Ireland of Dreams: County Clare

The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, prehsitoric tombs in the eerie Burren, and fabulous traditional Irish music in the pubs of Doolin and Ennis

County Clare is known for the dramatically undulating Cliffs of Moher rising 650 feet above the sea, and for the Burren, where Alpine and Mediterranean flowers grow side by side the odd microclimates of rock fissures, and the weirdly eroded limestone landscape is scattered with ancient dolmens, overgrown churchyards, crumbling ring forts, and passage tombs.

The most photographed of these tombs, Poulnabrone Dolmen, is a prehistoric house-of-cards—sort of burial à la Flintstones. Poulnabrone is justifiably famous, but the steady stream of visitors somehow robbed the site of its ancient magic.

So after checking out the Celtic crosses around the cathedral of Burren's capital tiny Kilfenora, I hit the regional official visitor's center and picked up detailed maps pinpointing hundreds of other, utterly ignored ancient sights. These let us leave the main roads, bump down country lanes, and have whole slices of ancient Ireland all to ourselves (well, ourselves plus the sheep).

Clare is also the epicenter of traditional Irish music. Clare's capital is the marvelously medieval Ennis, an oversized stone town on an undersized river that had once been described to me by a drunk in a Dublin bar. "Ennis is brilliant!" he said, smiling sloppily when I told him my plan to visit the place. "They've more pubs than people there!"

I had timed our trip to end in Ennis at the close of the Fleadh Nua, a traditional music festival that had been the centerpiece of my first trip to Ireland.

On that trip, I got an earful of some of the greatest Irish musicians—from adolescent accordion players to octogenarian Gaelic singers—both on the stage and late into the night at informal pub sessions.

And I got to listen raptly to the tales of seanchai (storyteller) Eddie Lenihan, a spry elf of wildly gesticulating limbs, a thick brogue, and crazy auburn whiskers exploding all around the moon-round of a twinkle-eyed face.

But the best thing about this Fleadh is that you can get involved. I learned to dance some ceilí sets—the complex Irish predecessor to square dancing—with my Mom as a partner.

I also took a group lesson to learn how to beat my brand-new Bodhran, a two-foot goatskin drum stretched over a six-in-wide wooden hoop. My teacher, a beefy-armed man named Mossie Griffin, appears on half the recordings made in County Clare.

After showing us how to hold the bone (an eight-inch wooden dowel with bulbous ends) and strike it back and forth across the drumskin to get the traditional treble beat, Mossie spent most of our lesson explaining his homespun philosophy behind the bodhran.

His drum was tucked into position between his arm and amble belly, but remained largely silent. This was fine, he said, because he learned the bodhran from drumless old men who sat the in local pub, downing one pint per song and keeping the beat simply by rattling off complicated scat strings of "Deedle-eye-da-diddly-eye-da-do."

Well, that was seven years ago, and I should have known better than to try and recreate a favorite old trip. Poor planning got us to Ennis one hour after the Fleadh’s noon closing ceremonies.

Luckily, Custy's came to my musical rescue. You'd never know this single-room shop is one of Ireland's leading traditional music Meccas. Through the strangled strains of a beginner flute lesson coming from a back room, the man at the counter rattled off a short list of the best sessions in local pubs as he popped CDs in the player to help me choose out what to buy.

That’s how we landed at Cruise's where, after some grub in the back, we elbowed our way to the sidelines of a session. Any time two or more musicians end up in a pub, a session gets started, an informal jam around a corner table, the players taking a break between songs to drain their pints.

Some sessions are intimate: a flute and a singing guitarist. Some are practically orchestral, like the sessions at Brandon's featuring 11 violins bowing alongside 14 other assorted instruments in a cramped little room. Like a show at a good jazz club, one person takes on the role of leader, starting up with a familiar melody or catchy phrase as a signal to the others to join in. The music flows between set chord progressions and individual riffs that weave in and out of traditional jigs, fast reels, and slow airs.

The session at Cruise's that night was being led was a fiddler in her early twenties backed by an impromptu band of button accordion, banjo, flute, guitar, and squeeze box.

The rhythm section consisted of a 15-year-old with a "L" driving learner's sticker slapped onto the rim his bodhran and a craggy guy who must have been in his eighties. A cigarette dangled from his lips, and he tapped a pair of time-bitten drumsticks first on a block of wood then on his half-empty glass of Guinness. Sometimes, though, the tapping just didn’t do a song justice, and he’d put down the sticks and break out with a “Deedle-eye-da-diddly-eye-da-doh.”

I thought of Mossie, and wondered whom I could see about getting the old timer another pint.

The song was ending, and his glass was almost empty.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in September 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.