stories between the tunes. It was all the more poignant for me in that this harmonica, as an instrument, was just terribly out of tune with itself. I say poignant, because it was mystical and funny at the same time—mystical to my soul, and funny to my ears. Every tune he played (some of which I knew) had this lowered 2nd and a lowered 7th to it, so there was really no way that any tune could sound completely “happy” with these slight flattenings in the instrument. What is more amazing, I am quite sure that NO ONE recognized these oddities of the instrument, most especially its owner.

At first, I was feeling very self-conscious about how demonstrative/uninhibited this harmonica man was. This self-consciousness is certainly culturally rooted, as I’ve been brought up to listen to music as “performance”, and there is such a formality to it all where there are the performers ‘here’, then some invisible chasm, followed by an audience ‘there’. I realized I wasn’t really used to hearing music in a context that came to seem more like a conversation we were all having. This is the essence of the Pub scene (Pub=Public House) —regular folks sitting around socializing, with music as the main “conversation”, attention, and way of belonging together. After having my first-ever pint of Guinness, the cultural self-consciousness seemed to magically disappear, and the sense of belonging was beginning to sink in.

Soon, another Irishman with a sunny countenance walked into the pub, clad in field overalls and heavy, dusty working boots. He sidled up to the pub counter and ordered his pint. Within minutes, someone was asking this man to play a tune. He hesitated, but then took up the old man’s harmonica and played a tune. Again, the same flattened scale appeared, and I suspect this man heard it, too. He gave back the harmonica and launched into an exquisite song. It gave me goose bumps to hear him sing–so perfectly, with all the embellishments, and straight from the soul–all the while smiling. I felt privileged to be there and to hear this music coming from ‘regular folks’.

We made our way to Doolin, and checked in to a B&B. Lee had read from the internet that there was a music gathering happening here over the weekend (this was now Monday), and we hoped that there might be some hold-overs in the Pub from that event. I can’t imagine how packed that pub must have been over the weekend, as it was completely packed when we went there. I was ecstatic to see that there was, indeed, a pub full of live musicians playing away. This time, it was an accordion player, several bodhran players, guitar, and an 89-year-old whistle player. Again, how mind-boggling to realize how prevalent is music in these people’s culture. How many 89-year-old whistle players would be playing in a pub in the US? (Most likely, they would be home watching TV.) Before this man would play, he would lick his finger and “grease” the whistle over the finger holes. This was definitely his habit, as he did it every time, before every tune. Perhaps I’m going to wait until I’m older to incorporate his technique on that one…

The accordion player (who was fantastic) would begin a tune, and soon all the others would join in. Everyone knew these tunes, and this went on and on, with everyone knowing every tune. At one point, the old Whistle Man was trying to teach the accordion player a tune. It was very tricky, due to some interesting odd-metered measures here and there (not purposely). What was most remarkable about this was the utmost respect that all the players showed this seasoned man. They gave him all the time he wanted, and regarded him as the top in a hierarchy. Though they never did figure out the tune, they went on to play others, and the whistle player played along.

As the evening played and drank on, Lee talked me into getting my flutes from the B&B. At some large lull in the sessions (I was very careful about this), I leaned over and talked to the bodhran-player about a certain rhythm he could play, and I played my whistle on an O’Carolan tune that I’m sure all those Irishmen knew. Before that moment, since the music had previously ceased, the pub had gotten loud in conversation and most of the musicians were dispersing. When I started playing, everyone got silent and listened (this would never happen in a US pub), and at the end they burst out with what was like a group cheer. I think it was also very unusual that I was not only American, but a woman, at that. All the session players were men, and this was consistent in our whole trip. There was only one female flutist at this pub, but she kept far to the background, not even sitting at the “table” with the whole group. After my tune on the whistle, all the dispersed musicians quickly re-emerged, and now we were off to a whole new set and energy of sessions. I regret that I could not play along with their session music. I didn’t know any of it, and it was much too fast to pick up on the spot. This was painful not being able to join in, but on the other hand, it was a pure, fascinating delight to sit there like a sponge internalizing every note they played.

Another lull, and I whipped out one of my crystal flutes. This time I played a slow celtic piece, and as I started, a guitar player joined me in supplying harmony, which I greatly appreciated. Again, everyone listened intently in the whole pub. After it was over, the accordion player looked at me, slowly squinted his eyes, nodded once with his head, and raised his thumb up. I passed his test! I was IN. But alas, I still couldn’t learn their tunes…But I held the unique distinction of being the first person ever to play a crystal flute in that pub (so they told me). Everyone was interested in it, and if I didn’t like it as much as I do, I could have sold it for many, many times it’s cost!

The next day we went through Galway, and found a music store. I tried every single flute and whistle in there (about 40), and came away with some new whistles and a plastic flute made in Ireland. (yes, plastic—sounds great, won’t break).

We made our way up to Westport, where Matt Malloy has a pub. We thought there probably wouldn’t be music this night, as we’d had just too much good luck. But sure enough, they have it so there are musicians that come to play every night—great local musicians. This night the pub was full of Americans, oddly enough. Mostly from colleges, on tour for something.

Hearing these great players at this pub was exactly like the video the Chieftains made where in part they are playing there. Same table, same pictures still on the wall. I played my whistle here, too, and afterwards the musicians said, “play another”. Then I played the crystal flute for them. Again, I could have sold it for mucho euro….but didn’t.

Finally, another day and we made our way down to Limerick, and got into another frame of mind—I was to perform, and teach a Chant and Ritual class about the use of sacred music in my own compositions (which brought about great discussion from the grad students there). This was tremendously rewarding and fun. It was also good to see the academic side of life in Ireland. Limerick is a relatively new university, but it is already out-growing its space, and they are adding on buildings ‘across the river’.

That night, we got to hear the Irish Chamber Orchestra. This is an all-string orchestra. It was beyond fantastic. All the players stood while playing (which really makes it more alive, I thought), and they have no conductor but first violin—which I appreciated all the more by the use of very minute gestures, as opposed to what is common in a regular conductor’s display. This night, the guest soloist and first violinist was Romanian-born Mariana Sirbu. She is the ICO’s Principal Guest Director. A great player, and all of the music was performed superbly. Even though my darling Lee accidentally fell asleep during some of it (I should have had my airline neck pillow there for him, so his head-rolling wouldn’t be so funny!), I was having charges of adrenalin go through me, because the music and playing was so good. Especially their Shostakovich Quartet No. 8 that was arranged for strings. What a memorable concert.

And what an entirely memorable trip. From the music-of-and-for-the-people in pubs, to the art music of the stage, to some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve seen (it reminds me of Montana in many respects), I’m in love with Ireland. We were fortunate enough to get to know some beautiful human beings while there, and simply encountered others that colored our trip with sunshine, beauty, and joy. I now have a hint as to why Jimmy Galway’s playing soars with such an exquisite, other-worldly beauty!

I can’t wait for the next trip to Ireland.

–Rhonda (March, 2004)

Rhonda Larson