Giddy Fiddles and Emerald cliffs on Ireland’s Atlantic Coast

December 13, 2019

Eoin O’Neill’s 55-year-old fingers flitter from one fret of his bouzouki to the next so fast they’re a blur. His grin gets ever wider as he eyeballs the paneled ceiling above. The eight musicians seated around him follow his lead, hypnotizing the entire pub with a savage symphony of giddy fiddles and mandolins, pluckety banjos, bodhrans, flutes and 12-string guitars. A bearded man yelps from the sidelines. Another, convinced that he too has found the rhythm, pounds a tabletop with his palms. The music gets ever faster. My knobbly knees bounce uncontrollably off the old flagstone floor. Things are taking off in here tonight.

Welcome to a Sunday evening at Joseph McHugh’s pub in Liscannor, County Clare. Outside a storm is raging, frothing up the ocean all along the Atlantic Coast of Ireland. Balls of salty rain smack against the dark windows, briefly clinging and then dissolving in the soft light of the turf fire. Eoin is in tune with the weather outside, somehow hatching this melody in cahoots with the gods who create such tempests.

Certainly he started calmly enough. When we first arrived, it was just him and Yvonne Casey, he with the bouzouki, she with the fiddle. Photographer James Fennell and I stumbled into the pub having spent some hours around the horseshoe bay at Kilkee and up toward Loop Head. A sagacious landlady in Kilrush advised us this stretch of cliffs was every bit as wonderful and also less busy than the Cliffs of Moher. As we parked the car and gingerly strolled toward the lofty cliff face, there wasn’t another soul to be seen.

Giddy Fiddles and Emerald cliffs on Ireland’s Atlantic Coast

It was one of those days you lean forward into the wind and it pushes you back. Thinking about the power of the invisible wind and freak gusts, I kept a healthy distance from the cliff’s edge, watching dark blue rollers steam in from afar before smashing against the same rocks that tore the Spanish Armada to shreds here in 1588.

Crouching upon the green, salt-splayed grasses and looking across at a small island maybe a hundred meters out to sea, I saw the ruins of a dwelling on its summit. Surely to God, I said aloud, that is the remotest building on this green Earth. “It was a hermitage,” says a barman at Hotel Doolin with an impressive American Civil War beard. “A saint set up a commune out there about 1,500 years ago. It was all connected to the main- land but then the land fell away and it became an island.”

This bearded barman recently won the lottery so he ought to know these things. I also rate him because, the previous evening, he counseled me to switch from Guinness stout to O’Hara’s. “Stick with O’Hara’s Leann Folláin and you’ll have no hangover,” he avowed. “Leann Folláin means wholesome stout and whole- some it most certainly is.”

For all his trivia, this barman says he cannot play any musical instruments. This makes him rather unusual in County Clare. Traditional Irish music forms the soul of many of the county’s towns and villages, from the tiny hamlets of Kilfenora, Tulla or Carrigaholt to Ennis, the energetic county capital, where musicians congregate nightly in places such as James O’Keeffe’s and the Poet’s Rest at the Old Ground Hotel.

Some melodies have passed down from ear to ear over generations since the age of the Celtic peoples who dwelled in these fertile lands. Others are the legacy of maritime traders from Morocco, Algeria, Portugal and Spain who plied Ireland’s Atlantic Coast and ventured up the Shannon estuary that forms Clare’s southern border.

The concertina, now considered a particularly Irish instrument, was an Anglo-German invention but became so popular in Clare that by the early 1900s nearly every house in the county had one. Light and portable, these two-handed hexagonal squeezeboxes proved particularly popular with women. Lizzie Crotty, matriarch of Crotty’s (pronounced “Crutty” in the locality) in Kilrush, one of the longest-standing musical pubs in Clare, was born into a large family in 1885. She grew up to be, arguably, the best-known concertina player in Ireland. Compositions included songs like “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” and “The Reel with the Beryl.” In her younger years, this shy but determined woman frequently played at “American Wakes,” where the community would gather to bid farewell to yet another young man or woman bound for a new life in America. (All but one of Crotty’s own siblings emigrated; none returned.) Her husband, Miko Crotty, was one of the few emigrants who did come back and together they converted their pub in Kilrush into a hotbed for traditional music sessions, especially after the horse and cattle fairs in the square.

Crotty’s continues to be one of the strongholds of Irish music in southern Clare. The musicians play in the old living room, tapping their feet on a worn tiled floor installed by an Italian craftsman whom Miko managed to lure down from a job at the local Catholic Church. An adjacent table was the favored spot of Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Cyril Cusack when those hard-drinking thespians were Crotty’s aficionados in the 1960s.

Back at Joseph McHugh’s in Liscannor, Eoin O’Neill is still firing on all cylinders with his bouzouki, stomping his foot and yelping like a wolf while all around are likewise going full pelt. It’s like Zorba the Greek with a barrel of poitín thrown in. Horses’ hooves thunder on salt-stained fields, great crested rollers blast into the ancient cliffs.

Faster and faster and faster it goes, fiddlers’ shoulders rolling like the breakers themselves, until the definitive crescendo falls and everyone drops back to Earth with much woofing of chest and contagious mirth. “Sorry about that,” says Eoin, scratching the back of his head. “I get a little carried away sometimes.”

Magnificent. To my mind, I have just witnessed a piece of magic, crafted by wood, string and a melee of human elbows, fingers and wrists. This same formula is in a state of near constant infusion in pubs throughout County Clare on any day of the week. It is truly extraordinary. Many children of the county are taught how to play an instrument before they master spelling or math. As such, there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians born and bred in Clare, as well as the innumerable players who have drifted here from afar. “I’m a nowhere man,” says O’Neill, who was raised on the east coast of Ireland. “When I first moved to Doolin 35 years ago, the winters would be so lonely that I would be almost crying in my bedroom, but it’s so different now. The Internet keeps you connected all the time if you want.”

Irish music is often deeply haunting and emotive. I have met men and women whose grandparents were teenagers at the time of the Great Famine of the 1840s, when approximately one million people succumbed to starvation and disease while another million fled the island. Irish history does not record many happy moments. However, there are certain things that emerged from the gloomy fog of emigration, famine and religious persecution to embolden the Irish soul, not least music and humor. At Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, a Santa Claus lookalike on crutches belts out a version of “Plastic Jesus,” and successfully entices all those seated around him to sing along. At his side, another happy- go-lucky man creates an accompanying rhythm by rattling a pair of kitchen spoons between his hands and thigh.

Giddy Fiddles and Emerald cliffs on Ireland’s Atlantic Coast

You’re unlikely to hear the spoons in Hotel Doolin on a Monday night but you will hear one of the finest acts in the county, Quentin Cooper, Eoin O’Neill and Jono O’Connell, with regular cameos from Luka Bloom. This is the same Eoin I met in Liscannor. That’s the way it works in County Clare: a different pub, different night, different partners.

Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Hotel Doolin is a deep-red paneled room, with dark timber floors, a glowing turf fire, ceramic whiskey jars on the windowsills and walls bedecked with portrait photos of musical greats from decades past. It serves local and lesser-known stouts—hence, the O’Hara’s in my hand.

Quentin is the only person I’ve heard of who is half Peruvian and half Irish. Also, he plays every instrument I’ve heard of and even makes his own. He knows his woods inside out and enlightens me. “Violas, fiddles, cellos and double basses are all back and sides maple, tough but thin enough to resonate a lot; the top is generally spruce and the fingerboard tends to be ebony or rosewood. The wire can be anything from gut-string to nylon, steel, titanium, carbon, depends what you’re into.” But now the music is on again. Big Eoin, hunched up and sucking his lower lip, strumming his bouzouki. The dapper Jon O’Connell (friends call him “Jono”), who grew up nearby, the scion of a family of emigrants, hands gliding up and down an enormous double bass.

Quentin doing crazy things with his mandolin. Once again a session brews. A man called Barnes arrives with a banjo. O’Connell’s brother Kieran, lately returned from Australia, sings “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Suddenly the air is thick with the ambience of Gallipoli, 1915, and the memories of soldiers who have had their legs blown off, and we all feel deeply emotional for a moment. A children’s nurse from Kerry then serenades us with “Will Ye Go, Lassie Go?” With each new song, we all move a little closer and by the end of the night I am compelled to shed my own inner fears. I sing a song called “Spancil Hill,” which I learned from a man called Robbie McMahon, another legend of Clare, since deceased, about an emigrant who dreams he is home again with his fiancée only to awaken in far away California. That is the power of nights like these, with or without storms raging outside the door, to pitch and toss with whatever tune or song stirs the room.