My Irish Pilgrimage (Part II): In Search of the Irish Culture

October 16, 2015

This is the second installment in my Irish Pilgrimage piece. You can read Part I here.

We jump-started our latter goal (to experience as much trad music and traditional pub nightlife as we could) in Dublin, where our Northern Ireland friends advised us on the best pub in town – the one “where the locals go,” as I had requested. Cobblestone Pub was, conveniently, just up the square from our hostel, and we eagerly headed out on our first night. It was filled with locals, all right, as well as other tourists who were also seeking the most local pub in town. Still, the live music was enjoyable – a delightful teaser of what I figured I could expect in the less congested and older villages we were sure to visit over the next 10 days. I think it was in that moment that reality finally set in: I was in Ireland. In a pub. Watching and listening to a “trad” band – hardly caring much that it was a young group of 20-somethings playing mostly pop music. My cup runneth over.

Of course, being in Dublin meant we had to tour the Jameson Distillery. It was a rite of passage.

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And the Guinness Brewery.

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But true to our quest, we sought out advice for the best pubs in each city we visited, meaning we enjoyed a pint (or a Jameson and ginger ale, the Irish cocktail of choice) nearly every night – though we didn’t have much luck with the nostalgic, traditional folk music I so desperately desired to experience. I was particularly looking forward to this tradition in Dingle (I’m not making that name up), given the town’s reputation for classic laid-back Ireland, where people work 5-6 hours a day and spend the rest of their evenings within the walls of the local watering hole. We visited the bar owned by Tom Crean, Ireland’s famous Antarctic explorer, who lived out the rest of his days in humble Annascaul before a ruptured appendix ironically took his life. Disappointed to hear that the live music had been cancelled that night due to the lead guitarist’s wife’s illness, we popped into the second most popular pub in the one-road town, which was also remiss of a band, but was jam-packed for a local’s 80th birthday. Seeing this as an authentic opportunity – you know, when in Ireland… – we squeezed into a back booth with our frothy Guinnesses and cheered and toasted with the rest of our fellow pubbers, all strangers and yet somehow our friends for that moment in time. You can count on the Irish for that.

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After days immersed in ancient history, crumbling forts and settlement ruins, rain-shadowed valleys, sheep-dotted hills, and peaceful country lanes that weave through farms and miniature towns you’d miss if you blinked, the Western Irish town of Galway afforded us a dose of modern day. The college town is young and hip, thriving in a way that Dublin isn’t, and we took full advantage of our only night there. Tigh Neactains is the favorite pub there, and we ended up spending four amazing hours crowded in a booth with a French couple, a drunk Irish matchmaker who kept trying to pair us off with each other, and her rather quiet husband, while the live band played right next to us. It was a memorable night, singing and clapping along to 60s and 70s rock hit covers, drinking beer and slipping out to buy pizza from the joint next door, but I still felt something was missing. I started to wonder if my desire to hear truly traditional folk music, the fiddles and old country ballads, was a thing of the past. Perhaps I was naive, but I was prepared to accept it – I had, after all, been blessed with an experience that exceeded all my other expectations for this country. It was as intriguing as I had wanted, as warm and welcoming as I had expected, as magical as I had dreamed. I really couldn’t have asked for anything else.

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When our trip came to an end, my feelings were torn. On one hand, I was sad it was almost over – who wouldn’t be? On the other, I was so overwhelmed and exhilarated and fulfilled that I wanted to take away my memories and my experiences, lock them away so they couldn’t be tarnished, and revel in what had been absolutely the perfect trip.

Ten days went by too quickly. After returning our rental car in Dublin, we had one more evening in the city before our early flight to London the next morning. Unable to bring ourselves to spend our final night inside our hostel rooms, we decided to spend one last hour or so at good ol’ Cobblestone. We learned on our trip that trad music sessions didn’t start until at least 9pm, and since it was hardly 7:00, we didn’t expect anything other than the company of friendly locals and our new friend, Jameson.

Indeed, we got seats at the nearly empty bar, unused to daylight in this environment. As I sipped my whiskey, I heard a unique sound – one that was both familiar and uncommon.

A fiddle.

It was being played by a member of a band – completely unassuming, easygoing locals with instruments and lyric sheets, looking like they met this way perhaps on a weekly basis.

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“Look!” I whispered to Trevor. He had already seen.
“And there’s an accordion!”

We watched excitedly to see what would happen. What kind of music would they play? I hardly dared to hope that tonight was the night we’d hear what we had chased for the past ten days.

It was.

The band sang old ballads, upbeat boot-stomping dance songs, music I had never heard but loved as if they were lullabies with which I had grown up. My heart swelled. It wasn’t exactly the image I had in my mind, but it was damn close. So when the older gentleman walked into the pub and greeted them, and they stopped their music to call him over to their playing area, and the girl who had previously sung an old folk song chirped, “Sing something for us!”, and he sat down and the pub got quiet….I found myself holding my breath.

He began to sing, a slow, crooning, sad ballad about a lost love. I sat stone still, riveted, as his clear, strong voice filled the building. He sang with his eyes closed, his lilting Irish accent curved around every stanza, his heart thrown into every word. I fumbled with my phone to capture the experience, knowing full well that no recording could ever capture even a fraction of the feeling that permeated that pub in that moment. Was this real?

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When he finished, the pub exploded in applause as he calmly sipped his beer. I was giddy like a schoolgirl, feeling like I was in the presence of a celebrity. The whiskey probably had something to do with it, but I suddenly became very aware of the rest of the atmosphere. The last of the setting sun was setting through the darkened windows, casting a faint golden glow on the musicians as they picked up their instruments and launched into a jig. Behind me, the bartender laughed with a customer, whom he undoubtedly knew. The gentle clatter of glasses and conversation was friendly, as welcoming as the rest of the country had been to us. Patrons came in and out of the small, heavy wooden door, as we sat on our stools, feeling happy in our very souls – in a way only someone who has gotten what they’ve wanted for a very long time can feel. And it didn’t matter how cheesy it was, or how no one else would probably understand how we felt, or how I knew I could never convey those emotions into this blog post, weeks down the line.

Finally, Trevor broke our reverie. “How funny,” he mused.

I didn’t take my gaze off the fiddler. “What is?”
“We searched all over the country for this, and we found it right back here in Dublin.”

I smiled, as the cheerful fiddle jigged on, playing its encore for us on our final night. It was so appropriate, so ironic…so poetic.

“Yeah,” I said. “We sure did.”

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