By Bill Kronenberg | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
As a relative newcomer to the world of Irish music, I anxiously awaited the arrival of my tour mates in the Dublin airport. I was embarking on a musical tour of Ireland with Stringletter Travel (full disclosure, a travel service offered by Strings’ parent company) and I hoped to meet some other fiddlers. To my horror, it turned out that I was the only fiddler amongst a group of pickers—guitars, mandolins, electric bass. A lone melodist in a sea of harmony. I soon discovered there was nothing to worry about, however. Everyone was onboard for a good time and all the sessions were as non-competitive as could be—much more about sharing music than playing reels at breakneck speeds.
There were 30 of us on the tour representing all parts of the United States, Canada, and Australia (Yackandandah in particular). For most of us, this was the first time we had been on an organized tour. We all agreed how nice it was to get up each morning without needing to study maps and transit options. And it was hard to imagine better choices for destinations. The credit for this goes to our guides, Sean and Eoin Kearns, and our highly skilled bus driver, John. Sean and Eoin are a father-and-son team of guitarist and banjo player. Their love of country and music created a traveling atmosphere of wonder and joy. The other travelers were also fine musicians and the nightly sessions included folk and blues as well as traditional Irish tunes.
This trip was about discovering beauty—natural, historical, musical, and human. The days were filled with the sights of Ireland: the meeting of mountains and sea, castles, ancient archeological sites, castles, breweries, castles, luthiers, castles, renowned pubs, and castles.
We started in County Donegal, and stayed in Ardara, a small town with music-filled pubs and a statue of John Doherty, a famous fiddler, as the centerpiece of the town square. Donegal was the most remote location we visited, with much natural beauty, peat, sheep, and great music. The cliffs of Sliabh Liag were the most stunning meeting of land and sea on the trip and far less crowded than the more famous Cliffs of Moher. Another most impressive sight: Grianán of Aileach, a 1500-year-old stone-ring fort sitting high atop a hill that was the seat of power for the O’Neill clan.
The musical experience was a combination of listening and playing. In Ardara, we visited Nancy’s Bar and Leo’s Tavern. We heard some fine local musicians in each stop and had our own sessions as well. The instrumentation included fiddle, tin whistle, flute, accordion, concertina, guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, four-string banjo, bodhran (the Irish drum), and harp.
Although I could have stayed in Donegal far longer, it was time to move down the coast on the Wild Atlantic Way, as it is known there. The next stop was Galway, a lively city with musical pubs galore and a university. The first opportunity matching tune and location was playing “The Bucks of Oranmore” inside Oranmore Castle. This was made far more special by playing it with vocalist Cian Finn. Cian’s father, Alec Finn, was the longtime bouzouki player in the legendary Irish folk band De Dannan and, along with his wife, artist Leonie King, lives in the castle. Cian is carrying on the musical tradition.
A word about the Irish weather. It has been known to rain. But, somewhat miraculously, we only had one day of rain on the trip and it was in Galway, where we spent most of our time in the pubs listening to amazing music. I had just learned a tune called “Sean Ryan’s Jig” before leaving home and was delighted to find Sean Ryan himself playing whistle in a session along with Cian Finn from the castle.
The next day the sun returned as we headed to County Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. This road trip afforded two opportunities to match tune and location. In the bus, on the road to Lisdoonvarna we played “The Road to Lisdoonvarna.” The signature stop on the way was at the Cliffs of Moher. My only firm request on the trip was to play “The Cliffs of Moher” on the Cliffs of Moher. Many thanks to my fellow travelers Larry, Paul, and Tim for forming the band that made this a reality.
The highlight in the town of Dingle was a visit to O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub, owned by one of Ireland’s most popular musicians, Tommy O’Sullivan. He favored us with a couple of original tunes displaying his prowess on guitar and vocals.
Continuing south, we headed to Killarney where we visited Kate Kearney’s Cottage. There we heard the unique sound of uilleann pipes, which differ in tone, range, and functionality from Scottish bagpipes. A partial translation of “pipes of the elbow,” uilleann pipes are inflated by a bellows under the player’s right arm rather than by blowing into the bag, as they are in the Scottish bagpipes.
Our last stop was in the town of Kilkenny where, along with more great music, we toured Smithwick’s Brewery. The craft-beer revolution has not yet hit Ireland in full force, but beer and whiskey are plentiful in the traditional forms.
The night ended with another session—by we travelers in the hotel. No one wanted this session to end and it lasted until 2 am. As in all the previous sessions, everyone traded tunes and to our surprise, the publisher of this magazine picked up a guitar and shared a mighty fine blues.
My final day was spent in Dublin with a former violin student who now teaches Irish music. She invited me to work with her adult orchestra on improvisation. The class was followed by wining and dining and another session that continued into the early morning.
I will not forget all the magnificent sights, but my most powerful memory will be of the love of music that permeates the island.