Many pubs have signs like this one, keeping a few seats for the musicians.

Many Irish pubs have signs like this one, holding a place for the musos  to sit among the crowds who come to see them.

Note to readers: I have no photos from this evening. In lieu of visual aids, please click on this YouTube link and let the music (by Foolin in Doolin, Blackie O’Connor’s band) play as you read my blog.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3-6PiBCzFU

From Doolin, Ireland, on Monday, May 20, 2013

“Have you a few drinks in you?” Blackie looks closely at me, his black eyes shining through the black curls surrounding his long, narrow face. It’s about 8.30 p.m. in McGann’s pub where plenty of people already have a few drinks into them, so it isn’t an accusation, just a sympathetic enquiry.

“No, I’m just slow,” I admit. “And dopey.”

Like O’Connor’s pub (see “Buttersweet” blog entry), McGann’s is another famous music pub in another very old building where the wooden beams are steeped in three centuries of pipe and cigarette smoke. Marie and I have come to Ireland and this pub with a soft-edged plan to meet Blackie O’Connor (no relation to the pub) , a musician who’d been recommended to me before my trip by Failte Ireland.

I’d phoned Blackie a few weeks before the trip, to ask for drum lessons. I told him that Marie and I were coming to the center for Irish music (Doolin) to learn how to play the instrument that I mispronounced “BOUGH-rain,” and he’d corrected me, saying, “BOE-rohn” and thus giving me my first lesson. Though his speech was quick and his wonderful accent thick, I’d understood him to say that he’d “be very happy” to help us out and lend us a bodhrán, though he himself was not a teacher, so we could “learn the bodhrán and have the craic.

Note: as anyone who has spent five minutes reading any guidebook or searching any website (e.g. www.ireland.com) to Ireland knows, craic is a Gaelic word, meaning “good time,” or, specifically, “good time in a pub involving drink and live music.” It’s pronounced “crack.” One of the Irish slang synonyms for “fun-loving person” is “ho” (as in “ho-ho-ho”), so I have deduced that when entering Ireland it’s perfectly respectable to tell the immigration authorities at passport control that you are visiting their country as a “craic ho.”

Entering McGann’s is like entering O’Connor’s in that there is no music audible from outside, but as soon as we open the thick wooden door and walk in through the thick stone walls, we hear singing and playing. But in McGann’s two things are different: 1) the music we hear on entering is a recording, and 2) I do not recognize the layout. Apparently I didn’t go to McGann’s in my trips of 1996 or 2001, or if I did, I’d had too many lager and lies (stet) to remember it.

Marie and I take a seat in the back of McGann’s as far as we could get from the American woman who offers to move her stuff so we can sit next to her and her boyfriend. Both of us are hungry and surprised to be hungry, me especially given that I’ve eaten a breakfast of Irish vegetarian champions (scrambled eggs, thick brown toast with butter and strawberry jam, baked beans, and anachronistic and imperfectly cooked haloumi with pesto and red pepper) at midday. But by the time we reach McGann’s it was 9 p.m., or 4 p.m. in Florida, so soup and green salad sound fantastic, along with my soda water and Harp lager for Marie.

The American woman’s boyfriend sounds bad. Tall and bushily red-haired and red-bearded, he’s  telling a story at top volume in a harsh, nasal, possibly Chicagoan accent. He’s almost shouting about how he told the people at work he was going to Ireland, and a coworker asked him how long it’d been since he’d been back, and even though he’d never set foot on Irish soil before, and he – oh soul of Chicago wit – had said, “Fourteen years,” ha ha ha HA! The point of this long, loud retelling is that the teller looks Irish, but this is not a point worth making: anyone with red hair can be said to look Irish.

But soon there will be much better things to listen to, and for now there’s plenty to look at. The pub has red tiled floor and walls of light knotty pine, but old light knotty pine so it doesn’t look glossy and fresh like my cottage in California with its relatively new pine walls from the 40s. High above eye level, just under the roof, runs a shelf holding things to look at, such as a yellow-and-green ceramic jug with a flower on it, a Chivers Jelly box, odd glasses, a wooden box coffee grinder, a rust-pocked red kettle, a large, colored cardboard box — marked importantly ‘EGGS’ — a pewter tankard, and four or five flatirons.

As Marie and I partake of soup and salad – both accompanied by brown bread and butter, like every meal we will have in Ireland – a very tall, thin young man with a curly black ponytail walks by, winking at me en passant. Even though I imagine he winks at everyone, and even though I’m twice his age, I’m still pleased. I like Ireland.

Ten minutes later the ponytailed man is setting up his mike in the musician’s corner and taking something like a big flute out of a big bright red case. The man who has winked at me is Blackie, the one we’ve come to meet!

When I step over to introduce myself, Blackie seizes my hand and welcomes me, his long thin sad face turning happy. He sets aside his instruments and comes back to meet Marie, kissing her on the cheek. “We’ll work you hard this week,” he promises. Then he says, “I was supposed to bring you a drum, but I haven’t. I’ve to play it tomorrow morning, though it’d be a year and a half since you’d catch me with a drum.” The quick speech, pure black eyes, and unfamiliar use of tenses confuse me, but I assure him it’s no problem that he wouldn’t be lending us a drum that night.

We’re eager to set up a lesson, but neither Marie nor I can pin him down to a specific time, place, or teacher, at least not as far as we can tell. His friend Geraldine McGann (no relation to the pub) is coming later, and she too has said she’ll give us a “get to know your bodhrán” session, but she too claims not to be a “proper teacher.” Both she and Blackie have offered to help us get proper lessons later, but it’s Monday night and there’s no drum nor lesson in sight, and I’m leaving on Saturday.

“So will you like a lesson later in the week?” I think that’s what Blackie is saying, or maybe at least that’s his meaning, or at least that’s what I’ve been thinking he is going to say based on what I’d thought he’d said on the phone some weeks back, wasn’t it?

“Yes, when?” I said. “Any day. Any time. I’m at the hostel and Marie’s next door.”

“I’m out tomorrow afternoon,” he said, “playing with [more unfamiliar names]  at [some town I’d never heard of]. But I can lend you my drum after that. And Geraldine will help you tonight a bit, perhaps.”

“Would you give us a lesson, then?” I said, confused. “Or would she? Or did you say something about someone else?”

“Ah, well, we’ll see about a lesson for you,” he says. “What day would you like?”

“Any day is fine,” I repeat. “Anytime. But I have to leave on Saturday.”

“Ah,” he says. “And today is Monday, isn’t it? I’m here tonight…” he rattles off a bunch of names, days, times, and places, all of which sound similar. McGann’s on Monday with Geraldine McGann, or O’Connor’s tomorrow or McSomeone else’s on Wednesday for a lesson perhaps that day or the day before or after or both, if I like, in the pub or before or after the session in the hostel perhaps, someone will call someone, here’s his cell phone number.

I could not keep up. “So, when might we get a lesson in, do you think?” I say, politely.

That’s when he looks at me with that devastating, sympathetic gaze. Probably his eyes are just very, very, very dark brown, but they appear black.  “Ah,” he says, suddenly seeming to understand. “Have you a few drinks in you?”

I give up, but hope that Geraldine will sort out some kind of lesson for us later in the evening.

Geraldine turns up and turns out to be built like me, but unlike me she is wearing a tight black jacket and even tighter black jeans and enviable ankle boots. She has big, shiny, diamante earrings and a big, shiny, off-white smile, and she gives the impression as she shakes my hand that she is giving me a hug and kiss at the same time.

“I’m no kind of a teacher,” she says. “I taught myself as a child and just to make some noise, so, but I spoke to a man who’d give me some things I can show ye, shure. I’ll come to you at the break and we’ll have a chat, like.”

Marie flew in from Florida the day before, and I’d been conferring hard at my conference for the last several days, so we both want to go to our respective rooms and respective beds, but in order to get Geraldine’s help we stay till her break. I am glad we do, because the music she and Blackie and the banjo player Cyril play is so fantastic that even I, musically illiterate and usually unable to concentrate on sound, find it compelling. Actually, I find it far more than compelling – I respond to it the way my sister and my other music-loving friends respond to music they respond to: I love it. Listening to it was so good I sometimes closed my eyes, but when I opened them again to look at the musicians or gaze around — I’m in Ireland! in a pub! —  there’s a lot to look at.

Up by the bar as in many bars and shops in Ireland are the multicolored, palm-sized, cloth badges of American public servants and sports teams: the Boston Fire Department and the Nashville EMTs and the Los Angeles Police Department and the public works and baseball teams of small towns in Kentucky and Idaho and a veterinary service clinic from Hawaii. All of the badges look fresh and stiff and official, as if torn off a brand-new uniform. I wonder if I should bring a handful of badges on my next visit, to endear myself to the publicans and shopkeepers of Ireland, and if so, how I will acquire those badges when I don’t know even one American who is a firefighter, police officer, professional sport player, or public servant, unless you could count my mail carrier, a lovely blond lady called Karen, and I don’t think the Manatee County USPS employees have badges.

On the other hand, my best friend’s son is a reservist in the US Marines, and four months ago I met in a bar an attractive lesbian whom my friend Marie insisted was a transgender man, who was a police officer. She claimed to be a better shot than any of the men in her squad or team or whatever they call her coterie of shooters, but she wasn’t in uniform, and I’ve lost her number, so I don’t know if she wears a badge or if I could get one, but I’ll work on it. Maybe the fire-fighters sell badges as fundraisers, the way the police fraternal league sends out decals to affix to the driver’s side window of your car so that if you get pulled over for a ticket, the first thing you do when the cop approaches is make sure the window is fully rolled up, so that he’ll see that you’re a Supporter of The Law and not a public menace even if you were doing 40 in a 25. Failing that, maybe I can buy badges on Ebay.

Meanwhile, I get Blackie a pint of Guinness and he looks up through his waves of hair and says, “Gillian, you’re a star,” and even though he meets a million people, he has remembered my name, so I’m flattered even though we did just meet in person a few minutes ago and anyone could remember a name of a person who’d been emailing and whom they’d just met. Still,I don’t usually merit attention from young, good-looking musicians, especially not men, and never in my life from a famous Irish fiddler, since I’ve never met one before, and it’s fun to meet one who looks like a hip warlock and speaks so nicely and who winked at me.

For the performance Blackie has pulled his ponytail out so the curls are dangling down his shoulders as he plays, and the Irish bagpipe is huge and unwieldy across his narrow lap. After the first song, Blackie’s joined by bandmate Cyril, who, sitting wide-kneed and scraggly haired with a mandolin in his arms, looks as if he’d seen many years of long nights in pubs. There’s gray in his wild hair and the way his glasses fit deep into his eye sockets suggests that he makes up for lack of sleep with Jamieson’s.

After the second song, he unsmilingly introduces first himself and Geraldine, then Blackie. He murmurs drily against the terrific applause for Blackie, “He’s well known in these parts.” The applause increases, and Cyril adds cryptically, “We love ourselves, don’t we?” Though he has little facial expression, everything he says about Blackie seems insulting and funny. He mutters that Blackie is playing “the pipes,” about which “he’ll give a short lecture later on.”

And then all three of them play and sing and break our American hearts because we will never be Irish. Blackie, Cyril, and Geraldine sit on narrow black benches in the corner and sing like the future of your favorite life. Between, before, and sometimes during songs Blackie and Cyril laugh hard at something no one else knows about, and the laughter blends with the music, their human noises building and harmonizing even as they play their instruments with their faces turned down. It’s as if they’re laughing at the floor, as if the floor is cracking them up, and some other spirit is playing the music for them while they have a laugh.

The three of them sit simply on their bench, making a perfect storm of perfect sounds, and in between verses Geraldine raises her chin at us and lifts a happy thumb to see if we’re okay, and I raise my glass back to her.

Again, I think about how accepting Irish people are. Here are the musicians and the stars of the crowded pub treating us like old friends. Crowded cheerfully into the pub’s two little rooms are many dozens of people of all ages and degrees of dental health, all kinds of bodies in a range of shades of pale, from the “black Irish” white skin to the freckled redheads, and everyone is welcome for the craic.

All the singers I’ve seen so far on this trip have been chubby or pinched, and the men playing music are often wizened or wearing weird clothes. Even beautiful Blackie’s in a floral, black-and-white, long- sleeved button down shirt and jeans faded to blue-white like the spring skies when it’s not raining, and I believe that he put no thought into what he would put on that night, though it looks great on his Black Irish self anyway. I think how far it is from how an American band would dress themselves, how they’d present their image and their songs to match their outfits.

When Geraldine picks up her bodhrán I tell Marie, “Watch, she’s going to play now.” But I can’t see because Geraldine’s left-handed like me, which is great for my hopes of learning to play from her, but I’m on her right side, kind of behind her, and can’t see the drum. After a few minutes of staring at her rocking torso I hear a sound like the pub’s heartbeat and only then realize that she’s playing.

The reel gets faster fast, and Blackie adds some amazing-grace notes, and the pipes and mandolin players play so fast their fingers blur, and if I could see Geraldine’s left hand I’m sure it’d be even blurrier. I’m so excited I’m tapping the table, jigging knees, clapping hands, tapping toes, bobbing my head up and up and down and down, and I call to Marie, “Just think, in a few days we’ll sound just like her!”

I’m joking but I’m hopeful, too, thinking how, after most of a lifetime of listening to this music, starting when I was 17 at The Place when Joan Ogden kept bringing home people to play folk music, and after 20+ years of owning the instrument my sister bought me when she was learning fiddle, finally finally I’m going to learn to play the drum, the bodhrán.

The bodhrán – I feel it as much as hear it, reverberating under me through the wooden bench and the stone floor. The beat’s in front of me, in the bobbing heads of a man and woman, whose silhouette is suddenly joined by two tiny hands flung up: a previously unseen child on the woman’s lap is praising Glory in time to the bodhrán, her little starfish fingers spread wide, her mum jogging her in time, her daddy flopping his head and long hair up and down for his little girl like an 80s rock star, all in time to the music she is growing up to and will learn to play in time, in time.

Less coordinated and less cool than the exuberant infant, I’m tapping and jigging everything, thwacking the table with my fingers like sticks, tipping my toe and sometimes stomping a heel on the floor, stomp, stomp, clack. It’s all, all of it, so fast and fluid, so fluid and getting even faster, yes, and I feel as if I’m matching the drum. Surely I can do this with a tipper in my hand and a bodhrán on my knee. Maybe for once, I’ll be a natural at something. I understand that this is the first lesson from Blackie — this immersion and enthusiasm is the unschedulable learning. I understand!

Maybe, I think, in the light and misty heat of the spinning music, my lost Irish roots will blossom into buds of musical ability that have only to be nurtured with whiskey and rainwater and practice every day. Right.