Musical Arrival in Dublin
Shortly after we got to Dublin in mid-August, we discovered a pub called Mulligan’s Cobblestone that features traditional Irish music performed by musicians who drop by to play.
Inside the front section of the Cobblestone, by the window looking out onto the street, is an area posted with signs indicating that the seats there are reserved for musicians.
We lucked out on our first visit to the Cobblestone.
It was happy hour, late in the afternoon. Beer prices were steeply discounted. The sun to the west was shining through the windows, warmly bathing the musicians’ area in yellow-orange light.
As we walked in, there were two seats open on the corner of the bar, directly in front of the musicians’ area. We sat, facing the musicians, just a few feet away.
We ordered two pints of stout and sat back to enjoy an hour or so of good Irish music.
Mulligan’s Cobblestone, Dublin (See Brian’s shoe in the corner of the photo? That’s how close we were to the musicians!)
It is easy to engage the Irish in conversation. During breaks, we became acquainted with some of the musicians, including the young woman playing the fiddle in the photo above.
Although she herself was from Dublin, she told us her parents were from Donegal, a remote county in the northwest of Ireland, and that she had spent her formative years visiting her grandparents up there.
Donegal is located very far north, but it is within the Republic of Ireland, to the west of what is called Northern Ireland.
Well, as it happens, Donegal is where Frank’s mother, Kate Maguire, was born on New Year’s Eve in 1923.
The young Dublin woman responded warmly when she learned about our Donegal connection.
She played the fiddle in the traditional Donegal style of Frank’s grandfather, Bernard (“Barney”) Maguire, who was a fiddler all his life.
Although our young friend was quite a good player herself, truly the master fiddler was the older man in the foreground of the photo above.
The Importance of Rhythm
Traditional Irish music, of course, is mostly dance music. The rhythm is infectious, especially if (as in Frank’s case) it’s the music you grew up with in an Irish family.
Rhythm! That’s the ticket when it comes to Irish music…..whether drumming, stomping of the feet, clapping……or spoons!
Yes, friends, an easy way to add a rhythmic accompaniment to traditional Irish music is a pair of cheap tablespoons or teaspoons in the hands of a skilled spoons player.
Frank, as it happens, has been a pretty good spoons player for decades. He can accompany with a nice, consistent rhythm a variety of traditional American and Irish music.
In Glenties the Spoons Came Out
At the Cobblestone in Dublin, Frank tapped his foot but could not work up the nerve to ask the bartender for a pair of spoons.
This changed when we got to Glenties, the small town in Donegal where Frank’s mother was born, and where lots of his family originated.
There, at the Highlands Hotel, after dinner one evening, they featured two local fiddlers.
That was the night when Frank overcame his inhibitions and seized his destiny as an Irish spoons player.
At Frank’s request, one of the first tunes they played was “Shoe the Donkey’s Big Toe,” an old jig Frank’s grandfather used to play for his grandchildren many years ago. Everyone in Donegal knows “Shoe the Donkey.”
Frank’s Spoons Debut at the Highlands Hotel, Glenties, Donegal
Westport Music Scene
The next stop on our musical tour of Ireland was Westport, in County Mayo. They have a vibrant music scene there. At one point in his life, John Lennon purchased one of the many islands just offshore from Westport, with the intention of making a home there.
Along its main street, Westport has a number of pubs featuring traditional Irish music. Like the Cobblestone in Dublin, they rely on drop-in performers.
The most noteworthy of these was Matt Molloy’s. They attract a lot of very talented Irish musicians and a big crowd of spectators.
Alas, Frank never quite got the opportunity (or nerve) to play the spoons in Westport.
But we certainly enjoyed some wonderful music in several different pubs there.
One night in Westport, the crowd at Matt Malloy’s was too much, so we went across the street to another pub.
Playing there was a duo, man and woman, featuring more contemporary music. We were enchanted by their rendition of “Whiter Shade of Pale” by the British group Procol Harem, from the 1960s.
Out front, during a smoke break, the man in the duo, who resembled the rocker David Crosby, told us his story about encountering John Lennon there in Westport. We were duly impressed.
A Magical Night in Kilrush
In southwest County Clare is a ferry that crosses the Shannon River into County Kerry.
Just a few kilometers up the road from the ferry is the beautiful port town of Kilrush.
Late one afternoon, we reached the ferry terminal, and then decided to turn back and stay a night in Kilrush. We would take the ferry the next morning.
We drove back into Kilrush, and right on the corner of the main square we found a delightful, family owned B&B called Buggle’s, where we found a room. They also have a pub in the adjoining building.
The proprietress at Buggle’s was a delightful woman named Carmen. The property has been in her family for several generations.
Carmen and her siblings grew up in the old house that is now converted into a B&B. The pub next door also has been in their family for a couple of generations.
We walked up town for dinner, and then stopped in the pub afterwards for a beer. We asked Carmen about the music. She told us it would begin around 10:00 PM, which seemed surprisingly late for such a small town. The pub at that moment was empty and the prospect seemed remote that there would be much action that night.
But then Francis, Carmen’s brother, arrived, and things began to warm up. Francis was delightful. He had a devilish sense of humor that created just the right environment for music and fun.
Gradually the place filled to capacity. Having been the first to arrive, we had our choice of tables. We took seats right next to the musicians’ area.
A middle-aged woman from town arrived with her accordion. Carmen served her a cup of tea.
Accompanying her on the Irish harp was her son, a truly angelic young man not yet 20.
Francis told us this modest young man had been named a Junior Grand Master harpist of Ireland in a national competition. We found it impossible not to be smitten as he masterfully plucked beautiful, rhythmic tunes on the harp.
It was natural, and not the least bit forced, for Frank to play spoons alongside this group of local musicians. Carmen kindly supplied spoons from the kitchen. The musicians sincerely enjoyed the rhythmic accompaniment. Frank was part of the band.
Musically, it was a variety show.
Carmen our hostess sang a sad song or two, accompanying herself on guitar.
A young Irishman from North Carolina, who was home visiting along with his parents, also came forward. He sang several tragic ballads about heartbreak and martyrdom during the struggles for independence from England in 1916.
Buggle’s that night had a very Republican vibe, in the Irish sense of that term. The spirit of 1916, when Ireland’s war of independence began, is very alive throughout the Republic during this 100th anniversary year.
Next to us in the seating area was an affable group of Brits who have vacation homes in Kilrush. They were well known in Buggle’s and completely comfortable and welcome there.
Frank leaned over and impishly asked whether they would like to sing a song about “the joys of English rule.” There were good laughs all around.
But, oh, the music that night was heavenly, and the company was warm and good-humored. As the Irish say, the craic was good!
The next morning, after a full Irish breakfast and warm farewell from Carmen, our hostess, we were on the ferry across the Shannon to County Clare.
Killarney, the Las Vegas of Irish Music
Musically speaking, our next major stop was the town of Killarney. An Irishman had warned us that Killarney was “full of Americans.” Indeed it was.
Keeping Americans entertained is the main industry, or so it seemed, in Killarney. All over the town center are pubs that broadcast the music from within to the streets outside.
One night at a place called Murphy’s Pub, Frank asked to accompany a group of musicians on spoons. One of them kindly helped Frank obtain a pair of spoons from the bartender.
Afterwards, the musicians complimented Frank on his timing. They invited Frank to keep the spoons. That set of spoons traveled with us thereafter in the bottom of Frank’s backpack.
A visitor from Germany took some pictures of the performance at Murphy’s and emailed them to us later.
We had a great time enjoying the variety of musical venues, as well as street musicians, in the touristy yet beautiful town of Killarney.
But the thing about Killarney is that the music in the pubs is amplified and consequently very loud. In this respect it lacks the authentic charm of the music in the smaller towns we had visited previously on our tour through Ireland.
A Spoonful of Memories
We love Ireland and the Irish people with their warmth and ready wit. We have many cherished memories of our visits there, both last year (2015) and again this year (2016).
Among the sweetest of our memories is the welcome Frank received as a spoons player in the pubs throughout Ireland during our recent tour.