One man goes in search of traditional Irish music in the land of his forefathers.
I have, of course, my Irish ancestry to thank, which accounts for nearly all of my family tree. My American roots run particularly shallow on my father’s side; he was the first of our minor branch of the Sweeney clan to be born in America. His father was born in Wales while his family was on the way over from Ireland, a fact he refused to acknowledge to all but his most trusted friends and family till his dying day. He was born an Irishman, in his own mind if not in technical truth, and calling him a Welshman was grounds for aggravated assault.
I HAVE A THEORY — ADMITTEDLY UNSUPPORTED BY ACTUAL EVIDENCE — THAT EVERYONE HAS A NATURAL APPRECIATION FOR THE FOLK MUSIC ENDEMIC TO THE LAND OF THEIR ANCESTORS. PUT ON KLEZMER FOR YOUR JEWISH FRIEND AND HE’LL EXPERIENCE AN INSTANT LOVE AFFAIR. BEFRIEND YOUR NORWEGIAN NEIGHBOR BY PLAYING PELIMANNI. AND FOR ME, THE FOLK MUSIC OF IRELAND HAS ALWAYS HAD A SPECIAL DRAW.
So when I recently journeyed to the motherland with my wife, I was determined to find a musical experience exceeding that of the green-beer-laden St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of my Miami home.
We arrived in Dublin too early to check into the hotel, so we left our bags there and walked around the city. We stopped in St. Stephen’s Green, a park in the middle of Dublin that played a central role in the Easter Uprising of 1916, when the proto- Irish Republican Army forces occupied and fortified a few key locations, including the Green. A whole subset of Irish folk music — rebel tunes — has grown up around the struggle. The songs are even more popular with Irish-Americans than they are with the Irish, for whom recent history is often best left in the past and songs such as “Boys of the Old Brigade” and “Sean South of Garryowen” are as likely to cause tension as sing-alongs.
As it turned out, any sort of Irish folk, rebel tune or otherwise, proved difficult to come by on a Tuesday night in Dublin. Not wanting to leave out any of Dublin’s famous old pubs, we hit Kehoe’s early and followed it in quick succession with Davy Byrnes, McDaid’s, O’Neill’s and the Stag’s Head. Kehoe’s proved the most memorable, as we met a nice fellow there named Eugene who was in Dublin on vacation, having come down from Derry — not, as he emphatically stated, Londonderry — and who bought us a couple of pints while he waited for his wife to get done shopping. Davy Byrnes, famed for its cameo appearance in James Joyce’s Ulysses, has become the sort of lounge-y place that, with the addition of some ambient electronic music, wouldn’t be out of place in Miami Beach or Manhattan. When we came to McDaid’s, the manager of Kehoe’s was sitting at the bar; he had, he explained, stepped out for a smoke. We ate dinner at O’Neill’s, which offered a salty smorgasbord from which I opted for mashed cauliflower and corned beef. As we left the place, a band started to play, but it wasn’t the music I had come for. Instead, the group launched into “Sally MacLennane” by the Pogues, the 1980s Celtic punk rock band that is largely responsible for the birth of dozens of similar bands, especially American acts such as Los Angeles’ Flogging Molly, Boston’s Dropkick Murphys and Chicago’s Tossers.