My favorite modern Irish writer, Eddie Stack, has published a new, bestselling book about the cradle of storytelling, dance and fine music in the west of County Clare, Ireland. I asked if he had time for a Q&A for the blog and am delighted to present our interview to you today.
1) Tell us about your new book.
It’s called Doolin: people, place and culture. Doolin is a small remote area of county Clare in the west of Ireland that is renowned for its music, songs, dance and storytelling traditions. The book is a collection of essays and conversations featuring local tradition-bearers. It has chapters on the music of the Russell Brothers and the Killougherys; reminiscences of the last Doolin native Irish speaker, Paddy Pharaic Mhichil Shannon; the gentle art of storytelling with Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire, Seán Ó’Carún and others. Also featured are Botious MacClancy and Francis MacNamara, local gentry who made Doolin famous in the 16th century and the 20th century. Folk art and traditions run through the book and it’s illustrated with photographs, music, songs, maps and journal excerpts.
I grew up in this part of West Clare just when the vernacular language had changed from Irish to English. The old people like my grandparents were native Irish speakers, English was their second language. My parents were bilingual but English was their first language.
As fate would have it, I was my parent’s first born and when my mother gave birth to twins, I was ‘farmed out’ to my grandparents. I was about three years old and this suited me fine, my grandparents were both musicians and lived beside the sea. By the time I began school, I spoke fluent Irish and bad English.
My grandparents played music every night, both were fiddlers and grandma also played the concertina. On Sunday night other musicians gathered in the house for a session and listeners and dancers came as well. My granduncle Patcheen Flanagan was always present and at the end of the night he told a story or sang a song in Irish. So I grew up in a world of music, dance and storytelling and the Irish language.
After my grandparents and Patcheen passed away, I knew fewer people who spoke Irish and it struck me that I was watching a culture die. So I began to talk to the remaining local Irish speakers and storytellers, musicians and singers. I jotted down notes and initially I suppose I was trying to make sence of what I experienced in my own life. It was the end of the Celtic Twilight and it happened suddenly. Eventually I tried to distill what I knew and what I learned into this book—Doolin: people, place and culture
3) What do you think distinguishes the Clare sound from Sligo’s or Donegal’s?
Clare music is played a bit slower and the tunes are different. Around Doolin tunes were played with very few ‘grace notes’ and little ornamentation, compared to Sligo and Donegal music. Donegal especially has a Scottish influence and tunes tend to be played faster.
Clare music has no evidence of outside influence and music is played at a pace to suit dancers. House dances survived in Clare until the late 1960’s—though they were illegal since 1937. I think the Clare sound still has the influence of the dancers, both in the type of tunes and the lift and pace.
3) Did you uncover any surprises while researching the book?
Several! At the beginning of the 20th centuries, Doolin had more Irish language storytellers than musicians. That was a surprise and shows what a rich storytelling tradition was there. Our area didn’t appear on the radar of the Celtic Twilight people—Yeats, Lady Gregory et al and it was 1928 before the Folklore Commission visited Doolin.
Another surprise was evidence that music had been played in around Doolin at least since the 8th century—the date of a bronze harp peg found in 1937 near an old Brehon Law School.
Often when I was visiting tradition bearers, our conversation could go off on tangents that nearly always uncovered some gem of folklore, a long forgotten tune or a story, or maybe an old photograph. The collecting process or research was a surprise in itself.
4) What were the biggest cultural changes that happened in Doolin in your lifetime?
There were two and they happened in sequence and were not directly related. First was the death of the Irish language, as adolescents only six or seven of us were fluent speakers and we were all boys! At that stage in the mid-60s, what remained of the old speakers didn’t make up an active community; they were dotted here and there but too far apart to visit each other. If we still had a community of active speakers in the 1960s, I think the West Clare Gaeltacht would be alive and vibrant today. The language would have been kept afloat by the music.
The rise of Doolin as a mecca for people interested in Irish traditional music is the other big cultural change I experienced. Music provided the main social and cultural flux when the language died and the stories were no longer told. Jigs and reels had no language frontier to cross and now the music channelled the old lore and knowledge and sacred cultural connections. It was special and I understood that even as a child. Back then the music was played just for the community, just ourselves. We seldom saw tourists or strangers, apart from people who had strayed off the beaten path. With the rise of radio Doolin music got heard all over Ireland. People began coming there for weekends in the 1960s. That time two or three musicians played at night in O’Connor’s bar and the visitors understood that this was real traditional music in a hospitable place. By word of mouth, more came and then the folk music revivalists discovered it. In a few years Doolin became an essential stop on the counter-culture trail and thousands arrived there annually to experience authentic Irish culture, music, fun. I think that Doolin unwittingly invented cultural tourism in Ireland. It’s a mind-boggling change, and one started by a handful of musicians playing in a quiet pub.
5) Is there one tune, one artist who defines the Clare musical tradition.
Many of my friends are Clare musicians so I’ll just pick a tune! I think ‘The Concertina Reel’ is a definitive Clare tune. The concertina is a popular instrument there, and one favoured by women. I heard my grandmother playing this tune when I was very little and it was unknown outside our area until the 1970s. It’s a popular reel for dancers and is played worldwide today.
6) How do you feel the music of Clare has affected your fiction writing?
It is a very big influence. Musical instruments are my first memory and I learned to play Irish music when I was 8 or 9. It was such an important part of the life I grew up in, that I think it seeps into stories that I write. There’s a story in my first book, The West, called ‘Bláth na Spéire’ and Irish music runs through it. ‘When Angels go Home for Christmas’ is set around a batch of musicians out as Mummers on St. Stephen’s Day. It hangs on music.
My characters are sometimes musicians, traditional or contemporary. ‘Angie,’ a story from ‘Out of the Blue’ is built around music that bridges Ireland and San Francisco. ‘Journeymen’ is another music story in Out of the Blue. Recently I noticed there is a bit of singing in my stories. It’s a Clare trait—’you can’t go wrong with a song!’
A few times, the feeling I got from a tune triggered a story. Music evokes memories, and that can provide a setting for a story. My grandmother played a tune called ‘My Love is in America’, a lonesome reel and I always felt there was a story behind her version of it. It’s one I’m going to write someday.