My mother’s grandparents came from Ireland; from Dublin and County Cavan and County Cork, it is said. I have Irish in me. My father’s family was English and French Canadian and, even though Dad was a red-head, my mother insisted that my childhood red hair and freckles were from my Irish ancestors. As far as my mother was concerned, it was our Irish heritage that defined us.
No one in my family had ever set foot in Ireland, not since my mother’s paternal grandmother, Mary Berry, left County Cork to travel with her sea captain husband and land on the shores of Connecticut about 100 years ago. So in the summer of 1974, when I was all of 21, I set off for England to work for three months in the offices of the Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party. The first of my immediate family to take flight over the Atlantic Ocean, I boarded British Airways in Montreal late on a May evening with two classmates from college. One was a hearty Irish lass of the clan of Halloran from Rhode Island, the other was a stick-up-her-ass daughter of WASP patricians, but we were the sum total of the college’s political science majors, so off we went to study parliamentarian politics.
A red-eye transatlantic flight in those days brought you up toward the North Pole and down again just off the coast of Ireland. Ireland seen through a small round airplane window just as dawn is breaking on the western cliffs is like looking through the peephole of a kaleidoscope of green. “This isle, this emerald isle, this Ireland,” I murmured, the phrase playing though my mind as we crossed over Ireland, the Irish Sea and Wales, to arrive in the misty fog of a spring morning in England.
After settling into our lodging and our jobs, we began our weekend jaunts around Great Britain. Out to Stratford-On-Avon, round to Salisbury and the great Stonehenge, down to Dover’s white cliffs. A train ride to Edinburgh and two damp days traversing the Royal Mile and climbing Arthur’s Seat, to gaze down on wet grey stone and green so green that it should have been a color all its own.
Then, on to Ireland. Too poor to fly to Dublin from London, almost penniless students working for the privilege and not the coin, we opted for a train to Wales in the late afternoon and an overnight cruise over the Irish Sea on a merchant ship. With only our backpacks to cushion us, we huddled on the deck, only the midnight blue sky to cover us, only a million stars to light our way. Gathered out in the open with us, a group of sons of the Olde Sod pulled up boxes and barrels and broke out their instruments: accordions, harmonicas, mouth harps and guitars. And spoons. Through the night, their Irish voices serenaded us with the songs of Ireland we had never heard at home on St. Patrick’s Day, except perhaps for Molly Malone and By the Rising of the Moon.
I sat enthralled, transfixed by the music as I had never been before. I could play no instrument and dared not raise my voice in song; so paltry a voice as mine had no place among these musicians. So, I sat, I listened, I hummed, I tapped my foot, I laughed and I wept. To this day, some 36 years later, I can still feel the salt spray on my face, taste on my lips the dark Irish whiskey that they passed around, hear the music ringing in my ears, playing in my soul. I never thought to feel the like again. Until a Sunday in June 2010.
We drove up from Lynchburg into the Blue Ridge Mountains in a light mist. Low clouds hung midway up the sides of the mountains, their pale grey a stark contrast to the vivid green of early summer in Virginia. My high school sweetheart, Tom, and I were on our way to a house concert at the home of Jim and his wife, Wendy. Jim is, in Tom’s estimation, one of the finest musicians in America. Tom is no slouch himself in this department, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin and, my personal favorite, Irish whistles. We were off to hear Paddy Keenan and John Walsh play for a group of 30 or so Irish music aficionados and musicians. A house concert: we brought food and drink and instruments and a few dollars for the musicians.
Jim and Wendy’s house sits on the side of a hill, with an unimpeded vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains spread out like a feast from their back deck. The walls of the simple concrete block house are covered with photographs of Jim in various bands, Irish and Southern ancestors and musical instruments. The living room had been largely stripped of furniture and was filled with folding chairs, in rows before the fireplace, an amplifier and a bass. The voices were softly Southern and the hospitality warm. Excitement was a low buzz in the air as we awaited the arrival of the two Irish lads making their way through the hills from Roanoke after a whirlwind weekend that brought Paddy from Boston to a concert with John in NYC on Friday and another concert in Roanoke on Saturday.
Thirty minutes late, they arrived in the light rain. John was introduced as one of the finest guitarists in the world, one whom a guitar company is naming a set of guitar strings after. He resembles any collegiate American guy from any mid-size town in America, until he opens his mouth and County Kenny spills out. Paddy has the look of the performer, slouched under a black leather hat, a black leather cord tied round his neck from which hangs a huge sculpted piece of silver, loose grey shirt and soft jeans. With dark eyes and a graying mustache, he wears the years of touring, drinking and singing sad songs on his face. Paddy may be the premier uilleann piper in the world.
The uilleann pipes, originally known as the Union pipes, are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. The uilleann pipes bag is inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. Some pipers can converse or sing while playing as well. Paddy doesn’t sing but he does tell tales.
Laughing at Jim’s introduction, Paddy kicked off his shoes, asked for a beer and thanked us all for coming along, from places near and far. It was pointed out, then, that I had come all the way from New York. A look of surprised amusement in his eyes, Paddy stared at me and asked in his Dublin drawl “Now, really, darlin’? And why would you be traveling so far when we’ve just come from New York?”
“It was no great feat, as I was headed here for other purposes as well.” I blushed at the attention. “But, I believe I win the prize.”
“Ah, well, that’s it then. We’ll have a bit of music for you and make sure the trip was worth it.”
They began with a trio of jigs, then some reels. Uilleann pipes sound to me like Irish whistles but with more range and depth, a hint of the roughness of bagpipes echoing in the background. Difficult to describe but delicious to hear. I did not know any of the songs, though Paddy and John talked about each set, in their gentle lyrical voices, touched with humor and real affection for each other and the music. They seemed as much in awe of their attentive audience as we were of them. Paddy played a song he had written for his daughter, Sabrina, to teach her to play by ear; John played a waltz he had written as a Christmas gift for his daughter and together they gave us the ballad of Lord Franklin, lost at sea, exploring the Northwest Passage.
After two hours, they called for the other musicians to join in. Almost everyone began unpacking fiddles, banjos, guitars and whistles. They gathered around Jim and Paddy and John and began to play. The music filled the small house. It floated in the air, enveloping me in a camaraderie that should have excluded me, but instead, drew me in. I was back on the freighter to Dublin, once again on a journey to Ireland. Jigs and reels brought out spoons and a bodhr`an, the Irish frame drum. Jerry started to play the dobro, a resonator guitar played across the lap, which prompted everyone to urge Warren to sing Maggie as he strummed a gorgeous acoustic guitar. Tears came to my eyes. John was heard to say, “That was fucking beautiful.” Paddy agreed. “Lovely, just lovely.”
We were among the last to straggle out. I played the groupie and sought autographs from Paddy and John on their CD’s. They promised to come north to play again at Café Lena’s in Saratoga. Standing in the driveway, twilight coming in, Tom and Paddy had one last discussion about Irish whistles. Paddy asked to see one of Tom’s instruments. When it was drawn from the bag, Paddy’s eyes lighted and he brought the whistle to his lips. Recognizing the song, Tom pulled out a smaller whistle. The two played The Tar Road to Sligo. Conversation died. The notes drifted around us as we stood still, caught once again in the spell of the music, drawing us together, touching the Irish in us all.