Thursday, June 07, 2007

Day 13, "Ireland" seminar trip

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

Saturday morning, last day of the journey—and we’ll sleep when we’re home.

No takers for the 9am shuttle—and no bother for Chris and Angie, as it gave us a vehicle and two free hours, which we put to good use with a run out east of Newmarket to Quin, where there is a beautiful (and remarkably unknown) 15th century Franciscan abbey, built on the ruins of a 12th century Norman keep. Very reminiscent of Sligo Abbey, because the Franciscans, like most monastic orders, had their own specific and prescribed approaches to monastic architecture, design, calendar, and work habits. Out in a field east of the river, essentially deserted, but very complex and permitting lots of climbing, exploration, and contemplation. A quick tea-and-scones break at the Abbey Pub, a national award-winner dining experience, and it was back to Newmarket for the noon run. By now, it’s raining pretty steadily, so the students can count on a classic Fleadh experience (crowded, wet, and confusing).

Full complement on the noon shuttles; very pleasant visit with Mrs Fleming as we settled the bill (to save hurry and bother on an early Sunday departure), and a second run to pick up girls.

We love walking around Ennis during the Fleadh, both because we enjoy running into old friends and because we love to see our students elsewhere in the crowd, taking it all in: Brian singing “The Shamrock Shore” on the sound truck (there’s a party piece that’s gotten its full mileage), Jillian coming back beaming from Custy’s Music Shop (the best Irish trad music shop in the world) with a new bodhran on her back (after Junior Davey playing her bones, there was really no way she wasn’t going to come home with a bodhran); Lincey, Brian, and Jeremy slipping through the crowds at the Old Ground Hotel; Eric eating periwinkles under a tree out of the rain. Meeting old friends Mick Moloney and Niamh Parsons, who we know from half a world away in New York and Boston, having a drink under an awning outside Brogan’s, “The Tape Worm” (a Clare resident whose name few know, but who has been recording seemingly every musical event anywhere in the county for the past 50 years) holding a mini-recorder up to a friend’s mouth as the friend lilted an obscure old tune in the lobby at the Old Ground.


7:30pm run, and six of our group actually opted for an early night in: we think the appeal of another shower, clean jammies, and a full night’s sleep before the 8am airport run was just a little too powerful (it helps that both Mrs Conheady and Mrs Fleming were wonderful landladies: solicitous and considerate, yet simultaneously easy-going and flexible. The other five stayed in Ennis, determined we think to wring every last minute, every last tune, and every last dance out of the night, the Fleadh, and the trip as a whole. We leave in a little while for a last blast of ceol (music) ourselves, before the final 1:00am (1:30am? 1:45am? who knows?) Dr Smith shuttle back to Newmarket and an early start.

[Later still:

Dallas, and journey’s end. Great music and much congestion in and around Ennis’s O’Connell Square, O’Connell Street, and the Old Ground Hotel—the axis that defines Fleadh Nua. We drove back north through Clarecastle (site of an old Norman keep that commanded the River Fergus as it ran from central Clare down to the Shannon) and on into Ennis and the Old Ground, site of our group’s rendezvous. We were headed for Cois na Ambhna, the beautiful purpose-built octagonal dance-hall belonging to Ceoltas on the north side of town on the Galway road, but thought we’d swing by the Old Ground first to pick up any stragglers. Our timing was excellent—just as we pulled into the car-park, we idled past two of our people, who’d been offered a lift by a new friend to CnA but we glad to ride the Dr Smith van. On to CnA, where we readily found a parking place and walked into the hall in time to see the first sets forming, getting ready to dance to the music of the Kilfenora Ceili Band.

The Kilfenora is the other of the most venerable ceili bands in Clare—bands that were formed in the 1930s to play in the new contexts of the parish dance hall (where behavior could be monitored and admission costs tithed) and the national radio network. The great rivalry was between East Clare’s Tulla Ceili Band, led by the great P. Joe Hayes, father of trad superstar Martin, and North Clare’s Kilfenora, led by a rotating cast but always including the stalwart box of ? and fiddle of Peadar O’Loughlin. Both bands were/are great, with the Tulla perhaps a bit subtler and “spookier”—and funkier—and the Kilfenora tighter, more straightforward, and more driving. It was wonderful that our dancers had had a chance to experience both: the Tulla on Thursday and the Kilfenora on this closing evening. Our dancers were not shy about getting “stuck-in,” and the Clare set-dancers responded with their customary hospitality and quick on-the-fly tutorials in the sets.

The set-dances (different than the step- or ceili-dances) are the old 17th-18th century forms which were danced, in regional variations, in kitchens and at open-air crossroads dance platforms all across Ireland. They’re an outgrowth of the collision between the indigenous Irish love for dancing, which is documented (but not notated) all the way back to the Middle Ages, and the imported “Continental” dances (quadrille, minuet, mazurka, and so on) which were brought to Ireland in the 18th century and taught throughout the countryside by itinerant dance-masters. Attempts were made to purge the sets in the nationalist 1890s, out of a conviction that they represented a “foreign contagion” which contaminated indigenous forms—though that was certainly not the perspective of the local dancers—and the 1890s-1960s were an arid and unfriendly time for the traditional dance. Replaced by the solo step-dances modernized by Riverdance, and by the simpler, much more calisthenic, and much less body-contact-oriented ceili dances (“Leave enough space for the Holy Ghost!”), the sets languished for several decades, preserved by certain families in private kitchen-parties, but were revived in the 1980s, and are now stronger and more popular than ever.

They’re danced in multiple “figures,” combining the “threes and sevens” footwork and geometric patterns borrowed by ceili dances (and, eventually, American square dancing), and the figures, swings, handclasps, and other circuitous patterns of Renaissance French court dance. In each, there is a “set” of figures, danced to a succession of tune types (reel-reel-reel-hornpipe-reel for the “Caledonian” set, for example), but revved up in tempo by the drive of the ceil bands.

Our kids acquitted themselves beautifully. It helped that they’d had ceili dance as part of their semester’s seminar, and that they’d been getting some impromptu and more formal tuition over the course of the two weeks, but it also helped that the Clare set-dancers are old hands at swinging newbies into the dances. From a vantage point in the balcony, one could look down on Cois na Ambhna’s beautiful octagonal dance floor and see Becca, Steve, Eric, Jillian, Josh, and others hurtling through the figures and making friends as they went. As is traditional with our trip, Dr Smith applied an Irish time-sense to the “1:00am” deadline so that our kids could dance the very last set of the evening and of the trip—and then we were further (and happily) delayed by the chance to visit with, renew acquaintance with, and receive congratulations about our dancers from the Clare stalwarts. They were insistent that we bring them back (or at least a new crop) next year—and we will

Then it was back into the Dr Smith shuttle for a last run south through Ennis (dodging confused Americans in rental cars driving the wrong way through roundabouts), past Clarecastle and sleeping Newmarket, to drop them at their lodgings. Airport shuttle runs commence in 6 hours.

No comments: