It started with the music. Folk clubs and pubs where session musicians gather to play the jigs and the reels. You can’t help but move with it. It begins in the feet but in no time you find your shoulders doing their own dance, your hands slapping your thighs. Soon your fingers are itching for an instrument. The bodhran – the Irish drum – looked the easiest to take up the rhythm and I bought one, second hand, but a good instrument and I still have it. Of course the bodhran is the obvious choice for people with no musical talent. Therefore untutored bodhran players are not generally popular at informal sessions as they tend to make a sound like a sledge hammer hitting a biscuit tin. However, it turned out that I had some ability in that area, not only to hit the thing but to hit it at the right time, and I soon found myself as a member of a ceilidh band. The cream of our local folk club, we played out at dances most Saturday nights. But I wanted more than to play the drum and my clarinet just didn’t sound right. So I traded it in for a silver flute. And that’s how I got to be Celtic musician.
There was definitely some sort of enchantment in that music that distinguished it from any other. I listened and thought deeper. The typical structure is regular. An eight bar melody, repeat it. That’s part A. Change to another eight bar phrase and repeat that. Part B. Then part A again. Then part B. No stopping, no pause A solid, driving beat like a express train – difficult to hold back the tempo -and once aboard the tune it is difficult to jump off. Round and round like the chanting of a mantra. A mantra! That’s what it was. The secret of Irish music is that it is mantric.
Listening to it is great, but the real experience is in the playing. All absorbing, it transports the player, physically, emotionally and spiritually. One cannot resist being drawn into it, each individual creating their own variation and ornamentation, extemporising along with the regular chant. Until someone – usually the musician who started the tune – gives the signal, a raised foot, perhaps, or a lifted pipe. Then, at the end of that section, everyone resolves on the same sustained note. As if magically drawn back into the room, we surface, gasping for air, laughing and reaching for our pint of Guinness and await the start of the next tune.
Of course Irish music is related to Scottish and Breton etc. all having the same Celtic roots. But although I have listened and played to other Celtic traditions, it is only the Irish music that works in that meditational form, and results in that particular effect. No wonder the Church disapproved of it. It was not unknown, in the old days, for Catholic priests to turn up at a ceilidh, confiscate the instruments and punish the dancers. The arrogance of those sanctimonious bullies is beyond belief! God knows the peoples’ lives were made miserable enough without a little singing and dancing being condemned as work of the devil.
Anyway, it was the music that drew me to Ireland – the narrow streets of Galway, the late night sessions in the pubs. But of course there was the spiritual history – the fairie legends (yes that is the correct spelling) , the Druids who were the real priesthood and the magic of the ancient kings. And of course there were the pre-Christian monuments, the standing stones. We tried to make a tour of them once, attempting to visit all the ancient stone circles, but of course there were far too many. But it was a valiant effort and a mind expanding experience. I keep safe the memory of standing in the centre of Castlerig circle. It was just after dawn, the grass ankle deep and wet with dew. The stones were ranked around me with a circle of distant hills forming a natural amphitheatre. I could almost see Druid priests leading the people in procession, the horns and drums playing to welcome up the sun and I felt I had always been a part of it. It was these memories and the stories that were told about the ancient burial sites that inspired the plot for Miriam’s Talisman, the first book I wrote, (though not the first published).
But the old Southern Ireland is disappearing fast. Even the Ireland I knew twenty, thirty years ago has dissolved into the morning mists, courtesy of the European dollar. And in some respects that is only right. No-one should live in poverty and religious restriction, especially for the pleasure of tourists. Perhaps all that is left now is in the ancient stories of hero kings and fairie enchantments, the old superstitions that refuse to die. And of course history is in the ancient chants, remnants of which survive in the music which is now known all over the world. At least, I like to believe that is so.