Last Sunday, in the snug of a pub in Stoneybatter, I was reacquainted with the core of my being, the essence of my existence. This reconnection was neither planned nor anticipated and I suspect it is probably something that happens naturally. As one gets older and friends start popping, something will suddenly strike a nerve and resonates throughout your whole body. I was a guest of my friend, Mick Moloney, formerly of The Johnstons Folk group and now, as an academic, at New York University. He is the authority on Irish music in America and a more than handy banjo player to boot.
As well as Mick’s banjo, there were four flutes, three concertinas, two whistles, two accordions, a fiddler, a sweet set of uileann pipes, a bodhran and me, all squished into a space so small that had there been a second fiddler, somebody would surely have had an eye poked out.
It had been a long time since I’d been at a seisiun in a pub and a couple of thoughts hit me. Firstly, there was no smoke. It felt obscene not to be gazing at the musicians through a bluey haze, with smoke swirling around the filaments of the lamps on the walls.
The second thing that struck me was how little drink was consumed. It was a “one pint” gig, but as the night wore on, everybody loosened up, dispelling the wrongheaded notion that music can’t be enjoyed without the accompaniment of drink.
In Phil Coulters house five years ago, there was a gathering of, what Phil called “dinosaurs” to celebrate Billy Connolly’s sixty fifth birthday. Billy wasn’t drinking, Christy was dry. Jim McCann was dry. Ronnie Drew was dry. And I was dry. Paul Brady and Ralph were sipping a glass of wine, as was the host.
In spite of the intense sobriety that was abroad in Bray, we still had a great night of stories and plenty nostalgic memories. As we stood at the front door saying our goodbyes, Ronnie gravelled, “Jaysus lads, if this was ten years ago we’d all have be b…..xed.”
Back in the snug, the third and most instructive observation was that with the exception of only two of the lads and two of the girls, the rest were over fifty, old greybeards like myself, past sixty and burning a bit of oil, but all playing for the joy of sharing tunes with each other and stirring the motions in a way that only music can. I was the only non-traditional musician an interloper of sorts, but I knew I could dip from a very deep folk well. Back freebooting days before speed bumps and road blocks, I spent the Sixties gallivanting around the folk clubs and venues such as The Old Shieling in Raheny presided over by Dolly McMahon and The Embankment in Tallaght, which sailed under the pirate flag of Mick McCarthy, from Lixnaw, which his brother Sean described as being “the suburbs of Listowel.”
My mother was a traditional singer, who worked a lot on radio singing songs in Irish that had been collected by an ancient folklorist, Fionan Mac Collum. She told me once that she almost married Colm O’Lochlainn, who produced the bible of the folk movement, Dublin Street Ballads. Fortunately for me, she didn’t and that’s how I came to know a lot of ballads before I set off into the wide world.
The ballads and traditional music were almost two separate genres at the start of the folk revival, but soon we began to cross pollinate and the convergence, for me, was at it’s best at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Thurles in 1965. It was the Irish Woodstock. The Clancy Brothers presided over it all with a regal air and the sessions on the streets and in the pubs seemed to have been dipped in faerie dust, as to this day I have vivid memories of sights and sounds of Bacchanalian excess, if you can use that word to describe people drinking pints with abandon.
My shot of nostalgia that I got from the session in the pub in Stoneybatter is rooted in Thurles and all the other fleadhs and gigs that we played at, or attended. I noticed back then that a lot of older men and women play traditional Irish music. We owe them a great debt. They have kept our culture alive as we slowly slide towards the black hole of homogeneity. Out of all of our musical genres, traditional Irish music players go the distance. You won’t find many sixty four year old rock guitarist or saxophone players, spending Sunday night playing for pleasure.
Jimmy Deenihan should drop in on the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and have him invite Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan as well and say “Right lads…here’s the craic..ye’re taxin’ the bejaysus out of the poor old people, you’re taking away their medical cards, your putting in water meters, ye’re closing garda stations.. these noble people are saving the music for future generations, who will never feel the pure unadulterated sensation you get listening to playing the same tune…so I’d like to propose a new, special allowance for young and olds, who like to play trad’ so back off boys and leave the musicians alone.Article Written by Shay Healy First Published in The Irish Daily Mail, Saturday 9th Nov 2013 Shay Healy’s latest eBook ‘The Danny Boy Triangle’ is Out Now on Kindle 2.99 Free Kindle Reader – download app