“Two people got blown off the Cliffs this year so far,” the bus driver cheerfully informed the nearby passenger who had asked. The man probably wished he hadn’t asked about how dangerous the Cliffs of Moher could be. Our bus from Dublin to Doolin was near its destination, and nearing that, the famous Cliffs. “In fact, two to three people usually die each year because they get too close to the edge without minding the high winds.”
Before I get into more detail on this part of Ireland, let me take you back just a bit. You see, Ireland for me has always been a special kind of place. I think it started back in high school when I became a fan of its traditional music, or “trad” for short as it is known colloquially. For an idea of what Irish traditional music is like, just think back to the movie “Titanic”. No, I’m not talking about some shrieking harpy squawking out sappy ballads composed by soap opera writers. I’m talking about the party scene in steerage-class below decks where they had the uillean pipes, fiddles, flutes, and bodhrans churning out foot-stomping music.
In Ireland, this style of music is a large part of their culture. In pubs around the country, local musicians will gather at specific times to play their tunes and songs with each other. Since it is traditional music, most musicians and singers know many of the same tunes and songs. They don’t get usually get paid, but might get free pints at the bar. It’s just people getting together to play music they love while knocking back some beer for the fun of it. These gatherings are called sessions.
During theses sessions, if you happen to get drunk enough to run around the town naked while laughing at telephone poles in the process, that’s all part of the fun. Music sessions with friends, old and new, are much more preferable to horrible things like war, murder, religious fundamentalism, racism and bigotry, or Fox & Friends.
And so, my traveling partner Alisa and I decided to go to Doolin in County Clare. Why Doolin? Because a merry, drunken Irishman in Quay’s bar recommended it. Always follow the advice of the locals no matter how inebriated. Well, not always because they could advise something crazy like snorkeling with jellyfish or running for political office. But this gentleman had bought me a Guinness, so I thought he was at least worth listening to. Sort of. Anyway, he told me that Doolin was a small town on the coast and was well known for its authentic sessions.
Doolin here we come. The only real hurdle was getting there on time.
You see, the traditional music sessions at the pubs in Dublin ended around 9:30pm to 10:00pm. After that, they pumped out the latest popular music on their sound systems. It got a little annoying. I remember being quite toasty one evening and vocally complaining to whoever I was drinking with at the time, that it was a travesty that a Britney Spears song would be blaring at a pub in Ireland. That wench!
Alisa and I had gone to the bus station in Dublin, but we realized that we had missed the noon bus to Doolin. The next one wasn’t until later that afternoon. We bought our tickets anyway, but saw that we wouldn’t arrive until about 9:30pm.
As we later found out, we had nothing to worry about.
After scaring the tourist who had asked about the Cliffs of Moher, the bus driver dropped us off in Doolin. Alisa and I hurried to O’brien’s hostel where we purchased our bunks and dashed up to the dorm room. We didn’t even bother trying to lock up our packs. We just threw them on the bunks and we were out the door, flying out of the hostel and down the lane.
Not far from our hostel we saw the sign for O’Conner’s pub just up the street. To me, it was like a beacon of good times ahead. Especially since the sun was setting at this time, its beams of light illuminated the door and cast surreal shadows throughout area. I remember that the street seemed eerily quiet just before we got to the pub. As if we were some of the only people awake in this small, Irish town. But that was not the case when we walked inside.
The first thing that greeted us when I opened the door was a cacophony of sound. I heard the distinct traditional music playing as soon as the heavy, wooden door was barely a few inches ajar. Once it fully opened, the din of people chatting and the clank, clink, crash of pint glasses added to the mix. Inside, O’Conner’s pub was packed more than an auditorium full of teen-aged girls and fifty year-old creepers at a Miley Cyrus concert. I looked back outside, and seeing almost no live human there while the inside was full of churning bodies, I knew this was the reason for the empty street. Everyone was here inside the pub. A good sign.
Alisa and I threaded our way through the entryway and found the session band. The first thing I noticed wasn’t just the musicians. It was the lack of microphones, speakers, or a soundboard. There was only a single microphone hanging above them. It dangled on its cord above the table they all gathered around, suspended from the ceiling above.
There were two fiddlers, a flute player, a guitar player, a button accordian player, and a bodhran player. This bodhran player had the most rustic and unique bodhran I’ve ever seen. For those that are unfamiliar, a bodhran is an Irish drum. It’s rather flat, only a few inches thick and open in the back. One hand manipulates the tones by pressing it against the back side of the skin in various places, while the other hand hammers out the beats with a small stick called a tipper.
This bodhran in question was made from tree bark. Instead of the nice, finished wood that has been sanded and stained, the main sections were just the outer bark of some tree. A crude goatskin was stretched over it and fastened in place with rope. And it sounded amazing (and by amazing I mean it sounded nothing like Justin Bieber).
The music was still in full swing, belting out favorites like Drowsie Maggie, The Star of Munster, The Mason’s Apron, and Julia Delayney’s. The session band had the attention of the entire pub. Given the amount of people in here, probably the population of the whole town.
The next thing on our list, and this is important to complete your all-Ireland experience at a country pub, was beer. Easier said than done here.
Navigating the crowded pub to reach the bar was like a mosh pit at a Megadeth concert. I would know. The only difference was that here in this modest country pub there were no skinheads or guys wearing chain mail. This made approaching the bar a little less dangerous. Only a little. I may have seen a guy dressed like an orc, but I can’t be too sure. It was in passing and we were thirsty.
Alisa and I managed to reach the bar and get some pints with only a minor bit of elbowing and sword fighting, then returned to the band to enjoy the rest of the evening. The band would play a rollicking set of tunes, and we would drink more beer. The band would take a five or ten minute break, and we would drink more beer. Every now and then a new fiddler or flute player would show up and the other musicians greeted him or her happily. We drank more beer.
Sometimes in between instrumental sets, someone in the pub would break out in song. That’s the beauty of a session. Anyone can join in. One particular man that sang several songs that evening stood out in my mind. I don’t remember his name, but I’ll refer to him as the Old Irish Singer. He stood next to the session musicians the entire evening. He is what I would describe as the stereotypical Irish pub patron; an older gentleman with short, gray hair, which was covered in a wool tamoshanter cap. He was neither tall nor short, thin nor fat, but did possess a bit of paunch–what we would refer to as a beer belly. He carried his paunch like a badge of honor and wore a coarse, tweed jacket most of the evening with a scarf draped around the back of his neck.
The Old Irish Singer had a pint glass of Guinness in one hand and a set of wooden spoons in the other. During the instrumental sections of music, the reels and jigs, he merrily clacked away with the spoons in time with the tunes. In between the reels and jigs, this man would belt out some of the best renditions of Irish traditional favorites that I’ve ever heard. And he did it all acapella.
We continued to drink beer.
This session wasn’t scheduled for specific times. The band continued to play until late into the night. By the time they ended, many of us remained in the pub chatting and socializing. We got to chatting with the Old Irish Singer about how awesome everything was. He informed us that O’Connell’s was one of three pubs in Doolin; all three equally busy and raucous every night. He told us that he alternated between here and Mcgann’s.
Oh, and we continued our consumption of hoppy libations. This went on until around 3:30am or so. It would have continued until dawn, but one of the men behind the bar, the owner I think, went about the main room and shouted, “All right, we’re closing! Get the hell out of here!”
Alisa and I stumbled out of O’Connell’s pub and into the pitch black. Yes, it was pitch black because Doolin was too small to be bothered to put up streetlights. We allowed our eyes to adjust to the dark, allowing the chilly air to shake off the beer goggles, and staggered back to the hostel narrowly avoiding a fall into the nearby stream.
Falling into the stream would have been quite awkward, because we were going to the edge of the Cliffs of Moher in the morning.