In Tune with Ireland


The Emerald Isle strikes a chord with artist/ journalist Erik Scalavino,

who arrives searching for harmony – and departs on a high note

DUBLIN & ENNIS, Ireland – Although I’d never visited Ireland during my first 44 years, the mere idea of it managed to captivate me, what with its alluring landscape, literature, and legends.

Then, of course, there’s all that green – my all-time favorite color and the one inextricably linked with Ireland. Forever mysterious and magical, “The Emerald Isle” nonetheless always felt strangely familiar to me. Perhaps because of the music… Ah, yes, the music! I find Irish music’s distinctive, evocative sound irresistibly and hauntingly beautiful, suggestive both of the profound sadness imbued in Ireland’s history and the ultimately cheerful outlook shared by its present-day people.

With only a few notes, fiddles and tin whistles, citterns and bodhráns, Uilleann pipes and bag pipes could transport me somewhere I’d never been. Finally, after four-and-a-half decades, I’m here, determined to drown not in some cartoon caricature, but in authentic Irish music as intended – live and loud with locals in a pub, where conversation and laughter with friends and strangers alike flow as naturally as pints of Guinness and drams of Jameson’s.

“Steer clear of Temple Bar, then,” Dublin native Cormac Fox advises me. I met Cormac years ago, when he came to America on holiday, and value his judgment. He offers to introduce me personally to several of his favorite Dublin settings that would serve my purpose: O’Donoghues on Baggot Street, The Brazen Head (“Oldest pub in Ireland,” he reveals), The Cobblestone (“A drinking pub with a music problem,” its website quips), Kehoe’s, and the Long Hall.

Yet when he learns when I’ll be in town, a crestfallen Cormac laments, “Geesh, there’s literally one weekend I’m not in the country this year – and it’s that one!” His excuse: a business trip to the south of France, promoting his latest film project at Cannes’ glamorous festival. I forgive (and slightly envy) Cormac.

He can’t join, but two other Dublin friends do. On a Sunday evening at Kehoe’s, just steps from my perfectly centralized hotel, I sip my first Guinness in Ireland with them. Kehoe’s seems perfect – intimately packed, heavy on Craic (the lovely Irish word for good vibes), not an American accent to be heard, save mine. It’s possessed of considerable character and numerous cozy nooks. Yet, no musicians or spontaneous sessions materialize. The crowd soon thins. Apparently, Irish pub music doesn’t come with a guarantee.

Undaunted, I continue searching for traditional Irish music – or “trad,” as it’s simply known on this island. “Never heard it called trad,” claims my Irish-American pal, Rory O’Neill, when I contact him with an update. He owns one of the most acerbic wits of anyone I know, so, I suspect I’m being set up for an inevitable punch line. Rory doesn’t disappoint. “Really, I can’t imagine any Irishman trying to make a story shorter!!” Good ol’ Rory…

Later, I meet a natural Irish beauty named Ruth MacCarthy, who further buoys my optimism. Ruth now lives and works in Dublin, but grew up in Ennis, on Ireland’s west coast. Boasting what she calls an unparalleled trad pedigree, Ennis also happens to be my last stop on this itinerary.

“Oh, you must go to Brogan’s or Paddy Quinn’s,” Ruth instructs me in her delightful lilt. “They have excellent live music every night o’ the week… and do please say hello to my dad. He owns the shoe store right across from Brogans.”

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While I trace Dingle Peninsula’s outline in a car, grey clouds cover me like an Irish quilt. Though by early evening, they’ve vanished, leaving nothing but pristine, pastel blue sky above charming, walkable Ennis and rendering my jacket superfluous, as temps reach their warmest all day – a comfy 22 Celsius. How can I interpret this change in weather as anything other than favorable to my mission?

Serendipity on my side, I soon discover that Ennis happens to be hosting the 48th annual Fleadh Nua (pronounced “flah NEW-uh”), the most prestigious of Ireland’s many trad festivals. Although Fleadh Nua started in Dublin in 1970, Ennis has hosted them since 1974. All throughout this festival week, area pubs and other establishments will generate music morning, noon, and night. Here in Ennis, it comes with a guarantee.

Professional Irish musicians headline various scheduled events, but any amateur with an instrument, including a capable singing voice, is welcome – encouraged? – to join the fun. Anyone at all, like a guy named Sean, from Amherst, Massachusetts. White hair cups his ears and coats his goatee. His weapon of choice: the mandolin.

“I came here last summer with my wife. Loved it so much, I’m here for the whole week this time. Rented a car and a cottage about 15 minutes away,” he explains while waiting for his Guinness inside Brogan’s. Since the end of the 18th century (1794, to be precise), this pub’s deep, narrow interior has sucked in its gut to fit between other colorful storefronts on O’Connell Street. Today, Sean’s among several music lovers here, each eager to draw from, as well as add to Brogan’s rich history.

“I didn’t play at breakfast this morning, but I’ll participate in most of the other sessions. My son and grandson want to come next time and see me play.”

Tonight, Sean joins the local headliners, an accomplished male-female duo of Eoin O’Neill (unrelated to Rory, so far as I know), who strums a guitar-like instrument called a bouzouki, and Bríd O’Gorman, a flutist. Their promoted 7:30 start time comes and goes silently, as they await an expected influx of accompaniment.

Soon, we have two bodhráns, a few mandolins and citterns, several fiddles, a couple of flutes, a banjo, and a squeeze box. Their players arrange themselves in an oval around O’Neill and O’Gorman, instruments poised, yet no one rushes to get things started, which only magnifies my anticipation, along with the pub’s restless chatter.

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At ten past 8, without so much as a tune-up, the music begins – quietly, almost furtively at first. O’Gorman’s flute blazes the trail, with O’Neill’s bouzouki providing reinforcement.

Drink in hand, I bid farewell to the cute blonde tending bar and wedge myself into the front left corner of the “stage,” a space no larger than 15 square feet. Suffused in a reddish glow, it rises two steps above the main pub floor, with three sets of diamond mullioned windows looking out onto O’Connell Street and floor-to-ceiling glass-encased shelves protecting bottles of Irish whiskey on the side walls.

I’m compelled to stand for lack of available chairs. Sean’s on my side of the stage, seated on a padded bench in the opposite corner, just below a window, plucking his mandolin tentatively. It’s difficult to ascertain if he and his fellow amateurs don’t know the tune, or simply allow O’Gorman and O’Neill to lead off, but before long, every musician gets involved and somehow falls in synch, even without sheet music.

The opener’s a toe-tapper, after which our ensemble takes a breather. The musicians chat amongst themselves, sip drinks, and munch on chocolates provided by an audience member. CDs of O’Gorman and O’Neill’s music are made available for purchase. A French couple worms their way to the front so their daughter, no more than 5 years old, can get O’Gorman to autograph their copy (Even though I’d heard that children are allowed in pubs on this side of the Atlantic, it still strikes me as incongruous).

Meanwhile, more pub patrons filter into and around the stage. I make small talk with two contemporary ladies from Minneapolis. A few minutes pass before the show resumes, each subsequent number followed by a similar casual rest period. Evidently, no predetermined set list exists. Our performers agree to play whatever inspires them in the moment. Every musician takes care not to step on or overpower any other, to defer to whoever appears to have command of the melody. They introduce their respective instruments at the appropriate opportunity.

After three up-tempo offerings, O’Neill calls for a mood change by beseeching a male friend in the group to “Sing us something that’ll make us cry.”

Spectators shush one another as Brogan’s falls silent. O’Neill’s buddy, his back to the audience, begins an a cappella solo that grieves for young lads who’ve gone off to give their lives in an armed conflict. At each refrain, O’Neill and the other men instinctively lend their voices, but yield to the lead singer during his slow, tender verses. It’s short, poignant, and draws deserved applause before the band goes back to playing its livelier instrumental tunes.

A wonderful esprit de corps develops among these performers, including my fellow New Englander, who’s comfortably settled into his role. When we make eye contact, I offer a wink and a thumbs-up. Sean, strumming more confidently now, returns them with a grin and a satisfied nod. Unspoken but fully understood is that this – the prospect and realization of such a moment – brought us both to Ireland.

Having found my musical pot of gold, I decide to leave early. As much as I don’t want this night to end, I know it will and don’t want to be around when the rainbow evaporates. All I want now is to drift happily back to my hotel, with Ireland’s music still floating in the air, haunting me until the day I can return to hear it again. ETS