While writing on Thursday we were on a bus to Killaloe. It’s a small town in the region of Ontario. It was a part of the tour that I was looking forward to. In Ireland we have a town called Killaloe as well. A thousand years ago, this town was the capital of Ireland as it is where King Brian Ború ruled from. In 1014, Brian Ború was killed at the battle of Clontarf while defending Ireland from the Danes. Therefore, it was quite nice to meet people from a town with the same name here in Canada.
We travelled seven hours from Shannon in Quebec to Killaloe and the first sight that greeted us was streets lined with Irish flags, painted stones and scenery that rivalled our own. In fact, one of the people on the bus remarked: “It’s raining, the sky is grey, there are Irish flags and most of the names in the grave yard are Irish. It feels like home”. The people of Killaloe certainly made us feel like we had come home. We got off the bus to a lovely meal and a room full of people whose excitement was tangible. After eating enough for a small army, we were treated to some brilliant music from local musicians and dancers. Children as young as seven sang expertly and local musicians who had spent time in Ireland entertained us with stories and songs. Of course, we couldn’t just sit there all night so we gladly joined in. It was great to play with local musicians again. The quality of music over here is brilliant. I even got the chance to meet with a piper named Paul. He played the Scottish small pipes. Although they aren’t as nice as the Uilleann pipes, I was still delighted to give them a go. I’m quite happy with the tunes I got from them as well. They are played differently to the Uilleann pipes. Instead of the drones resting over your leg, they are suspended by the force of the air going through the bag over your right forearm just below your shoulder. They only have one octave and the wholes on the chanter are tiny. The set I played were in A and they sounded really nice.
We had a great typical traditional Irish session there. It was like being home.
Afterword, we were introduced to our host family and after a quick beer and a chat we got some much needed sleep. Killaloe is mainly built on top of one really large rock. Not that it’s relevant but it’s interesting. They also get tremors from time to time. The town is home to about 700 people and most have Irish names.
On Friday morning, we played in a primary school. There were two schools within about a minute walk away from each other. One is a public school and the other is a catholic school. I really liked that the children from the catholic school were invited to the public school for our performance. Our instruments were described in detail and we had a minute to play a short example. Of course, as I was playing in a school, I decided to have a bit of fun so I didn’t play an Irish tune, instead I played a children’s song called I’m a little tea pot. It was really funny. That tune was hummed by members of the group for an hour after the performance. It got stuck in people’s heads. The performance in the school only lasted an hour but I was energised by it for the day. I loved that the kids had no inhibitions about clapping along. It was so relaxed.
After the school performance we had a brief tour of Killaloe. The town is tiny so the tour only took about 20 minutes but it was interesting none the less. We heard about how the rail line was only used up until the 1950’s before it was removed. The tour guide mentioned that they could travel from there to Toronto and back in less than a day. Now it takes two days as public transport from or too Killaloe is very poor. The railway track was ripped out in 1986 after the stations was removed in 1960 and in 2004, a student completing her masters in gardening landscaped the area where the track ran through the centre of Killaloe to commemorate the railway. A path now runs over the same route that the track took and a design using red bricks on the edge of the path shows where the rack lay. We also heard about a large fire that destroyed 7 businesses and four houses in 1950. Fortunately, men in that had been drinking in a hotel on the same road fought the fire and successfully bought it under control before any further damage could be done. In 1927 a flood covered the same area with three feet of water.
As you can tell, I’m trying to soak up as much knowledge during my trip through Canada as possible. I am absolutely fascinated by the people, the geography and the history.
After the tour we passed a local radio station and as a few of us expressed an interest in it, we went in to pay the managers and presenters a visit. It’s a small local station with a catchment area of about 100 miles so in many respects, it’s similar to our local station LMFM. It’s a tiny place in the middle of the town. The walls are lined with records, tapes and a few CD’s. They have no computerized repository but a local man has written their station management software which is really interesting. They seem to have similar license requirements compared to our local stations. They are also streaming online so I’ve suggested that they stream to iTunes or at the very least podcast their live shows.
After the radio station, we paid a visit to their local grave yard. This was an unusual thing to do but if you think about it, it was fitting. I have had a real emotive connection to the stories and songs that I’ve heard in Canada. I have often thought of emigrating with my family and I’m still thinking about it. That’s a post for another day of course. It’s one thing thinking about emigrating but it’s another thing entirely leaving your family, your country, your friends and your culture to move somewhere else. I think it’s one of the reasons why I have been so enthralled by the songs and stories I’ve heard over here. People left here when there was no skype, no mobile phones, no Internet and no easy travel. They missed home. They were heart broken. To ease their suffering, and retain their unique identity, they spread the Irish culture. However, most of them dreamt of returning home someday. When they couldn’t, they asked that their origin be marked on their grave stone so that family and friends who came looking would find them. We found McCarthy, McPhail, Riley, Dwyer, Holly, Lynch, Geeran, Murray, Daly, murphy, Flynn, and many many more. The graves were often simple but some grave stones even had transcriptions and prayers in Irish. I get the impression that a hundred years ago, this was a thriving Irish settlement. They lost some of their connections with Ireland but they didn’t lose their identity or culture. Recently, with the Irish gathering, and now the Comhaltas tour, that connection has been firmly re-established and the elation of the 700 residents of Killaloe can be felt clearly.
The songs and stories really meant a lot to me but visiting the grave yard really had an impact on me. Yes, people made a life for themselves here and many of them were successful and have been the foundations of what are now thriving and solid communities but they still missed home. They still wanted to get back to Ireland and when they died, they wanted people know where they came from. Therefore, when everyone had gone, myself and Ken returned to the graveyard with two local ladies so that I could play two slow airs. It was my way of quietly paying tribute to those who left Ireland when there was little hope of returning. We had bought Irish culture to Killaloe and to their descendants but I wanted to bring some culture to their forbears.
I played amazing grace there as the first tune. It was the first time I played it since the 25th of May at my granny’s burial. It was quite difficult to play it again because it bought back a day I didn’t handle particularly well but it was fitting.
Last night, we played for a packed hall of 600 people. We were in great spirits starting the performance and our energy carried right through to the audience. They seemed to love it. My favourite solos continue to be Rebecca’s first tune on Fiddle, Anna on harp and Clara on Concertina. All the other musicians in the group are spectacular. Their solos reflect this but these are three of my favourites. In relation to the musicians, I have rarely seen such talent. I’m in awe of some of them. They play such an array of instruments and they have such a lovely style. I have no problem saying this either. I consider myself to be a reasonable piper and an adequate bodhran player but the day I stop learning is the day I’ll stop playing. I’m sure the others in the group feel the same but their standard is higher than I would ever anticipate reaching. Not that I’ll not try but you should hear some of the music that I’ve had the fortune to listen to while on this tour.
We went to a local family home after the performance to socialize with the volunteers and play some music. It was nice to get an opportunity to show our gratitude. We felt very welcome there so I hope they enjoyed our visit.
We’re back on the bus now for a short trip of two and a half hours to the next performance and the next host family. We’re nearing the end of our trip now. I’ll write more in a day or two.
Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to leave a comment on this or other posts to let me know if you’re enjoying them or if you have questions.