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I’ve played a Damien Dempsey CD repeatedly throughout the holidays. In fact, it has been more the theme of my holiday season than the usual collection of Christmas CDs I unpack with the ornaments every year. My favorite track is, “School Days Over”. This version of the song is sung in a gritty, workingman’s voice that makes it easy to imagine a boy, barely a man, being called to work and facing the hard reality of his life. Although the song was written by Ewan MacColl and depicts the mines in England, Scotland and Wales, Dempsey sings it in a style that is unquestionably Irish. The lilt at the end of several lines throughout the song, tells us that the hard life of the laborer was as much a part of Irish culture as the more romantic and cozy things that resonate when we think of Ireland, like music in the pubs and strong, milky tea with brown bread.

Far from the streets of Dublin and the boreens of Loop Head, I woke up this morning to piles of snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. The Chicago area has been hammered by snow that seems to have been incessantly falling in varying degrees for nearly 48 hours. Declan was up early this morning with the snow blower and I with a shovel, trying to get a head start on the snow in the driveway, on the steps and in the dog’s pen in the backyard. After the shoveling and in spite of blizzard conditions, I still managed to drive to Elijah’s, my favorite coffee shop, for my morning mocha. It would take more than treacherous roads to keep me from my morning ritual of mocha, book reading and the occasional enjoyable interruptions of friendly banter with a couple of my favorite baristas and a few of the other regular customers who, like me, come in every morning.

It could have been the fiddle music playing on the speakers at Elijah’s this morning, or maybe just my obsessive Damien Dempsey exposure recently, but I spent the slow, white-knuckled drive home singing “School Days Over”. My weak imitation of Dempsey’s version of the song passed the time happily for me but didn’t bode well for Eoin when I arrived home. Seeing him still in his pajamas and playing on his iPad with all that snow piling up outside, I began singing my own, off the cuff, version of “School Days Over” urging him out the door to shovel the snow accumulating once again in the driveway. Lucky for Eoin it’s 2014, and aside from family chores, child labor laws are in place. His bit of shoveling didn’t take too long and was followed up by an hour or so of sledding with his friends on the little hill at the end of our street!

Come on then Eoin, it’s time to go.

Time to be shoveling all that snow…

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen courtesy The Pure Drop

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen

Growing up on the far South Side of Chicago, surrounded by a vast assortment of Irish names like O’Donnell, Murphy and Burke, and Irish faces of fair-complexion with freckles and sparkling blue eyes, I never felt very Irish. Although I had an Irish grandmother, I also had a Greek last name, a German mother and dark brown eyes. My somewhat olive skin didn’t go well with the Kelly Green Rugby shirts and Aran sweaters of Chicago St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. And for the most part, the Irish music I heard in my youth, which would move many Irish-Americans to tears, didn’t do a thing for me. In my opinion songs like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” though fun to sing along with, were corny and dripping with sentiment that was not helped by the fake Irish accents with which they were often sung.

Then one day in the 1990’s, I opened a Sinéad O’Connor cd and everything changed. On track two of this pop/rock cd there was a song called, I am Stretched on Your Grave, which I later discovered was based upon an English translation of a 17th century Irish Gaelic poem. The track began with a drum rhythm and Sinéad’s haunting, Celtic voice and led unexpectedly to what I thought at the time was a taste of pure Irish fiddle and drum heaven! As I listened, I danced around an imaginary bonfire in my mind and plugged into a power in that music that felt ancient and tribal. This song opened the door for me to a type of Irish music I had never been exposed to before. My new passion led me to the Irish Folk Music section of my beloved Border’s Bookstore and resulted in an extensive collection of Irish Traditional Music cd’s. Over time I bought dozens of cd’s, many filled with ballads rendered in a language that spoke to me, even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and haunting melodies played with fiddles, whistles and the stirring beat of the Irish drum, the bodhran, a name I couldn’t pronounce at the time. As I drove my family crazy with this newfound musical passion, I slowly became connected through music to a land, a people and a culture that I was only slightly connected to by way of genetics.

The rest is history. This blog, my West Clare cottage, my Irish last name – my youngest son – the little Irishman with a name I couldn’t have pronounced even a year before his birth, all exist to some extent because of that one Sinéad O’Connor song and the countless bodhran, fiddle and tin whistle tunes and ballads that followed. I still can’t wear Kelly Green, and Aran Sweaters really do not suit me. But not only do I now feel Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, like the rest of the City of Chicago, I am also connected to Ireland in a way that goes far beyond genetics. And today my two older children, whom I once drove crazy with my Irish Music cd’s, have a bond to Ireland as well!

On February 28th, President Obama declared March, 2013 Irish-American Heritage Month. Perhaps his Moneygall, Ireland DNA is what drove him to do it. Or, his experience visiting that country where he only recently discovered his family connections. Or, maybe it was just good old-fashioned politics where it never hurts to nod to the millions of Americans with Irish blood coursing through their veins! I would say it was probably a combination of all the above. Whatever his reasons, I am sure that most Americans will be happy to heed his call this St. Patrick’s Day!

“… NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2013 as Irish-American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”

When we arrived home tonight I turned off the car and we sat parked in front of the house listening to this beautiful song playing on the radio, while gazing out across the misty bog just as the grey of the day was darkening into night. It always amazes me just how perfectly Irish music fits with the Irish landscape.

Yes, we had another day of what has been the punch line of the summer, “forty shades of green replaced by Fifty Shades of Grey!” However, fast becoming an expert at trying to make the best of the challenging weather situation, this afternoon I purchased tickets to a show staged at the Cultúrlann Sweeney Theatre that resides in the newly renovated library in Kilkee. Tonight, Crack’d Spoon Theatre Company performed “Curtains Up”, a family friendly variety show, that was a delightful mix of comedy, dance and live music featuring local children, teenagers and adults. The comedy provided hearty laughs – and a few eye-rolls, the talented, and sometimes quite nervous, children were darling, the adult performances were very professional and the live music was an unexpected treat tonight following Willie Clancy Week. Some of the night’s highlights were; two young boys dressed as chimney sweeps performing an exuberant sean-nós broom dance; a Monty Python-esque town doctor comedy skit; two excellent male singers performing a “Simon and Garfunkel” tune; traditional Irish music performers playing and singing several Irish classics; a hilarious, quite large, older man dressed as a ballerina performing with a group of tiny, adorable little girl ballerinas, who seemed to take his presence for granted as just part of their group; and two “cleaning lady” comediennes who punctuated the acts with their banter and short spurts of set changing followed by numerous breaks for tea! All in all a great way for a mom and her 10-year-old son to spend yet another rainy Kilkee evening! This local black box theater is a great discovery that I hope we get to enjoy a lot more of in the future.

I also must mention something that I have observed at every performance I’ve attended in County Clare. This is the particularly charming practice of offering as refreshment, fresh brewed tea in ceramic mugs or, as they did tonight, in ceramic teacups with saucers! This was even done in the large venue for the concerts in Miltown Malbay last week. In that instance at one point the emcee of the show politely asked that people who have finished their tea, “please pass your cups down to the end of the rows so that they may be collected.” I love this civilized, homey touch and I hope it is never replaced with the usual disposable cups that are the norm everywhere else!

My “Willie Clancy” chair!

Musicians, singers, dancers and Irish traditional music fans, like me, have come to Ireland from all over the world to enjoy Willie Clancy Week. An 40ú Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, the Willie Clancy 40th Summer School, a.k.a. Willie Clancy Week or the Willie Clancy Festival takes place annually in the town of Miltown Malbay. Not only is this Ireland’s largest traditional music summer school, but it offers a week of recitals, céilithe (traditional dances), lectures and exhibitions, all open to the public. It is basically an intensive, week-long celebration of  traditional Irish music and culture. Lucky for us, Miltown Malbay is just a half hour from our cottage so today Eoin and I made our first, of what I hope to be a few, trips to the festival. Not only was this a feast of Irish traditional music, punctuated by the most Irish language speaking I’ve ever heard while here, but it was a treat just to see so many people of all ages with musical instruments strapped to their backs or carried in their arms and even children, with their instruments of choice, busking along the main street!

On the way back to the car, which I had parked “Irish style” (half on top of the footpath) a distance from the center of town, we were enticed into a used-book store by a Roald Dahl book displayed in the window. Eoin has discovered this irreverent and hilarious children’s book author since we’ve been in Kilkee this summer and was just telling me this very day how he hoped to get more of his books. We ended up purchasing three books, much to Eoin’s delight. However, much to my delight, there was a wooden chair for sale in the back room of the shop, hand painted and antiqued by a woman from Feakle in County Clare. This was the chair I had pictured at my kitchen table for the past three years and, at the fair price they were asking, I couldn’t resist bringing it home! Therefore, to anyone who attended the Willie Clancy Festival today confused by the sight of a woman carrying a green, painted wooden chair above her head through the dense crowd, you see – there is a perfectly reasonable explanation!

Below are a few photos we took at the Willie Clancy Fest. If you would like to see a photo of me carrying a green chair above my head down a crowded sidewalk, I’m sorry, but we didn’t take one. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if one exists in someone else’s camera!

A child busking at the fest.

Mist rolling in from the sea…

Isn’t it great when life comes with a music score? Just as I started my car this morning in the car park at the Diamond Rocks Cafe, invigorated after my walk through a thick, misty fog along the Kilkee Cliffs, my spirits high and my hair a moisture-induced mess of tangled curls and ringlets, the Paul McCartney song, “Mull of Kintyre” began to play on Clare FM. Although Paul sings of a different place, the song could have been written about these particular cliffs on a misty day like today and to me it was the perfect choice as the soundtrack to my morning.

What is it about a thick fog, especially on the edge of the world here in West Clare, that makes me feel so invigorated and at home? Could it be its similarity to my inner landscape and how my dreams and even my waking mind often feel clouded in a mist? Or maybe everyone feels this way and I’m reading more into the experience than it deserves. Perhaps it’s just a human condition – the way a thick fog pulls us into the present, wakes up all our senses and makes us feel truly alive. 

I’ve started this post with Happy St. Paddy’s Day instead of Happy St. Patrick’s Day, as a nod to the rant my Irish husband has been on all week. Apparently, calling the saint, Paddy, is alright (though, I think Patrick is preferred) – but woe to those Americans, including a certain beer company whose ad decorates a local restaurant, who dare to call Patrick, “Patty”! Patty is a girl’s name you see and not a name you would call any Patrick, let alone the saint Himself!  So to those of you wishing friends, loved ones and nearby strangers a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today, be warned! You may certainly be familiar enough with Patrick to call him Paddy, but should you call him Patty within earshot of Declan, you will suffer the ire of an Irishman who likes his saints’ nicknames to be gender correct!

It is probably fair to say that adding to Declan’s ill-humor is the fact that he has to work today, of all days. During the last several St. Patrick’s Days spent in the U.S. he has lamented that in Ireland the day is a national holiday for which all students and most working people would have the day off to celebrate. Since this year the holiday fell on a Saturday, he might have expected to celebrate a real St. Patrick’s Day! However, his employer apparently didn’t consider ethnicity when drawing up the call roster for the year and Declan was scheduled to work, yet again, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Since we faced the holiday on our own, I had planned to bring my son, Eoin, to the downtown Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  A combination of the holiday falling on a Saturday coupled with the strangely warm weather we are experiencing made it feel almost like an obligation to attend the parade.

Inside the ‘L’ train today, photo by Anton.
(Not even close to the ‘sardines’ on the Metra!)

However, after watching a sea of Kelly Green humanity being squeezed onto two dangerously packed Metra trains at the Elmhurst train station this morning, I decided it was best to spend the day far from what I am sure will be Mardi Gras level festivities in Chicago. I may instead celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by making a loaf of brown bread to have with tea tonight!

But parade or no parade, the day is lovely and even my husband’s mood is looking up. He has cheerfully informed me that someone, perhaps another indignant Irish person armed with a marker, has changed the “t’s” to “d’s” on the restaurant’s beer ad! It is good to know you are not alone in your indignation!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Leaving West Clare and returning to the suburbs of Chicago is like waking up from a dream that fades from consciousness as the day goes on. My life here is so removed from my life there that writing about Ireland and our little cottage in the bog has become difficult.

Since my last post and our return to Elmhurst our days have been busy and filled with both routine and pleasure. After much preparation and adjustment, Eoin is now off and running in 4th grade and has moved his attention from watersports and horse riding to lots of homework, intramurals and band practice. In September I managed a trip to L.A. to visit my daughter Kate and then enjoyed a surprise return visit from her a week later! Thanksgiving was marvelous, in spite of a missing daughter, because my oldest son Anton was with us and we feasted as though there were a dozen people at the table! Now I am preparing for Christmas – slowly but surely – and looking forward to my daughter being home for two whole weeks and to a full house for the holidays! Kevin, Kate’s boyfriend, will be joining us and Anton, I’m hoping, has been adequately pressured into staying the night and waking up with us on Christmas morning.

Life is good, but at the moment it is far removed from Ireland and the theme of this blog. However, my computer is stuffed full of photographs to jog my memory and I still have a few more things to say about the sights and experiences we were lucky enough to enjoy during the coldest Irish summer in nearly 50 years! So, my plan is to get back to writing as soon as possible, which will probably be, after the holidays. But until then, although I’ve been satisfied for the past few months to see Vincent van Gogh’s lovely Starry Night at the top of the page I think it’s time to push it down a bit, replacing van Gogh with Sinéad and this beautiful rendition of Danny Boy that has me thinking of Ireland again!

The sights and sounds contained in this video featuring the Cliffs of Moher are all the proof I need that Irish traditional music came out of Ireland’s landscape, as though it once grew there wild, just waiting for some musically inclined ancient Celt to pluck it from the rocky shoreline and share it with the world! For me, watching this video today has eased some of my apprehension over the likely challenges of making the journey in three weeks across the Atlantic alone with my 9-year-old son to our cottage. Also, the music and the magnificent sites have inspired me to begin to tackle some essential tasks, which I must carry out, between now and the day of our departure on June 20th. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it!

If you are so inclined, you may go to the link provided in the video to vote for the Cliffs of Moher in the third, and last, phase of an online campaign for the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

 

Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig!

St. Patrick blesses Co. Mayo, photo courtesy news.NationalGeographic.com

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! So far this year, my celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has been to attend the local parade last Saturday with Declan and Eoin – bundled up from head to toe to keep out the cold – and to bake two loaves of Irish Brown Bread, my first ever! One loaf went with Eoin to school for his Culture Project Food Day and the other was just for us. Served with raspberry jam and the deep yellow richness of Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter – and moistened with cupán tae – the brown bread was celebration enough! However, adding to the pleasure of the holiday, I just received the following video in a “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” email from The Francis O’Neill Club of the Irish American Heritage Center. Song for Ireland perfectly conveys my affection for Ireland and this version by Dick Gaughan is particularly soulful. So, in celebration of the day that’s in it, I offer this video for you to enjoy a wonderful song and to feast your eyes on the beauty of the island St. Patrick loved so well! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PInNrFZQEwk&feature In addition, with thoughts directed toward the people of Japan in their struggle with the ongoing devastation in their country, instead of talk of green beer and shamrocks this St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll leave you with the comfort of a small part of  St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer attributed to the saint himself.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Last night as I lay dreaming of the pleasant days gone by,

My mind being bent on rambling, to Erin’s Isle I did fly.

I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,

‘Till I gladly came to anchor at the Cross of Spancil Hill…

This is the opening of an extraordinary poem written by a man named Michael Considine. In 1870 Michael left his home at the crossroads called Spancil Hill, a few miles outside Ennis in County Clare, seeking his fortune in America with the intention of bringing his sweetheart, Mary McNamara, to join him as soon as he was able. Sadly, in 1873 at the age of 23, Michael fell ill in California and died before seeing Mary or his home in Clare again. But, this being the story of an Irishman, it ends with a poem – which of course was eventually turned into a haunting ballad. While he was ill, and perhaps knowing he was dying, Michael wrote this poem and before he passed away, posted it to John, his six-year-old nephew back in Spancil Hill. The original version of the song Spancil Hill, traces back to the late 1930’s to early ’40s and a local man named Robbie McMahon, who was given the original text by a relative of Michael Considine.

I stumbled upon a brilliant version of Spancil Hill on youtube a few days ago, while cruising for music to get me through the winter doldrums of my Chicago suburb. Here the Irish folk legend and balladeer, Christy Moore joins with Shane MacGowan, the phenomenal, albeit tooth-challenged, talent of Celtic Rock and Punk renown, to give a beautiful rendition of the musical version of Considine’s heart-rending poem, which tells the story of the yearning for home, wherever that might be.

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