Tuesday 31 December 2013

Great craic & ceoil

Regular readers know I love all things Italian.  This week you’ll discover my delight in everything Irish.

I was keen to get out of the big city for Christmas this year.  Apart from the sadness of losing a couple of friends in a short space of time, not to mention the feelings which Christmas brings up about other absent loved-ones, London is crazy at this time of year.  So I bid goodbye to an Italian friend who’s been staying with me and head off to the west of Ireland to visit family friends, surrogate Aunt and Uncle, Jo and Val, with whom I am completely at liberty to relax and be myself. 

When I first arrive I am so tired I simply sleep and read.  Gorgeous.  Just what the doctor ordered to end one year and prepare for the next.  

Then something in the Irish air or water gives me literary inspiration and suddenly I have a rush of ideas for a new book.  I churn out chapter after chapter with barely a pause and will soon be finished a first draft.  Sometimes all you need is a safe haven, to snuggle into, rest and revive.

That’s when the partying begins.  I venture out into one of the many local pubs and find live music.  In one room there’s a spirited ceoil and in the other rock ‘n roll is raging.  In the next pub I find dancing.  And so on and so forth until I’ve been singing and dancing in so many pubs over consecutive nights that complete strangers are stopping me in shops and on the street saying “ah, you’re the lass who was singing in such-and-such the other night”… or “where are dancing tonight then Julie?”.  In the morning I wonder why my calves and throat are sore, then I remember the great craic of the night before.  After a walk, a read and a nap, it all begins again. 

I know it’s the festive season and, realistically, it can’t always be so ebullient, but if you have any interest or energy for music you are absolutely spoilt for stimulation in this luscious part of the world. 

Here’s a few of the reasons why I can’t wipe the smile off my face:

  1. The men can dance, and they bother to ask you
  2. Some of the men are such good jivers you wonder what world you’ve been living in that you haven’t done more of it
  3. Musicians appear from every corner and seem to be able to play any song in any key
  4. It is strongly encouraged that if you can sing, you should
  5. It is expected that the bustling crowd will shut-up and listen when anyone gets up to give a song or a poem a go, and nine out of ten times they do
  6. Friends of friends open their homes to you and invite you in for drinks and dinners and a warmth around the fire which is distinctly Irish
  7. More friends of friends have dinner parties planned and it’s nothing to add an extra plate for the Australian visitor
  8. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is warm and welcoming
  9. Just listening to the Irish speak is a lilting pleasure, and that’s before you get them talking about literature
  10. And the Irish men… well… they are charming and handsome and in such apparent abundance that it’s like a chocoholic walking into Willy Wonka’s factory…
Ok, I’m slightly exaggerating about the latter, but only slightly.  Charm and warmth are synonymous with the Irish character and clichés come about as much from truth as idealization.

This Christmas I am tapping deeply into my Irishness - my Irish Catholic upbringing, education, musical training and genetic heritage - and without becoming a Plastic Paddy it’s a scenario which fits comfortably, organically.  In particular, my habit of talking to strangers without hesitation, befriending people quickly, is here not such an anomaly.  Here is a place where strangers talk back without reserve or judgment.  Gregariousness is normal.  You meet, you banter, you laugh, you flirt, you dance, you sing, you eat, you drink, you welcome, you connect.  What could be better?

And don’t be thinking that this welcome is superficial; for already I have evidence it is not.  There are, of course, the friendly acquaintances which stop at the threshold as you go your separate ways… but others recur, you go back to their house again, you go with the flow, and the friendship builds.  People care what you’re about, what you’re doing.  They take you to their heart so surprisingly quickly that, apart from the Irishness, you have to remind yourself that is one of the huge benefits of not living in a big city.  For as Londoners know – it’s a lot harder to take two tubes and a bus to visit your friends for a chat and coffee, than it is to walk a few hundred meters up the road.  Of course intimacy is affected by access.   And over time that shapes a community, a city.

A few yarns from just a few days include:

Monique, my cousin, arrives from London.  We enjoy some traditional music, then move into the back of Matt Malloy’s (a west country icon) to dance.  I make a complete exhibition of myself, dancing in various styles, alone and with partners, until I’m wet from head to toe and have to sit down before having a cardiac arrest.  Monique, as it turns out, sweetly defends my virtue, saying to a lady whose partner I have stolen “you don’t have to worry about Julie, she is just having fun, she loves to dance”… to which the typically generous lass replies “ah no, it’s grand, I’m glad she’s got him up”.  Brig and Oliver, Bernadine and Damian are typical of the couples we meet.  There’s warmth enough for everyone in these parts.  It’s great craic.

Sunday afternoon we drive out to the edge of the world, or so it seems, to Achill Island.  This is territory so remote, so sparse and ancient in origin, that you have to be made of strong stuff to survive in it.  There is also a gale so forceful it lifts us off the ground.  And when we get into the little church, where my friend Val is baptizing baby Florence, the scream in the rafters is so raucous we can hardly hear each other.  Monique remembers her convent education and automatically passes out the hymn books. I sit under a blanket at the back playing some carols on an instrument so old and colourful it looks like a painted-toy (thankfully without pedals as I’m a pianist not an organist), not sure if I’m most worried about how forcefully I have to pound the keys, how loud I have to sing to be heard, or whether I might first freeze to death. 

One night I’m out on a date at a large hotel with a lovely man I’m just getting to know… when the manager of the establishment greets me saying “I understand you are an actress and theatre manager from Australia… we have a show going on in the ballroom now, you’ve missed the start but would you like me to walk you into the back row for a little look”.  Of course we say yes, of course we stay and enjoy it, and there’s even space for me to dance at the back as well as come and go to a little bar on the side.  I meet one of the principals, a man called Seán Keane, famous in these parts… and he kindly gives me a signed CD to take away.  Someone even welcomes me from the stage: “tonight we have a lady from Neighbours in the audience, let’s give her a big welcome… and if you ask her nicely I hear she might play the piano and sing for you in the bar later..”.  I have clearly been getting about too much.  But it’s such a laugh, and though that evening I’m too tired to sing – or perhaps distracted by some other charms – it’s another memorable experience.

The music doesn’t really get going in the pubs in town until an hour or two before midnight, so early another evening I knock on the door of some lovely neighbours who I met on Christmas Day when they had a splendid open house.  I am welcomed into the kitchen, then the lounge, which morphs into dinner in the adjacent dining-room followed by more drinks and chat around the fire.  This is a glorious Georgian house, its high-ceilinged rooms filled with features of interest and decorated to perfection, yet it’s not the material beauty which touches me most but the extraordinary warmth and conviviality of this family.  I have only met them once before, they are acquainted with the friends I’m visiting, and cousins to some other new acquaintances, but I am quickly drawn to them on all manner of levels.  My wonderful hosts are a very special couple, and you sense their love for each other and their family in all they say and do.  They have five adult children, four daughters and a son, each enormously hospitable, intelligent, sensitive, of good humour and very much on the verge of life and adventure.  They are a perfect example of what it is to be well brought up, well brought up in character and love.  They are all physically beautiful too, every one, and when looking at them seated together I can only pray they have the good fortune in life they deserve.  The ‘guests’ were one of the girl’s boyfriends, clearly liked by everyone, and a beloved friend they call ‘Granny’.  I was so lucky to be included at the table, taking up the tenth chair – the songs we sang and the discussions and jokes we shared still vivid and enriching.  I have a strange feeling too it won’t be the last time I enjoy their spirited company…

Earlier in the week I am sitting in a pub in a group of four, when a cute guy I have already noticed across the room approaches our table and introduces himself.  He doesn’t say much, Will just wants to say hello.  Shortly afterwards he joins the ceoil and sings a pretty song in gaelic.  Ah, cute and musical.  Then he disappears into the crowd.  Twenty minutes later he’s back, again leaning across the table: “would you like to dance?” he says to me with a cheeky smile.  “Oh, thank you” I reply, surprised (as the dancing is in another room) but pleased.  “What kind of dancing?” I venture.  “I’m going to jive you around the room” he replies with a beguiling grin.  “Ok, that’d be lovely, but may I meet you in five minutes”.  “Ah sure”, he says, “but don’t wait more than five minutes, my dance card is gettin’ full”.  And again he disappears.  My friend Jo encourages me to join him quickly, and our new friends, Gareth and Lesley, who are celebrating their engagement, comment on his direct but polite approach and think it’s a good sign.

When I walk into the dance hall it’s hard to see him.  He’s strong, well built, but not particularly tall.  He waves from the other side of the room, and once he has a hold of my hand goes up to the band to request music with a faster tempo.  They immediately oblige – it’s Ireland after all – and it is only seconds on the floor before I realise I am with a really great hoofer.  I’ve been doing jive classes in London just a few months, but Fred Astaire turns me into Ginger Rodgers in a few easy turns.  Ah, THIS is what it is to dance with a strong leader!  It is not only easy, filled with variety, and immensely satisfying, it is sexy.  Now I know what it means to be swept off my feet.  The dance floor clears and around and around we whirl.  How did he know from across the room that I didn’t have two left feet?  How does he make me feel so confident?  His arms and directions are strong, commanding, and there is not a single moment when I’m not completely comfortable, completely in the moment, completely thrilled.  It already feels like a scene from a movie, and I’m rapidly falling in love with the whole idea, when suddenly he picks me up off the ground and spins me around and around, my legs right up in the air.  He is strong and I feel as safe as if we’d rehearsed it.  When the crowd cheers and he puts me back down on the ground to end that dance with a flourish of twirls, I am so taken by the feel of his arms I don’t want him to ever let go. 

Yes, I’m a romantic.  Yes, it isn’t every day you find yourself in a scene from Dirty Dancing.   But how could I not be in love with Ireland after that?! 

How fabulous to end 2013 reminded of the beauty of spontaneity, of openness, of warmth, of laughter, and of the endless possibilities which music and dancing make you feel.  Happy New Year everyone.  May we start as we mean to go on!