And now it really is St. Patrick's Day. I've spent part of the weekend listening to Martin Dowling play "The boys of Ballynahinch" on the fiddle, and perusing Ann's husband's photo site, in particular his photos of Donegal. So I am feeling nostalgic for Ireland.
It reminded me of one magical evening in April 1997--my second trip to Ireland, and Doug's first. A longer version of this story ran in the newspaper back in 1998, but it'll be new to all of you:
A Night in Glencolumbcille
We were in a takeaway in the coastal town of Carrick in southwest Donegal, looking for lunch. Outside was a gray April day, the streets gritty, the sky leaden, the hills beyond an ever-changing, velvet green. The shop's front window was plastered over with announcements, and as the girl fried our burgers I read the notices. One, in particular, caught my eye.
A mimeographed poster announced a festival the next night: "Strings and Flings" in Glencolumbcille, about 15 miles away.
Fiddle players from Scotland and Ireland were to perform at the Glenbay Hotel there; it was a concert, of sorts, and an opportunity to compare the fiddling style of County Donegal with the fiddling style of County Down. Step-dancing would follow.
Fiddle music in Donegal differs from fiddle music in the rest of Ireland. Donegal music is influenced by the highlands of Scotland, since for generations Donegal men traveled there to find work. They brought new tunes home with them, and a style influenced by Scottish fiddles and bagpipes. Fiddle music in County Down is also Scottish-influenced, but more by the rural lowlands than the highlands.
None of this was anything I expected my tin ear to discern at the Strings and Flings festival, but that wasn't the point; stumbling across a local fiddle concert in a remote mountain town of northwestern Ireland was too good an opportunity to pass up.
So the next evening, over the narrow, winding bog road we went -- blue peat smoke hanging in the air, hardy men cutting turf in the fields, and spray-painted sheep everywhere. We set out early, because there was a tricky fork marked by a small wooden signpost with directions only in Gaelic, and I didn't want to get lost.
The wooden sign outside the hotel said that pub food was served all day, but by "all day" they really meant "part of the day." The restaurant would open in an hour, they told us, and for now all they had was mushroom soup.
So we hadn't had much sustenance when we started in on the Guinness. But we were in good company. The hotel bar was quickly filling up -- a big, bright room with a mural above the door of border collies and thatched-roof cottages, and Irish homilies in Gaelic and English. ("There are no strangers here, only friends who have never met.")
The musicians gathered around a table and began to play. They would be performing individually later in the evening, but here in the bar they made one amazing band.
A small, silver-haired man in a navy-blue jacket played the fiddle. Across from him a pudgy, balding man with a ponytail played the mandolin. A young man not far out of his teens walked in the door. He was wearing thick black Doc Martens and a black leather jacket. He was carrying two fiddle cases, and he looked skinny and scared. But the other musicians made room for him.
Golden evening sunlight streamed through the windows, but the dark old table was already littered with half-full glasses of black Guinness, foam clinging to the sides. The crowd was mostly locals, it appeared -- everyone drinking Guinness, everyone talking and laughing and stomping their thick dirty boots on the wooden floor in time to the music, which rose and skirled and danced around us.
The concert was supposed to start at 7:30, but at 7:30 musicians were still arriving, and the others were still crowded around the table, drinking and playing, and when Doug and I walked down the hall to the auditorium, it was empty and dark. Presently someone posted a sign: The concert would now start at 8:15. But at 8:15 everybody was still in the bar.
The concert, when it finally began, was surprisingly formal. It was held in a dim, chilly room with wooden floors and framed Guinness posters along the walls. Five pink kitchen chairs were arranged on the low wooden stage. Off to the side were velveteen couches for the musicians, and for the rest of us, the hotel folk dragged in bar chairs and lined them up in rows. We heard a loud rattling noise from the back of the room and turned to see someone raising a metal accordion window; the bar was open.
A woman got up on stage and asked us not to dance or talk but to listen. It's a concert, she said, not a dance. (It was, however, perfectly OK to walk to the back and buy another Guinness.) And then the musicians got up, a few at a time -- usually a fiddle player or two and a guitarist, or a fiddler and someone on pennywhistle -- and walked to the stage and played three numbers and then immediately retired to the bar to drink and jam. (Although in Ireland it's not called jamming, of course; it's called session.)
Two locals -- Michael Carr on the fiddle and Stephen Gallagher on the accordion -- took the stage. They were from Kilcar, just down the road, and they got strong applause.
Martin Dowling took the stage alone; the announcer said he was from Madison, Wis., but had studied in Enniskillen, south of Donegal. The room cheered.
The dark-haired skinny man took the stage with his sister, and his nervousness vanished as they raised their bows.
We stayed until long after dark and then slipped back to the pub. The musicians were back at the table. Outside the window, the night was black, and rain poured down, but in the bar it was warm and pleasant. The music rose and swirled around us, seemingly the same tune, again and again, and nearly endless, but different each time through.
We found a spot in the corner and listened for a while, but it was getting late and I was nervous about driving back to Kilcar on the left side of the narrow winding bog road and negotiating that tricky turn with the Gaelic directions in the night and the rain, so we had one last Guinness and headed out. Sheep eyes glowed at us from the dark the whole way back.
Safely back in town, I was immediately regretful. When would we get another chance to hear such music? We were idiots to leave, I said. What were we thinking? And Doug said, Let's get another Guinness.
As we walked up the steep, wet street toward the Piper's Rest pub, the door to another pub opened, sending a square of yellow light and a skirl of Irish music out onto the sidewalk. This was John Joe's, a bleak, rough-looking bar we'd avoided -- no traditional cozy pub with a thatched roof and a cheery peat fire, like the Piper's Rest, but a dingy place with bright fluorescent lights, cheap paneled walls and a TV over by the cigarette machine.
We hesitated, but the music drew us in. The front room was dark and empty, its cold fireplace filled with trash and paper. In the back room, old men in caps stood at the bar, the blue light of the soundless TV flickering on their faces.
Under the harsh fluorescent glare, five girls sat at a round Formica table. They couldn't have been any older than 16 -- serious-faced girls, with dark hair and pale skin. Three of them were playing fiddle, two of them were playing accordion, and all of them were singing.
We slipped into a booth, ordered some Harp and listened. This was almost as good as Strings and Flings, we decided. If finding that festival had been serendipity, this was serendipity times two.
The girls were absolutely unselfconscious. They paid no attention to the other people in the bar but played and sang one Irish air after another. Gradually, though it was past midnight in midweek, the pub filled up.
The old men at the bar were joined by comfortable-looking pudgy women -- the girls' mothers, we assumed, or aunts. They beamed at the girls with proud faces and clutched their handbags on their wide laps. Table by table, John Joe's was soon filled almost to overflowing, people listening to the five girls play.
Across from us, over by the TV, a young man with a shaved head, an earring and a leather coat sat in a booth, watching them closely. He looked like a tough, and I mistook his intensity for a sneer.
The girls set down their instruments, and the room fell silent. And then the middle girl, one of the fiddle players -- she had short dark hair tucked behind her ears and straight dark eyebrows -- began to sing. Her voice was sweet and rich, and as she sang it grew in strength and volume until it filled the room. The group's lone red-head accompanied her very quietly on the accordion. The other girls sat silently, their hands in their laps, their eyes downcast.
The song was about a rose, sung to the same tune as "Loch Lomond" (more of that Scottish influence, I'm guessing), and it was sweetly sad. Some people in the place, including me, teared up, and everybody sang lustily along with the chorus.
I sneaked a peek at the sneering young man who, I suspected, would be sneering all the more at such sentimentality. But he was singing, too, and I swear that tears glistened in his eyes. When the song was over, everyone cheered, and he reached down and grabbed his mandolin, which had been resting by his feet, and joined the girls.
Just like the Strings and Flings musicians in the Glencolumbcille hotel, the girls shifted over and made room at their table. And the music began again.
A note on the photos: They are all from that trip. At top is Slieve League, not too far from Kilcar--the highest seacliffs in Europe. If you know the poem "Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen," it was written about this part of Ireland.
The second picture is the valley of Glencolumbcille. I have no idea where I was when I took it; it looks like I was in a helicopter, but I swear I was not.
I apologize for the blurriness of the third picture; I thought it would be rude to overtly take pictures of the musicians, so I tried to sneak a shot.
And the last picture is Kilcar. The thatched-roof pub is The Piper's Rest, where we spent many evenings; you can see John Joe's just down the street.
But if you want beautiful pictures of Donegal (and elsewhere in Ireland), visit Ann's husband's site. They're gorgeous.
Butterfly Hunting at Crex Meadows
7 hours ago