Yesterday I moved into one half of an office on the top floor of the James Hardiman Library at NUI, Galway, and began work. The other half of the office has a long-term resident – Dr Deirdre Ní Chonghaile. Deirdre is an Irish Research Council PostDoctoral Fellow with the Moore Institute & Irish Department who is aiming to publish an edition of songs composed in the Aran Islands. She is also and more importantly, at least from my point of view, an extraordinary fiddle player. You can hear her playing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcpqaTnJ0F4 . She was not in the office yesterday so I left her my card and a brief note signalling my arrival.
At the end of the day, during which I caught up with Dr Nessa Cronin, I got back to my hotel and checked my e-mail. I found a very brief message from Deirdre telling me that she would be playing that evening at Ward’s Hotel. I decided I’d go hear her. It turned out to be a highly memorable evening. Not only some two hours of wonderful playing and some singing and dance – according to a musician and one of my newly-made friends quite the best playing in the city – but, through the discussion with four friendly fellow-listeners, a tentative insight into the context of ‘vernacular’ Irish musical culture.
My four companions – I was invited to join their table as soon as they gathered I was there for the music rather than the drink – all knew each other from an Irish language group they’d just come from. Two are musicians (one combining it with translation), one I had met very briefly that morning (she works at NUI in the office next to mine), and the fourth, Alacoque, a professional carer for disabled children and, as I was to discover, an occasional but passionate exponent of a form of dance that bore about the same relationship to the competition ‘Irish dancing’ I’m familiar with from television as a Scottish wild cat does to our own Prentice. (She’d brought her dancing shoes and, about two thirds of the way through the evening, put them on and suddenly performed a wildly energetic, intricate dance that had a quite extraordinary intensity. I had assumed she’d been doing it all her life but, when I asked her, she told me she’d only been doing it about a year).
I can’t even to begin to reproduce here the extended five way conversation that wove in and out of the gaps in the evening’s music and, just occasionally, continued over it. But the nub and gist of it for me was that what I was experiencing was both something really special – a very gifted ensemble of about a dozen musicians and a singer all performing at a very high standard – and, at one and the same time, something also utterly commonplace. As the oldest of my four companions informed me, what I was hearing was not ‘flash music played in the pub for the tourists’, nor even the evening’s ‘entertainment’ (the rest of the bar clearly took the gathered musicians for granted and remained steadfastly indifferent throughout the evening). What I was hearing was music played in an informal public place by a group of talented people for the shared pleasure involved. And we could listen or not, as we pleased.
It was clear I had arrived in quite another place.