Doolin, population 200, is a village on Ireland’s West Coast. It is renowned for its traditional music, hence the busloads of tourists trafficked through its tiny strip of small shops. Claire and I, eating Guinness stew outside one of the three village pubs, watched these branded coaches, with names like “Authentic Ireland”, squeeze through the narrow country roads.
We had left Dublin earlier that day, travelled first to Oranmore, outside Galway, and from there to Doolin. The route is operated by Bus Eireann, Ireland’s only nationwide bus carrier. It profits from an inadequate rail network.
Clambering aboard the first bus, we presented our tickets. The driver looked at them and solemnly told us “You’re not sure to make the bus to Doolin.” We were scheduled to arrive in Oranmore at a quarter past ten, to make a connection which left at twenty to eleven. It was now just after seven. But the driver kept repeating, mantra like, “‘tis a very tight schedule now,” and “’tis a four hour drive to Galway like.”
We made the connection, in a reasonable “tree hours and tirty minutes”, the driver having anyway phoned ahead and asked his colleague to wait for our arrival. It dropped us in Doolin, just outside the bright, clean and purpose built Rainbow Hostel, part of a farm that adjoined the road. Their website is worth a visit, just make sure you turn your volume up. We settled in quickly and, after lunch, went for a walk, reluctantly leaving our bags behind the never locked doors.
Evening arrived and we dampened our lips with the creamy foam of a first Guinness at McDermott’s Pub, about a two minute walk away. It was full, near bursting. Every seat had been turned to face a small platform near the front, where musicians slowly tuned their instruments. Claire and I found a small ledge on which we balanced our pints. Chatting, we waited for the music to begin.
We were in a detailed conversation about McCarthy’s Bar, a book about the slightly eccentric Pete McCarthy’s travels through Ireland, when the band started to play. I was relating my favourite part, about a German taxi driver who takes the drunken McCarthy home. In the course of a conversation en route, McCarthy asks the driver what he likes so much about Ireland. He answers, “The people. I loff their carefree imperfections.” But he shows no sign of adopting local practice as, dropping McCarthy off, he pulls out a receipt book, carefully fills it in, and then, reaching into his cubby hole, takes out a date stamp, to authenticate the receipt.
I had got as far as “carefree imperfections” when the man sitting greedily below us, as if guarding his seat, leant over, stuck his face close to mine, put an index finger to bloated lips, and gave me a spittle flying “sshhh.”
I was incredulous, and didn’t hide it, speaking loudly about how I was going to speak loudly. To my admittedly scant knowledge folk music gigs should be informal, lively occasions, and are participative at their best. I looked around the room and watched. Not one foot tapped, nobody smiled or bobbed their head, they just stared forward, as if at a theatre. We left.
Ireland, population four million, was visited by almost seven million people in 2005. That’s nearly six hundred thousand arrivals every month. But, like anywhere, it has seasonal peaks. The middle of summer, when we visited, is presumably a busy time. So I often found myself in a craic filled Disneyland, a pint of stout and a fiddler, Mickey Mouse like, parts of an overall equation that would allow tourists to participate in the much celebrated idea of Irishness.
McGann’s, another two minutes down the road, was not quite as busy. Musicians, darting off to fetch pints between songs, played amongst the chatter. A middle aged woman, red haired and hook nosed, head bobbing to the beat, was alternately playing the bodhran (a traditional Irish drum) and singing haunting Gaelic songs, with little accompaniment. She would participate for a couple of songs and then jump up, quickly collecting empty glasses or serving at the bar, only returning to her seat after a few songs.
We found a seat and watched while musicians came and went. Some played for the entire evening, others for only a few songs. A tourist from Sheffield borrowed an acoustic guitar and played old fashioned blues songs. A withered old man played a flute between lips hidden by a tangled grey beard. We stayed until our Guinness budget was spent.
The Cliffs of Moher are another of Doolin’s tourist lures. We rented bicycles from the hostel and rode ten uphill kilometres to see them the next day, arriving at a full parking lot, leading onto a concrete path. Crowds of people wound their way up to the cliff edge, past buskers and informal stalls, backed against the railing.
The crumbling slate cliffs extend for eight kilometres and rise to more than two hundred metres above the Atlantic. The concrete path and its crowds eventually thin, and a narrow, crooked sand track skirts the precipice. We walked to a tower at the far end and sat eating sandwiches, looking down at the clean Irish sea. Claire took a short nap, bundled up in her raincoat, while I read.
More than eight hundred thousand people visit the Cliffs of Moher each year and the development of a massive €30 million visitor centre is underway. When completed it will boast “The Ledge Experience”, among other, more mundane activities. Fenced in from the path, its crane disturbed an otherwise idyllic horizon.
It inevitably started to drizzle so we hurriedly made our way back to the bikes and then back to the hostel, now drifting easily downhill.
Matty, the owner of Rainbow Hostel, took us walking around the Burren that evening, after his hard days farming. The Burren is a strange craggy landscape, geologically unique and littered with the remnants of Ireland’s prehistory. It occupies an area of roughly three hundred thousand square kilometres, all in County Clare. Matty read the odd limestone formations casually, finding fossils and stone age hill forts amongst what was, to my mind, rock and rubble.
That night, with tired legs, we sat at McGann’s watching the circle of musicians expand and contract, their music rippling through a happy crowd, until we had once again drunk our fill of the black stuff.
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