Quite obviously, these were the folks who would know where I should go to find what I had come for. I knocked back the remainder of my Guinness, slid the glass down the bar toward the bartender and said, “Let’s get down to brass tacks. I’ve come to Ireland for music. Where’s the craic, as they say?”
“An Droichead Beag,” Faulkner quickly responded. “I’ll meet you down there for a pint.” Dainín Ó Sé nodded in agreement. He seemed about to add more — throughout our conversation, he had always had something pithy to say — but just then, a trio of pretty young women walked into the pub to the sound of a car alarm.
“Must have been my car,” he said. “It always gives me warning when it sees ’em coming.” He quickly had them sitting around him as he regaled them with jokes and stories. Our conversation was over.
We walked down Main Street to An Droichead Beag, Irish for “the small bridge,” and stepped through the door. If Faulkner showed up, we never saw him in the large pub, located in downtown Dingle Town. Below a flag that included the motto “A Mighty Trad Session Every Night of the Year,” a pair of musicians sat and whipped through a regimen of tried-and-true Irish folk tunes. They played “Irish Rover,” “Galway Girl” — all the favorites. It was what I had come for. And yet I knew every song they played. I could even play about half of them on guitar myself, and I am, at best, a fair guitarist. I tried to explain this to my wife, who offered me a shrug and said, “What did you expect?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I just expected something more. With half an hour remaining till midnight, closing time for Irish pubs, we paid our tab and started walking back to our hotel. On the way, we passed J. Curran’s, a pub that has doubled as a shop on weekdays since it opened in 1871. Music drifted out over the street. Inside, a guitarist, a fiddler and an accordionist performed a song I had never heard. We stopped to listen, pulling our coats tighter to fend off the chilly wind that blew down Main Street. When we applauded at song’s end, the guitarist motioned for us to come inside.
Fewer than a dozen people, including the band and the bartender, occupied J. Curran’s, and the bartender turned down our request for a round, saying the place was about to close. But the band — cobbled together earlier that day when the fiddler, a Dubliner in Dingle on vacation, met guitarist Pat Goode at another nearby pub — played on, and so we stayed to listen. Despite the midnight closing time, by a quarter after midnight, the whole room was still clapping along, and I still hadn’t heard a single familiar tune. Goode handed his guitar to a weather-beaten man with a scraggly beard and patchy white hair. The old man strummed the guitar and, in a beautiful tenor totally incongruous with his visage, sang about waking up early in the morning to fish the waters off Dingle Harbor. I realized then that I didn’t know the songs because they couldn’t be heard at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the States; indeed, they could be heard nowhere else but in this tiny village of 2,000 on the western coast of Ireland. We had been invited not just into a pub but into the living history of my forefathers’ nation.
“We found it,” I whispered to my wife. “We finally found it.” Anything above a whisper seemed heresy.
The bartender lowered the blinds and locked the door, then turned to us with a grin on his face, as though he could read my mind. “All right,” he said. “What’ll you have?”
Dan Sweeney is a freelance writer based in South Florida. He enjoys Guinness, bodhrans and redheads.