That was the aim.
I wanted to play music with people I don’t get to see for months and years at a time and to play music with complete strangers as well.
I try to spend a weekend focused on music once a year around the time of my birthday. It’s a weekend where I forget about technology, obligations, responsibilities and life and I amerce myself in music. I recognise how lucky I am to have the ability to make that opportunity every year and I relish every moment of it. For these few days I am completely selfish. I do what I want when I want. I am completely spontaneous. If I decide to go to somewhere else, I’ll just pack up and leave. It’s a welcome rest from the 9 to 5 of work and it’s probably my little way of hitting back at the routine and expectations of day to day life.
Some people go to hot countries and sit roasting in the sun for two weeks. I’m not one for just sitting still. I rather do something. My perfect holiday is where I’m playing music or trying activities that I’ve never done before. Sitting still just listening to music is great but I can’t do it for long before I want to play the music I’m listening to. I can’t sit out on my own. I start searching for something to listen to to keep myself entertained.
I’ve been told that this constant need for activity can’t be healthy. I’ve been told that I need to relax and simply do nothing. The yearly excursions for the past seven years have served me well up to now though and I’d take four or five days of nonstop music over two weeks away anywhere any time.
I decided at the beginning of June that I wanted to do more this year. Since last year I haven’t been as mobile as I’d have liked for various reasons that I’m sure you’re aware of if you’re a regular reader of this blog. Now that I can get up and go anywhere I want independently I wanted to make full use of my regained freedom. I decided that I wanted to revisit some of my favourite spots that I’ve been to in the past ten years or so. I thought it would be nice to start with the regular session on a Sunday in Dundalk and continue to the next Sunday with one session every night.
I planned it out.
- Sunday Dundalk – McManus bar.
- Monday Duleek – The Snailbox.
- Tuesday Drogheda – Carberrys.
- Wednesday Dublin – The Cobblestone.
- Thursday Carlow – Teach Dolmain.
- Friday Galway – Tigh Coili and Taaffes.
- Saturday Limerick – Dolans.
- Sunday Cork – Charlies, Ovens and the Gables.
Over the eight days I actually played in eleven sessions and not 8 surpassing my target by three. I was delighted at this.
On my travels I met some brilliant musicians and lovely people. I also met up with friends that I hadn’t seen in too long.
Music is not a static thing. The way you play something this year may not be the way you played it last year. It’s lovely to get ideas from people and in turn give them some ideas as well. That’s what Irish traditional music is all about to me. It’s about collaboration and learning with new experiences. I don’t claim to know a fraction of what some musicians know about Irish music but I love to learn. I read a book over the past few days where the author spoke of something that I can relate to. It’s when you stop playing the music and the music starts playing you. That sounds utterly stupid. I know. But picture this. You’re playing some music with four other musicians. You’re not matching them note for note any more. You’re harmonizing with them and their harmonizing with you. Ornamentation that you put in fits perfectly with the ornamentation that they use. That’s only looking at one layer of it. Melodically the music just fits. Now looking at the rhythm and bounce of the music. That alone can wrap everything up so that it’s no longer a tune. It’s a conversation. The guitar takes off and you can’t help but follow. A banjo starts to get more rhythmic in pursuit of the guitar. A fiddle plays on the low side of the melody. You know that to match the fiddle you should probably bring your ornamentation over toward the higher notes to help contrast it. This is where the music is playing you. You’re not really playing the music. Without anyone saying one single word you all know what your role is in the music. Lulls and highs come naturally and you can’t wait to hear what’s going to happen next. When it finishes the giddiness is tangible.
Another time when the music is playing you instead of you playing the music is a very unusual but highly sot after situation. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy this a few times but it’s not something that you can chase. It’s not something you can plan; it’s something that just seems to happen when everything fits into place like a jigsaw that has taken you six months to make. It’s a time in a performance when everyone in the room is listening and hanging on every note. You don’t need to be able to see it. It’s completely obvious in the way people talk, the way they breathe. The way they stop talking. The way they clap. Even in the way they tap their feet. I’m not saying it only happens with fast music. Sometimes you can feel that you’ve awoken something in a room in a slow air. I remember a few years ago while in Italy. I was playing a slow air but I forgot that I was playing. My mind wondered off to a time when I was very worried. I was staying with some family and I was very worried about a relative. I don’t know why I suddenly remembered it but when I awoke from my daydream I was still playing and I could feel the captivation of the audience. When playing slow airs daydreaming is something I find particularly helpful. If I focus on what I’m playing I become too technical in my playing. Letting myself remember something can drastically change my style. It’s however not something I’ve been able to do very often. When it happens during a fast tune it’s like the best caffeine buzz you could ever imagine. I hang on every clap. I can feel my body swaying slightly left to right in time with what I’m playing. My fingers emphasize the rhythm and I can’t help smiling. A friend of mine loved this. He was able to read people and tell what they were looking for. It didn’t always result in this almost symbiotic relationship between musician and audience but when it did he knew exactly how to control it. It’s not a skill that I think I could learn but it’s something I’ve tried to work with when I’ve been lucky enough to have it. The problem is, when the audience are in that kind of zone it’s too tempting to keep playing. Unfortunately they’ll snap out of it if things aren’t kept interesting. As time goes on some people will also start to come out of it as well so the only way you can keep people interested is to change to a different key or in most cases, just simply stop before it’s too late. Stopping when people are in that zone with you makes for a better gig for both performer and listener. The listener wants to hear more and the performer wants to get back into that symbiotic zone again. I call it symbiotic because it is in a lot of ways. The audience want more music and the performer wants that energy the audience is giving off. I know. Don’t worry. If you’re not a musician you probably think I’m talking complete rubbish and I completely understand. When I read over this in a few minutes I’ll probably think its rubbish as well.
The reason that I bring this up is I was incredibly lucky to experience this a few times on my travels over the past week.
Anyway, getting back to the sessions. Have I explained what an Irish traditional music session is yet? Very quickly, it is where a group of musicians get together. These people may or may not know each other but it’s a safe bet that they’ll have at least a few tunes in common. Sessions are usually held at a set time in a pre-arranged place however they have been known to happen spontaneously as well. I remember meeting someone outside a pub about nine years ago. She commented that she enjoyed listening to me play. We went off to a bike shed behind a local school because it was the only place nearby where we could sit down to play some music in a quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the festival. We sat there for a few hours swapping tunes. After a while a flute player who was camping nearby joined us and by 5AM we were joined by a few other musicians. That reminds me; I had no accommodation booked that night. I slept in that bike shed. I only needed a few hours and the pipe case made an adequate pillow. I should also say that I hadn’t drank at all that night because basically, I was still in college, living on my own with very little money and about the only thing I could afford was just enough food to keep me going for the six days. Although it was a crazy thing to do and it was probably a bit dangerous as well, I never enjoyed a festival so much. I stayed down stairs in a pub, a few camp sites, the bike shed, and a lovely ladies living room in a chair and then on the last night I thought I was living like a king because I was offered a room in a BNB! I have never enjoyed a shower as much as I did that day!
Sorry. I’ve gone off on a complete tangent. I should be writing about this week’s sessions. Not things that happened years ago. I just wanted to give you an idea of what lengths I’ll go to for music.
The main sessions worth writing about started on Wednesday. The others even including the brilliant one on Sunday are routine enough.
Wednesday’s session was in the Cobblestone in Smithfield in Dublin. I got there at about half ten at night after a two and a half hour course in the Perl programming language that I’ve attended in TOG in Dublin for the past five weeks. I thought it was going to be the normal run of the mill session however to my surprise I met up with my old music teacher. I hadn’t’ seen her in ten years so it was nice to play some music with her. In fact it’s probably been over ten years since we’ve played a tune together. She would be more of a hard line traditionalist compared to me. I love the traditional values but my style of playing can tend to get a little bit too unrestricted at times. I therefore tried to rain myself in a lot during Wednesday’s session. I enjoyed it actually. By slowing down and restricting myself I found I was able to explore more of the notes of each tune. It was a nice relaxed session considering I had been on the road since 7AM that morning. That session ended at just after 12AM and I was starting to sleep at around 1AM. At 8AM the next morning I was back in work ready to take on the next day while really looking forward to going to Carlow that evening.
A few of my favorite jigs. Played on the pipes. on Wednesday the 8th of June in the Cobblestone in Dublin.
I left work for Carlow at 5PM and made it for the 5:35PM train. We arrived in Carlow at just before 7 where we met up with Nicky, a good friend of mine. The session on Thursday night was in Teach Dolmain, a pub I play music in a few times a year. I like the relaxed style these musicians have and with the differing styles and instruments you always hear something slightly new or different. I was beyond delighted to find that Eric, one of the guitar players that infrequently visits the session was playing that night. I really enjoy listening to him! Because I had been playing regularly for the past few days I enjoyed testing tunes that I had heard others play. Fortunately they didn’t go too badly either. I’m not sure why though, it could have been the combination of wine and Bulmers but I just couldn’t get my fingers to move as fast as I knew they could. It was incredibly irritating and frustrating. I played the bodhran a lot though. I don’t ordinarily do this lately.
On Friday morning we jumped on the 8:55 train from Carlow and got off in Kildare. After an absolutely horrible breakfast sandwich we got another train from Kildare to Galway. I was very surprised at how fast the journey went. I quite happily fell into a world of my own during most of the train trips during the weekend while listening to recordings of the sessions and an audio book. In fact travelling was probably one of the things that helped me maintain the energy I needed during the sessions each night. We arrived at Galway at just after 12PM. On walking out of the train station the skies opened and it poured rain on us. We made the quick decision to duck into a pub on the nearest corner of Eyre square. After a few non-alcoholic drinks and a bowl of soup Emma had a look around the Internet for accommodation nearby. Because I didn’t want to be tied down I refused to book accommodation before travelling anywhere. I wanted the freedom to decide at any stage to travel somewhere else. Anyway, the long and short of it is, we realised that the pub we were sitting in was actually part of a hotel. With a bit of haggling I got the room for €80 including breakfast. This was brilliant! Accommodation on Eyre square in Galway can be expensive with good reason. It’s at the centre of everything and within a stone’s throw from everywhere I wanted to go to. It was also a bit easier on Ike. It minimized the work he would have to do. This was important as I didn’t want to overwhelm him either.
Sessions in Galway started at about 6PM so we walked around for a look first. Galway’s is a busy city but the pubs are even busier!
We started off in Tigh Coili. We attempted to walk in but the crowds were spilling out the door. The pub was very noisy and it seemed more hassle than we needed. Taaffes is across the road so we moved over there instead. The music in Taaffes was lovely. The musicians played some really great tunes at a nicely relaxed pace.
The late session in Tigh Coili was fantastic! Banjo, Flute, Fiddle and guitar with me on pipes of course. It was by far the fastest session I had been to all week so I really enjoyed it. I try to fit in with slow sessions and I definitely enjoy them but when playing fast I can completely relax and do what I want. The only problem was the pub was still particularly busy. It was far too noisy although that certainly didn’t cause any problem for the music.
Backing on the Bodhran here during this fast and furious session in Tigh Coili in Galway on the 10th of June.
One of the more unusual things we came across while on our travels was a busker sitting in the middle of shop street in galway. He was playing the didgeridoo and the bongos. The buskers in Galway seem to be of a particularly high quality. I was very impressed with all of them. So much so that I asked Emma to video a few seconds of this man. This man was so good that when we left some money for him he was able to say thanks without even stopping!
On Saturday morning we prolonged our stay in Galway for a few hours. The plan was to leave early in the morning but the glorious sun shine heating everything in the city seemed to make the already active area around shop street fizz with even more life than usual. We let the dog go for a run then went for a bit of a walk. We stopped at a horse and carriage. It’s an unusual form of transport but when you want a different view of a city it’s perfect. Even from the perspective of someone who cannot see their brilliant as I could still get a great sense of what we were passing and what route we were taking. Emma got loads of pictures as well.
After a two hour train trip we arrived in Limerick before 5PM. With a quick walk, we arrived at the Juries hotel. Again, I hadn’t booked anything but for €77 we got a room for the night. Juries in Limerick are lovely. The rooms are very big and the staff is lovely. In fact, I have to say that the main reason that I love Limerick is there are very few people that I have met in that city that I didn’t instantly get on with. I think their all brilliant there. I actually seriously considered moving to Limerick. The only thing that stopped me was finding work there. There’s not one night that you can’t find music and the city is the easiest place in the country to get around. I don’t say that easily. I mean it. Limerick is exceptionally easy to learn within a very short space of time. I went for a bit of a walk around Limerick city for about two hours. It was lovely to show Ike around areas that Freddie knew. I also have a few memories of Limerick that were recently pulled to the surface because of a death of a friend so it was a little sad to walk around certain places. Some of the memories I have of Limerick are brilliant. I loved the apartment I rented, I loved the pubs I socialized in, I loved how easy it was to get around and I loved the ease at which I made a lot of new friends who I still keep in touch with even now. It was fantastic to return to Dolans. I hadn’t been there in a long time and it was great to be recognised by a few musicians. I remember the first night I went to Dolans years ago. I got talking to the manager. When the pub closed up we went somewhere else in Limerick city. It was a good distance away and to be fair, I was actually reasonably drunk at the time. I remember standing in this very modern pub with a few of his friends talking about how he moved from Dublin to Limerick and about how he instantly loved the outgoing and friendly nature of the people down there. I got speaking to loads of people that night. It was a weird situation to be in but it was the start of a great social life down there.
On Sunday we didn’t waste much time. We left Limerick at 1PM on the train to Cork and arrived at 2:45. Again, we found a hotel with a little more searching than we had needed in the previous few days. Funnily enough it was another juries but this time the room cost me €99. I didn’t mind though. The hotel was in the middle of the city again and was more or less in the middle of the sessions I was hoping to play at. This is where things temporarily got a little more difficult. I got the name of the pub confused with one I played in years ago. It took us an hour and a quarter to find the first session that was in a pub located about five minutes walking from the hotel. During that time we got rained on…. heavily, we walked up and down steep hills and we hoped beyond reason that somewhere would have music. In the end of it all, I decided that we’d just walk back down to Charlies. That was what we should have done in the first place. The session in there was great. Over ten musicians sitting around a table playing every instrument you can imagine with tunes played with incredible style made it an instant winner for me. I sat down and joined in straight away. Again, I was instantly recognised by most of the musicians and conversations that we had six months ago started up again. I continued slagging the banjo on the far right of the table called Tom about sounding old, I continued talking to Martin the bodhran player about different makers around the country and I heard more news from Mary and Joe about friends in Cork that I haven’t been in contact with for one reason or another for far too long.
They suggested different sessions that I could play at to keep me occupied for the rest of the night. After giving the dog some time to relax we went over to Ovens. There, I met another piper. He was actually the first person I met who played the pipes all weekend. It was nice to play a few tunes with him. The session in Ovens was definitely a regular event with very regular musicians attending it however they were very welcoming and after we got settled into it the craic began as normal.
The last session of the night and indeed the week was in the Gables. This is a lovely pub that couldn’t be more suited to sessions if it was built especially to hold them. Here I played with a fantastic banjo player who has a lovely way of flowing through tunes at a brilliant speed as if he was lying on a raft being carried down a river on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed playing music with him so much that when I got there I didn’t even wait to sit down before taking out a whistle to play a tune with them. He seemed so relaxed during the entire session even trying to talk during the tunes. While talking to the Bodhran player I got some great ideas for new beaters. I’m hoping to start making them shortly. The musicians in this session were hugely entertaining. Nothing got in their way. If they could slag you over something, they didn’t care who you were or where you were, you’d get slagged. They all had incredible talent too. It makes me crave the ability, freedom and outlet to play music as much as I want. Drogheda doesn’t have any Irish traditional music. It is the one thing I hate about the town. I have tried to promote Irish music but although there are great musicians in the town they won’t make the effort to regularly come out and play music together. I envy people in Galway, Limerick Carlow and Cork who can decide during any day of the week to attend a local session. They wouldn’t believe how jealous I am.
On Monday we left Cork at Half 10 and arrived back to Drogheda at 10 past 3. We took our time travelling. Ike had a bit of a run while in Dublin and we didn’t rush at all. Surprisingly neither of us were all that tired either.
Sorry this has turned into a seven page blog post with over three thousand nine hundred words. I didn’t mean it to be so long. Maybe that’s something I’ll have to consider for future posts of this type. Keep them shorter and break them up into shorter chunks that you can read over the duration of a week. On the other side, I actually enjoy sitting down to read a nice long blog post. I don’t really like the one or two liners.
All together now, the recordings of only some of these sessions are available below. I took these recordings mainly to learn some of the nice tunes I heard on my travels but I thought some of you might like to hear a few of them as well.
- Trip to Harvies we think. Played on the pipes. Recorded in McManus bar in Dundalk on the 5th of June.
- Lovely accordian player here. I’m lightly backing on the bodhran. Recorded in Dundalk on the 5th of June.
- A few of my favorite jigs. Played on the pipes. on Wednesday the 8th of June in the Cobblestone in Dublin.
- Backing on the Bodhran here during this fast and furious session in Tigh Coili in Galway on the 10th of June.
- Listening to this song in the Gables pub in Cork on the 12th of June.
- This song reminds me of someone who sang it years ago. It’s in a very different style but it’s still lovely. Recorded in the Gables pub on the 12th of June.
- The tunes in this set were nice. I certainly enjoyed them but the craic between tunes is what made this session so much fun. Recorded in the Gables on the 12th of June.
- Accompanying a lovely American flute player on the bodhran in this tune. Things are quite relaxed here. Notice how the rest of the pub actually listen? It was a novelty! Recorded in the Gables in cork on the 12th of June.
- More slagging going round here. I started it in fairness. I enjoyed these few reels. Played again in the Gables in Cork on the 12th of June.
- No talking in this. I just wanted to record this jig to remind my self to play it more often. I really enjoy it! Recorded in the Gables in Cork on the 12th of June.
- Last few tunes of the night. Again in the Gables in Cork on the 12th of June. I dropped out for a tune to listen to them for one last time before we finished. The Guitar and Banjo players are brilliant together.