Friday, 30 March 2012

How to join a traditional Irish music session

As with many things in life, the clue's in the name. And in this instance the name's in Irish.

I'm talking pubs here, and names over pub doorways. In Corca Dhuibne you won't find The Frog and Ferret or The Old Anchor. Instead you'll see names like Tigh Uí Mhurchú, Tigh Uí Chatháin or Tigh an tSaorsigh. The word tigh in Irish means house. So those names mean Murphy's house, Kane's house and Sayer's.

The reason's simple. Round here that's what pubs were till quite recently. Ordinary houses where people came together to share each other's company after a day in the fields or out fishing. 

I don't know why particular houses were chosen. The house where I'm writing this was one. It's a low stone house, built over a hundred years ago in the foothills of the mountain. People say the room was always warm; that its high, boarded ceiling made a great acoustic for music; and that the couple who lived here had no children, so there was no fear of waking the baby. Maybe those were some of the reasons. I know that the couple were called Neillí Mhuiris and Paddy Martin and that their names are still a byword for hospitality.

In the past when the neighbours gathered in the evenings, there'd sometimes be a bottle or even a barrel to share as well. Other times there wouldn't. But there'd always be stories, dancing and music. The custom's called bothántaíocht. It's the reason why music's still an intrinsic part of Irish pub culture today.

Houses where neighbours gathered for nights of bothántaíocht were known as 'rambling houses' in English. Many pubs started life as rambling houses and went on to get a license to sell drink. Which explains the names. To the locals they're still Kane's house or Murphy's, or Sayers's - gathering places for neighbours and extensions of the owner's homes. 

And this is something you need to keep in mind when you decide to join a pub session. 

Sessions are organic gatherings, relaxed, friendly and convivial: you never know what combination of instruments will arrive on any occasion. People ramble in, order drinks at the bar and wander over to join the musicians, who gather round the fire or at a table. There might be fiddles, accordions, concertinas or whistles. Sometime there'll be pipes or a flute. Sometimes there's a bodhrán, the traditional Irish skin drum. People often bring several instruments and swap from one to another for different tunes. Conventionally Irish traditional music's played in unison, not harmonized, and new arrivals appear just to pick up the tune and join in whenever they feel like it.

But like everything else in Corca Dhuibhne, pub music-making involves courtesy and etiquette that's easy for outsiders to miss. 

Everything's understated. Decisions are made with a nod or a glance but the sequence of tunes is always led by the senior member in the group, who also calls for people to sing or to play solo. New tunes and their sources are valued. People will want to know where you learnt a particular variation, where it came from and who taught it to you. Joining a pub session's a wonderful experience. You'll be welcomed and, if the musicians are local, you'll be drawn into a dynamic living tradition that stretches back across centuries.

But you might want to sip your drink at the bar for a while before you sit down with your tin whistle. And if you haven't joined that group before, you might want to wait to be asked before you start playing.

Basically, what you need to remember is that you're a guest in somebody's house.

Monday, 12 March 2012

St. Patrick's Day on the Dingle Peninsula

Here in Corca Dhuibhne this week's about watching the weather. One thing you don't want on St.Patrick's Day is rain on your parade. 

The weather at the end of the Dingle peninsula sweeps straight in from the Atlantic, so with a strong wind behind it the rain can pass us in minutes. This year primroses and celandine are already in flower by the roadsides. And shamrock's growing wet and green in the fields.

And last year the weather was glorious. Sitting in the church in Ballyferriter I watched dust motes dancing in sunlight as the congregation sang Dóchas Linn Naomh Pádraig. Later, over the gentle sound of An Drúcht Geal Ceoigh on the organ, you could hear sheep calling on the mountain.Then, as the priest left the altar, the church doors swung open and people streamed out into the sunshine to the sound of whistles, concertinas, accordions and fiddle, all playing St. Patrick's Day in jig-time.

Outside, neighbours shook hands and swapped news. The musicians inside were still playing polkas as people crossed the road from the church to the café and sat out of doors to drink tea and eat scones. Everyone wore a touch of green, a scarf, a bunch of shamrock, and - in the case of the kids - the occasional green and gold Kerry football strip: when it comes to emblems of identity round these parts, the national saint and the national game run pretty much neck and neck.

I remember the sun on my face outside the café, the smell of the sea from the beach, and the shadows of clouds on the mountains.

And I remember climbing the steep road home afterwards, while my mind turned the bright kaleidoscope of stories, ideas and images I was trying to capture in a book.

The book's called The House on an Irish Hillside and from that day to this I've been working on it. Months of writing, rewriting, editing, agonising, panicking, refocusing, and allowing the kaleidoscope to turn.

Then more months of copyediting, proofreading and discussions about design. 

This week, for the first time, I've seen the cover - an image of an isolated house, high on a hill, with a golden sunset casting shadows across cropped green grass. It captures a beautiful sense of energy in stillness. And the colours and proportions are a perfect reflection of the intense effect of light in Corca Dhuibhne.

The image isn't available from the publishers yet so I can't show it here. 

But now that I've seen it I can relax and enjoy the parade.

Which brings me back to the weather. Last night the sun went down through wisps of ragged fog. The sky was silver, not golden, and the moon rose behind clouds.Today the top of the mountain's hardly visible. And the tv forecast for Saturday's not looking good.


So my own touch of green this St. Patrick's Day may be wellies.

But we could get sunshine yet.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Writers need Rituals

Writers live uncertain lives. And people who live uncertain lives love ritual. Trust me, I know. I've spent half my life studying ritual in folklore and mythology, and the other half creating rituals of my own. 

Rituals are familiar gestures and patterns that reassure, comfort and energise the people who inherit or create them. Wherever we go we seek out the right conditions in which to re-enact them. And having found the right conditions we're content.

For me it's bookshops-that-are-coffeeshops-that-serve-tea. 

Normally I work facing a computer and a blank wall. But every now and then, I need to get away from my desk with a pencil, a rubber, a sharpener and a notebook. It's when I'm starting something. Or finishing something. Or at a turning point. Or stuck...

... actually I'm not sure quite when it happens. But the point is that a point comes when I have to get out of the house and into a bookshop, surround myself with other people's words and images, make pencil marks on paper, and drink tea.

So wherever I live I need to find someplace that'll put up with crumpled pages on the table, pencil sharpenings scrunched into napkins and endless requests for hot water and more milk.

Not an easy ask.

But somehow, in both Bermondsey and Corca Dhuibhne, I've been blessed.

In Bermondsey there's the wonderful Woolfson & Tay, at 13 Bermondsey Sq., run by Shivaun and Frances, two women with a dynamic, personal vision of what a bookshop should be. It's modern, spacious and spotless. The books are eclectic and exciting, 'the kind of stories that celebrate the human experience and its resilience'. There's a gallery space at the back. The food served in the calm, elegant coffeeshop's delicious. And they make a proper cup of tea.

In Corca Dhuibhne it's Dingle's Café Liteartha, run by Seoirse, a man with a tweedy hat, a deep love of the Irish language, and a formidable knowledge of Irish books. Where Woolfson & Tay is all open spaces, white walls and contemporary lighting, The Café Liteartha's narrow, dark and inviting. The shop at the front is crowded and piled with books. The cafe behind is a clutter of little tables, where customers consume home-made soup and sandwiches, jammy scones, pots of tea and the daily papers. 

The contrast between the two places couldn't be greater. But it's totally outweighed by the things that make them alike. They're personal spaces, shaped by the personalities of their owners. Hunched over a notebook or compulsively paring pencils you can tap into an energy that's almost tangible. These are places run by people who love their work. 

And they don't just sell books and serve coffee. They serve their communities too - with readings and workshops, music nights and book launches, discussions and events. 
These days surviving as an independent bookseller takes energy and commitment in spades.

Come to think of it, running an independent bookshop's about as uncertain a way of life as you can get. I don't know if rituals support Seoirse or Frances and Shivaun. But I know how lucky I am to have their shops in my two workplaces. So I'm crossing my fingers that my luck will never run out.