Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Day 11, "Ireland" seminar trip

[These are the daily posts located at Google Maps. Posting one-a-day in the aftermath.]

Nice easy day from Galway down through Clarinbridge toward Ennis. Marty found his way in through Galway’s circuitous one-way streets and pulled up outside the Sleepzone, where we took our farewells from Michelle, Deidre, and the rest of the top-notch staff. Quickly made our way out of the city’s (typically urban/industrial) outskirts and headed south on the N18 for Clarinbridge, at the very foot of Galway Bay.

It’s a pretty town, so-called because of the little river Clairin that runs through, consisting of a single main street and a triangular village “square”, with antique shops and pubs, only marred by the heavy-industrial traffic that barrels through on the N18. We slipped up a tree-lined side road running out of town to find Tom Cussen’s banjo shop.

Tom’s a good friend from past years, who we first met in 1999 when Tom loaned Chris a banjo for a great night of music in Tulla down in East Clare. Tom’s built banjos and led the great ceili band Shaskeen in Galway ever since the 1970s, when, like a whole generation of young Irish musicians and artists, he moved west to go to school. His shop is down a lane behind his home, and, as Dr Smith said, “for a banjo-player it’s a bit like Aladdin’s Cave”: a tiny showroom lined on all four walls with three ranks of suspended instruments: vintage, new, and “Clareen” banjos (Tom’s own line).

Tom’s also very canny about how best to sell Clareens to prospective buyers: that loaned banjo in ’99 was his top-of-the-line “Elite”, and for a banjo-player was about as tricked-out a machine as anything on MTV Rides—as Dr Smith said, “In ’99, I played one note on that banjo, and I felt my wallet shriek.” Even for those students who are not musicians or crafts-inclined, Tom’s shop is a fascinating place: he takes them through the sanding room, the spraying room, and the fabrication room, accompanied by the various friendly dogs who clearly believe they run the place. Lots of photos are taken and questions asked, both of which Tom fields with his customary understated aplomb. Then it was back down to Clarinbridge’s tiny main road for lunch at Paddy Burke’s.

Paddy Burke’s is one of the top-ranked seafood restaurants in Ireland. With Galway Bay at the foot of the drive, and a beautiful old stone-walled building which has probably stood by the Galway-Ennis road for at least 400 years, it has both a wonderful atmosphere and wonderful access to the “Catch of the Day.” We had rung ahead for a reservation and the Paddy’s staff was very flexible about accommodating us. As in past year’s “The Trip” paid for lunches here, but all were reassured that they were not obligated to order seafood if they were not so inclined. And, as in past years, this set of menu options was a relief for some and a challenge for others: those Texans missing Mom’s home cooking could order steak or beef stew, while the adventurous ones (or those with a wider experience of maritime cuisines) could order seafood chowder, “fried plaice” (cod and chips) or large plates of intriguingly weird-looking steamed mussels. For a group who’d come into the place chilly, sleepy and hungry (with Paddy Burke’s on the itinerary as a “Trip Lunch,” Dr Smith had taken a break from preparing the hostels’ “Dr Smith’s Blue-Plate Special”, and they’d made do with toast and tea), when warmed-up and filled-up they woke up as well, and were in good fettle for the ride down past Ennis (on the most welcome new “Ennis Bypass”, part of the massive modernization of the West’s roads systems which is both easing the new traffic jams, and also causing consternation among those who wish to preserve the ancient landscapes) and into Newmarket-on-Fergus.

Newmarket is the old Ennis-Limerick highway town, which was a common stopping-over place for those flying out of Shannon, just down the road; in fact, our first visit to Newmarket, in 2001, was by happenstance—we’d been touring around the country, and needed a B&B to overnight before our Sunday flight, so winding up in Newmarket. It’s a nice place, with several excellent pubs, a late-night Chinese takeaway joint, a very comfortable bar/restaurant/guesthouse called the Hunter’s Inn, and numerous friendly B&Bs. Like many suburban towns in the West, Newmarket is undergoing a building boom as Galway, Ennis, and Limerick become congested, so the B&B’s known to us from past years were all three closed, having “the builders in” and expanding.

Luckily, our good friend Deirdre O’Brien-Vaughan, a local music teacher, music advocate, and all-around community dynamo, had come through once again and “sorted us out”, putting us in touch with Mrs Conheady at Beechgrove Farmhouse for our 6 girls, and with the Flemings (and son Conor, a traditional musician and university student) for our 5 boys. The students subsided into their comfortable, spotless, and well-bedded rooms with audible sighs of relief, and we left them to naps, clean showers, and some welcome “mothering.” Ennis and the official opening of Fleadh Nua tonight!


Very pleasant and nicely low-key opening to the Fleadh—except for Dr Smith finding out, approximately 90 minutes before the event, that he was scheduled to give a speech providing “The American Perspective” as part of other addresses by the Mayor of Ennis, the Chair of the Fleadh Nua committee, the chair of the local chapter of Ceoltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (the Irish traditional music advocacy organization), and senior national Senator Labhras O Murchiu. It all worked out well in the event, with a classic accompanying Irish-municipal-event high tea of ham-and-butter sandwiches, tea and coffee, upon which both the Ceoltas stalwarts and 11 discreet-but-ravenous Texans descended. It was a classic Irish event in other ways as well: the sound-system crew arrived 20 minutes after the speeches were to start, every speech (even including Dr Smith’s) began with a brief prologue in Irish—if only enough to establish the speaker’s credibility—and there were nods and vigorous applause at every mention of nationalism, the sad past, and the rosy future. Dr Smith endeavored to match his tone to this aesthetic—not an easy task for a cynic such as he.

After the opening, it was upstairs to the large ballroom on the top floor of the Old Ground Hotel, where the magisterial dance teacher Dick O Connell, and the legendary Tulla Ceili Band (fiddles, flutes, accordions, electric piano, and drum set), were just starting to crank up tunes for the dancers.

Attending a ceili by these stalwarts is an amazing experience for an American, primarily but not exclusively because, here in Ennis, music which in the States is an obscure upper-middle-class niche interest is the heart’s-blood of many people’s lives. Everyone in Ennis can dance the sets; everyone knows the classic Tulla Band tune medleys, and everyone knows almost everyone. The other result, of course, is that when you walk into the Old Ground Hotel’s ballroom with 12 Americans in tow, almost everyone knows you’re there and who you are. And, of course, it’s nice to be recognized by old (and new) friends. And then the pianist kicks off two opening chords, and the band sails into a set that these same musicians recorded fifty years before, and it feels just about as if the top floor of the Old Ground is going to fly off into the sunset Ennis sky

Our kids acquitted themselves just fine, waiting for a high sign and then getting stuck-in to the sets. Dick is a master at mixing-and-matching veteran and newbie dancers so that each eight-some has just enough experience to make it through the multiple figures of each set—and he and his fellow teachers are agile and quick enough to see traffic-jams and collisions almost before they happen, and to fend them off. A very pleasant night altogether.

No comments: