An Irishman's Diary

 

WE’RE ALL encouraged to be ambassadors for Irish tourism these days and, when approached by visitors needing advice, most of us are happy to oblige. But as an exchange on a traditional music website highlighted recently, there are limits – ethical and otherwise – to what can reasonably be expected.

The conversation began promisingly. Under the tag-line “Music in Co Clare”, a group of English instrumentalists sought tips about pub sessions in which they could participate during an Easter visit. So far, so good. The mere fact that they were targeting Clare spoke well of their trad sensibilities. And sure enough, locals were soon rolling out the welcome mat. Venues in Ennis, Feakle, Miltown Malbay, and elsewhere were suggested.

Then, suddenly, matters took an unhappy turn. Asked for extra details of their trip, the visitors gave some dates and a rough itinerary. But they also gave more information about themselves, mentioning that they comprised a group of ten: “3 of whom play guitars, 1 bouzouki (novice), 2 bodhráns and 5 of us sing”.

This was a big mistake. I’m not a musician, traditional or otherwise. I have, however, attended enough music sessions in Miltown Malbay to know there is something about the phrase – “3 guitars, 1 bouzouki (novice), 2 bodhráns and 5 of us sing” – designed to chill a Clareman’s heart. Worse still, on the subject of repertoire, the group’s spokesman noted that, while they performed folk songs from “Cornwall up to Scotland”, they also did many contemporary numbers “and even some country/middle of the road stuff”.

I sensed this would go down about as well in Clare as a group of Australian drag artistes logging onto a Taliban website and announcing plans to tour Afghanistan with a “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” tribute show. So I was surprised when, at first, the ambassadorial activity seemed to be unabated.

But if you listened carefully enough, you could just about hear the welcome mat being rolled swiftly up again. I also thought I detected a creaking, metallic sound somewhere in the background: consistent with direction signposts on the outskirts of various Clare towns being altered to point the visitors somewhere else.

Eventually, a poster called “Bannerboy” broke the diplomatic silence. “Stick to Doolin”, he advised the tourists, ominously: “We certainly wouldn’t want you in our local!” And with that, the gloves were off: although, in fairness, the ensuing exchanges stopped just short of violence.

The visitors defended their position, not very convincingly. Bannerboy further explained his, saying he’d seen too many local sessions “ruined by eejit tourists”. The group were also dubbed a “gang of pluckers and thumpers”. And even one of the politer commentators – an earlier ambassador who had returned to withdraw his letter of passage – agreed the critics had a point, because

too many musicians came to Ireland “to be heard and not to listen”.

Maybe the tourists were listening this time. At any rate, soon afterwards, they lapsed into sullen silence. And it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for them. But then again, maybe not.

The traditional musicians of Clare are a famously self-policing community and I suppose they have a right to impose quality control, however brutally. At least they were honest about it. A more typical Irish approach might have been to direct the session-seekers to the end of the pier in Kilrush, telling them that, from there, they should “keep going until you see the Statue of Liberty”. And even then, the visitors might not have taken the hint.

THERE SHOULD be no such problem in Carrickmacross this weekend when the south Monaghan town hosts the annual Féile Patrick Byrne. Traditional music lovers of all kinds will be welcome: even pluckers and thumpers, because as well as featuring concerts, lectures and other events designed for listening to, the event will also involve workshops in which players of a wide range of instruments (guitar and bodhrán included) can improve their skills.

The educational nature of the weekend is highlighted by one of the acts performing: Goitse. A brilliant young five-piece band, drawn from places as far apart as Louth and Philadelphia, Goitse are a product of the University of Limerick’s school of traditional music and dance. And while you might think it a new development for trad musicians to be going to college to learn their craft, you’d be wrong.

After all, the man in whose honour they play on Saturday – Patrick Byrne – was himself a graduate of the famous Belfast harp school, from which he emerged in the 1820s to become known throughout his lifetime as “the last of the great Irish harpers”.

The band’s name also underlines the inclusiveness of the Carrickmacross event. From Donegal Irish, “Goitse” means “come here”, a message directed this weekend even at those maligned members of the traditional musician community: bodhrán players.

The band’s percussionist, Colm Phelan, is a master of the instrument, with two All-Irelands and the first-ever “World Bodhrán Champion” title to his name.

As well as playing, he will be among the tutors providing classes. Other performer/teachers include Seana Davey on the harp, while the weekend begins tomorrow night with a lecture, “Social life, music and dancing in Monaghan during the 1930s and 1940s”, by Prof Patrick Duffy of NUI Maynooth. More details are at comhaltas.ie or tel 042-9662850/087-2396665

* fmcnally@irishtimes.com