If you have a place on this earth where you can sing, you are a lucky person. Mine is in a pub on the west coast of Ireland. I haven’t been back there in a while. Even if I never make it back, it was enough that, once, I sang there.
The west coast is still a hotbed of traditional music. Musicians from all over the country and, indeed, the world come down to Dingle – and various other towns around counties Kerry and Clare – to learn how to properly play traditional Irish music. Of an evening when I spent some time there we’d go to Dingle town. Legend held that there were more pubs per capita there than anywhere else in Ireland – needed to cater to the tourists.
Not all of them had musicians, just drinking and socializing. But at my pub there were sessions – a few local musicians had a regular gig and guest guitarists or singers would come up and perform their party pieces. Many of the guest singers sang a capella – no fiddle or guitar or bodhran drum, just a pure voice carrying the packed house through Black is the Colour or even Molly Malone.
The crowd would stay silent for these solo performances, respecting the singer and the fact that they were sharing a song.
Wanting to share my own folk culture I opted for Neil Young – we sang his songs around campfires, where voices would gather and rise around the warmth of the fire against the encroaching darkness.
A friend from Ireland and I decided on Helpless (click to hear it). The guitarist picked out the chords and the two of us sang. It was liberating. I wasn’t afraid – and it wasn’t bad (another of Neil’s gifts to the rest of us is his own off-key voice that lets us sing his words with conviction, free of the need to worry about being note perfect).
There were also songs that brought every voice in the pub together. A popular one was Irish singer/songwriter Christy Moore’s Ride On (click to hear it). While the two guys who had a regular weekend gig there would play and sing, the rest of the pub would join in; a community of voices joining together. The Irish rebel song I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry was another popular one.
I may be romanticizing, but Dingle to me was a place where voices were important, where they were free to come alive. It’s near the Blasket Islands. I’ve written about them before (in On a bad day, this lifts my soul) – the biggest is an island just off the coast where, in the early 20th Century, people from the mainland, England, the Americas and beyond came and fell in love with a community and culture that was still oral. The islanders’ history was preserved in stories told from one generation to the next, their songs and their stories handed down as they gathered night after night, their voices coming together to share their history.
Around that time, their oral stories were written down, helping to define the modern Irish language and literature. Their voices, first preserved through folk tale and singing, found a permanent record in writing.
I don’t really sing anywhere else. But I sang in Ireland.