Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pub Sessions in Galway

Well, here I am at the Dublin Airport, drinking one last good-tasting Guinness before I fly back to the States. (Or at least, I hope I'm flying back -- it's already been a five-hour delay.)

Following the historic first meeting of the European Political Science Association in Dublin at the Guinness Storehouse, I took the morning train from Dublin to Galway because I had been told that Galway was where to find music in Ireland. Well, no joke.

On my first evening in Galway, I found my way into Taaffes Pub. The session was already going, featuring accordion, fiddle, bouzouki and bodhran. The tunes were good, and it was fun to watch the fiddler listen to the box player and figure out the melody with her fingers before joining in.

I stuck around there for a good bit before heading down to The Quays, which was a little bit less crowded and yet also featured a tighter session with just accordion, bouzouki and bodhran.

The accordion player was John O'Halloran who had a wonderful touch, making the melodies smooth and flowing but adding in nice ornamentation. He had fun with the instrument, too, providing some sound effects as necessary for people walking by or asking questions.

From there, I moved on to Tig Coili. And this was the mother church. I watched a trio of tenor banjo, fiddle and bodhran for a while, and then I asked the gentlemen next to me (who was in fact the bodhran player from the session at Taaffes) if he knew who the musicians were. Well, the bodhran player was Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, one of the founding members of De Dannan. The banjo player was Brian McGrath who has played with De Dannan and then on a good number of albums by other Irish musicians. And the fiddler was Mick Conneely.

These three were terrific -- one and all. Mick Conneely's fiddle was completely lyrical with his double-stops adding rich tone and texture to the tunes. Watching Ringo McDonagh was a clinic on how the bodhan can be played -- his skillful use of the left hand to mute the drum and shift the tone as needed. And then Brian McGrath had all of these wonderful trills and other ornamentation on the four-string banjo; he pushed the melody along with a rolling force.

And that was just the first evening!

The next day, I headed off to the Aran Islands for a tour but then found myself back at Tig Coili. And once again found myself in the presence of a great musician or two. And not just in their presence but sitting a mere five feet away! On the Monday-night melodeon, it was Bobby Gardiner. I didn't know it at the time (or else I would have talked Southern Connecticut with him), but Bobby Gardiner had emigrated to New Haven to work on the New Haven Railroad in the early 1960s. During his ten years on the East Coast of the United States, he played with noted Irish musicians like Joe Cooley and Joe Deranne (and also served in the U.S. Army, according to Wikipedia). He was yet another great box player there in Galway and was joined by Brian McGrath on banjo, Anna Faulkner on fiddle and (I think) Richie Cunningham on the bodhran.

You would never know who it was playing unless you asked. These were just the boys down at the pub playing the tunes. And so there I was, armed with a pint of Guinness, and taking in the sounds.

I ended up that second night at the An Pucan Pub, listening to a duo perform a mix of instrumentals, dance tunes (with dancers) and songs. The song selection ranged from Dougie Maclean's "Caledonia" to Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel." Because of amplification, the scene was a little less intimate than at the other pubs, but it was also nice to hear some songs being sung.

On my final day in Galway -- after a tour of Connemara -- I went back again to Tig Coili and found John O'Halloran leading another session. This time he was joined by Liz Hanrahan on the fiddle and by a bones and bodhran player whose name I never caught. And at some point, a local named Willie was egged on to sing a song or two -- he needed a bit of help on some of the lyrics, but the crowd remained enthusiastic and relatively quiet for the unamplified singing. And then I rounded out the evening with some more music at An Pucan, where a band with harp and pipes was playing -- some new instruments to end my journey to Galway!


Ellen Stanley said...

You outlined exactly what I love about the west coast of Ireland and why several years back I started to make plans to move there when I'm retirement plan is to sell all my possessions and move to Galway and become crazy American banjo-playing cat lady. :)

Matt Winters said...

Are you going to bring the cats to the pub with you?

And are you going to switch from the five to the four???

Ellen Stanley said...

I think if I do bring the cats to the pub, it will definitely solidify myself as a serious cat lady. :) Sticking to the crazy American portion of my identity, I plan on remaining a 5-string player. Besides, aren't there enough tenor banjo players in Ireland?

Matt Winters said...

You're going to redefine the genre in other words. Go, MoJo, go.

Nick Toloudis said...

Love this post, Matt! Love the retirement plan, Ellen! :-)