How I Got Started in Irish Music

A short summary of where I come from, and how I found about Irish music and dance.

Originally published 2001

Like many in this country, my introduction to Irish culture began with RiverDance — an international dance spectacular in which the Irish bits were choreographed by Michael Flatley, who went on to create the even more spectacular Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames. I had been out of my martial arts training for about a year, and looking for some good exercise. I thought about returning to some of dance work I had done in college, but it was too “airy” (i.e., not macho enough). Then I saw RiverDance. “Hey, that’s manly“, I thought, “I can do that”.

Until then, I had no idea that Irish culture existed, beyond a couple of “old standard” songs like Danny Boy and the Irish Washerwoman. And I certainly had no idea of the incredibly deep and rich tradition of that culture — or of how accessible it was to an avid beginner.

As I would discover, there was a whole world of social and competetive dance forms in the Irish tradition. (They are described in Introducing Irish Dance and Music). Possibly the most interesting revelation was that there are actually competitions for dancers and for solo musicians. A competition, known as a feis (“fesh”), naturally brings out the best in people, so there existence could help to account for the high standard of excellence that is pervasive in these cultural art forms.

But if is the competitions that account for the quality of Irish music and dance, it is the social aspects which accounts for the quantity of it. In Ireland, music and dance is a way of life. I saw entire halls filled with young and old dancing sets in groups of eight. And every pub, it seemed, had a brace of musicians playing, not on stage, but sitting around in a circle in a session.

The existence of competitions, plus the popularity of the art forms, would help to explain why music and dance is so thoroughly built into Celtic school systems. In Scotland, for example, I understand that the social dances are taught in the physical education classes. I believe the same is true of Ireland.

What an outstanding idea! It gives exercise to those who are possibly not so athletically inclined, and builds the foundation for participation in social dances for the rest of their lives. In other words, it provides a positive foundation for community.

Making music and dance an integral part of the educational system serves two purposes. It develops future soloists for competitions, and it prepares people for participation in the social music and dance events. But the fact that so many people are prepared to play the music and do the dances helps make it popular! So the system exhibits a positive feedback loop that is very positive indeed for the culture.

But when I first started dancing, I knew none of this. It came as a revelation to me that playing music was not just for professional musicians who practiced long hours together and played on stage for money. When I went to a party with Irish dancers, I would see people take out instruments and play a few tunes. Then I began hearing about sessions held in local pubs. There the musicians would take turns starting up a tune, at which point those who knew it would join in, and those who didn’t would sit back and listen, or try to pick it out on their instruments.

I began to become interested in music, late in life though it was, precisely because there was actually an opportunity to play.

On my trip to Ireland, it seemed that everyone played an instrument, or danced, or sang, or told stories — or did something creative. In Ireland, where shop owners frequently came outside when giving us directions, pubs often advertise themselves as session-friendly, and buy the first round for the players. At one pub, in fact there was a young fellow who couldn’t have been much older than college age. He sang a beautiful tune, then played a grand flute, and followed up by accompanying the rest of the ensemble on a bodhran (“bough-rahn”, or Irish drum). And these were just folks sitting around a pub!

One of the things that struck me about the Irish music and dance scene was the sense of community. I think you can measure the “communityness” of a group as the accumulated count and duration of face-to-face contacts that occur within it. By that criterion, our suburban “quality of life” index is sorely lacking. But in the Irish subculture in the San Francisco Bay area, where I find I much higher degree of community. At ceili’s, parties, and different events, I see many of the same people, time and again. We catch up, share a laugh or two. It provides a much needed sense of belonging in a world of work-related strangers that I find myself moving through much of the time.

For more on that subject of community building, see Building a Community with Music and Dance.

In fact, at my first ceili (Irish social dance) in San Francisco, I saw older people sitting in chairs that lined the walls of the hall. They were chatting away and watching the younger folk dancing away in the middle of the floor. Imagine paying a few dollars admission (to a social club, to be sure) to sit around and talk with your friend! It amazed me then. But as I got to know the warmth and kind-hearted spirit of the Irish people, it came as no surprise at all.

Music and dance is so much a part of Irish culture, in fact, that is incredible to observe how warmly encouraging and friendly Irish people are towards those who are learning it. They can be as encouraging towards an adult learning a new instrument, in fact, as they are towards a toddler taking its first steps!

A few examples should illustrate the point:

  • At one point, I was practicing tin whistle in the hall before a dance class started. The dance room is on the first floor of an apartment building, and one of the tenants who was passing by asked me not to do that, as we were just outside her room. It seemed like a reasonable request to me, so I said “Ok”, and put it away. The revelation was the reaction of the folks in the class who were from Ireland. Every last one of them immediately said “Aw”, without any kind of hesitation whatsoever. That told me something about the Irish approach to life. Someone involved in music or dance was to be tolerated, at least, and encouraged, at best. To do any less is simply impolite!
  • One day when our dance performance group was doing two shows, one in the afternoon and one in the evening (on St. Patrick’s Day, of course), we retired to one fellow’s apartment to while away the time playing tunes. Our musicians came with us, which was a treat because all three of them play sterling music. Although I had been playing fiddle all of three or 4 weeks at that time, they encouraged me to bring it out, and play the few tunes I knew at the speed I could manage. They listened politely, and had nothing but nice to say! Now, considering what my poor attempts at intonation must have been doing to their highly developed musician’s ears, I’d say that was a downright spectacular display of humanity!
  • At Gaelic Roots, when the beginning tin whistle students played several tunes at the student recital, they received what could only be described as “thunderous” applause. This was no mere polite show of encouragement, but a strong display of emotion from the bottom of the heart. It was a marvelous thing to behold.

Knowing How To Live

The appreciation and love of life among Irish people goes well beyond the music. I had a number of experiences in Ireland that led me to believe that the Irish really know how to live. (And that if the climate permitted a healthy diet, the place would be heaven on earth!)

Here are a few of the experiences that helped to shape my impression of the Irish philosophical outlook on life:

  • In Dublin, when a camera shop didn’t have the chip I needed, the shop keeper not only drew me a map, he came outside the shop with me to point me the way to get started.
  • In a medium-size town in the West of Ireland, we arrived at a pub too late for lunch. The owner of the pub came out from behind the bar, out to the front of the pub, and walked over to the corner with us to point out the two places that were still open, and tell us which was best.
  • A Dublin cab driver told us that if you’re late for a meeting, and you say “Some folks from out of town were lost, so I showed them how to get where they were going”, the response will be, “Oh. Fine.” As in: “Of course. What else would you do?”
  • Another story I heard was that if you’re late for work, and you tell the boss, “My neighbor had a bit of trouble and I was helping him out”, then that too is a totally understandable and acceptable reason for being late.

The point here is that helping one another is expected. How else should one move through life?

In fact, all of the concerts could possibly be characterized best as “an experience of love and appreciation”. The music itself brought warm feelings to the heart. The appreciation for those who brought it forth was deeply felt and strongly displayed. And, as the example above illustrates, the appreciation for those who were learning to do so was also movingly demonstrated. In Ireland, they call it the craic, which is (unfortunately for us) pronounced “crack”. But it means the good will and fellow-feeling brought about by the music and the experience of sharing it. It is a particularly Irish concept that deserves wider emulation.

This appreciation and acceptance of aspiring artistic talent is something for which I am heartily grateful! I’m not a world class musician by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it. I’m an average duffer who took to it late in life, and who loves the stuff. I’ve learned to play several different instruments (with varying degrees of proficiency, and I’ve found that each one I learn increases my appreciation and admiration of the music I hear.

A friend of mine named Ray Wilson pointed out that, in Ireland, it’s considered impolite not to share your talents, whatever they may be — and however well developed the may be (or may not be!) at the moment.

In much that same way that I most enjoy watching the sports I learned to play, I find that playing the music has greatly increased my interest in and appreciation for performance of a great musician. (No matter how much you enjoy the music, there is no way to appreciate the complexity of the task until you have attempted it yourself!)

In Irish music and dance, I’ve found I wonderful collection of talented, fun-loving people who play together, dance together, laugh, and generally have a good time. It’s been a wonderful experience all around. I hope that what I’ve written here will help you discover this wonderful culture, and have as much fun as I’ve had.

Copyright © 2001-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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    Trackbacks & Pingbacks

    1. Using Sheet Music Effectively | June 3, 2017 (5:48 pm)

      […] Coming to music late in life has had one advantage. As a practicing philosopher and software designer, I’ve had a fair amount of practice in coming to grips with complex ideas and making sense out of things. That I did only a little music early in my life has left me unbiased, as it were, with respect to what works and what doesn’t. (For more about how and why I began to immerse myself in this culture, see How I Got Started.) […]

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