Staying Put: After a week in Doolin, the lifestyle of song and drink takes hold.

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2003

One of the strongest themes in Irish culture and literature is itchy feet, getting up and out, or being forced to. The tale of the wanderer, the rambler, the gambler, a long way from home and if you don't like me then leave me alone, was presented by traveling poets with harps slung across their backs for the pleasures of lords and ladies or, if that gig fell through, the pub or the fireside. Stephen Daedalus's and Leopold Bloom's day- and night-long odyssey is simply the logical conclusion to the earliest Irish poetry.

Ireland is perfect for a ramble, but it is just as hospitable to the traveler who finds one place, settles in, unpacks and doesn't think of a suitcase for a week or 10 days, and comes to know a village, town or county.

I go to Ireland about once a year, ever since I spent two years there in another lifetime. Part of that stay was a winter in a house on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic in Lahinch, County Clare. Coming back, I usually spend just a day or two in Clare, then hit the road. But recently I went for a week, checking into a hotel sitting in the shadow of a Norman castle above the village of Doolin. My winter in the area years before had been happy, I made friends I'll keep forever, but I never got to know the place really, spending my time mainly in a small room with imaginary characters. This time around I'd listen to music, stay up late, sleep in and just be in the place.

Doolin is what the locals call a "linear village," an archipelago of houses scattered across the hills facing the surf-battered coast. The colors of the houses are startling: vermilion, Popsicle purple, blinding blue, electric green. On my first afternoon there, the barman at O'Connor's pub gave me his theory on the manic choices of paint while my pint settled. "We're a people who delight in color, from the ancient Celts on down, but history made a bollix of Ireland, with people so starvin' poor they could only afford a bit of whitewash and some old thatch. To tart up your house to look like a bloody disco says you've got the scratch to show your true colors, if I may coin a phrase."

O'Connor's is the Carnegie Hall for traditional Irish music, with people from all over the world coming to hear and play it. A cavernous place, with slot machines in a corridor outside the bathrooms, it's packed seven nights a week. A treat is to watch the staff circulating through every hour to collect empty pint glasses, stacking them one inside the other, creating four-foot-long glass tubes resting on their shoulders. At the center, near the short bar, is a cushioned pit, with a sign reading "Reserved for Musicians."

Watching a young fellow change instruments one night on each tune, playing a guitar, a fiddle, a mandolin, a banjo and then a bouzouki, I thought again of those harp-playing poets and the gift the Irish have for any stringed instrument.

At McGann's one night, a young woman put down her flute and began to sing a cappella as the other musicians stared at the floor, concentrating on her otherworldly sound. Her soaring voice was as emotional and eerie as the Portuguese fado. This was sean-nós singing, and her passion stopped the hundred or so people in the pub still as statues. She sang in Irish, and when she had finished, my friend Aine translated one line: "I am without purpose since you went to the grave / Without courage, without sense -- a useless thing, blown on the wind."

In their songs, the Irish have a talent for grief but also a gift for the erotic, slyly concealed. A verse about a man practicing his trade of milling, grinding or plowing can bring smiles to the most innocent listener, but other symbols have to be explained, such as the use of the word "thyme" as a symbol of virginity.

There is also an insane wing of Irish music that I discovered late one night at the bar of the Royal Spa Hotel in Lisdoonvarna. Here was what the Irish call a "show band," a combination of traditional reels, demented Dixieland and oompah-pah played at warp speed on instruments from baritone saxophones to spoons. The musicians also were competing for most doofus-looking headgear, with the prize winner wearing a 10-gallon Stetson. A kid with a bouzouki slung across his back came in and stood at the door, checking out the scene of some people dancing, some people staggering around, and everyone happily shouting at one another over the din. I looked back and saw the bouzouki exiting the bar.

I asked my friend Tony Gavin why a Greek instrument now is part of almost every traditional band. "You're in luck," he said. "The greatest bouzouki player in the world is just up the road. Go to Custy's on Francis Street in Ennis and ask Eoin O'Neill."

Ennis, about 30 miles west of Doolin, is one of the great undiscovered market towns of western Ireland. On Saturdays, the narrow streets are jammed with people and the doors of the pubs are open so music is part of the street life. On a recent visit, a stage was set up at the top of O'Connell Street where girls step danced with faces as grave as the face of Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, high above on a column, standing in his stone clothes, eternally looking out on the rain and rock of Clare.

I was happy to see the Saturday open-air market was still in session on Market Square, where you can buy clothes, produce, jewelry, plants, books, everything really, including livestock on some weekends. One man was extolling the virtues of his pony and was stopped by another man saying, "Well, I have me doubts now."

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