In the summer of 1969, I was 16 years old and in Galway, Ireland with my father, who was exploring his Irish roots. I had a friendship with the daughters of our landlord from whom Dad rented a thatched cottage for the month of August. It was through them that I was introduced to a Galway musician who would take me to The Cellar Bar on Eglinton Street for sessions.
Entering The Cellar through the lounge door took you into, well, the lounge. With numerous low tables and upholstered chairs scattered about the large room, the lounge was a popular destination for some soup, a sandwich, and a pint. There was a long wooden bar along the wall on the left with a dozen or so bar stools. If you walked along this bar to the end, past the lounge area, there was a small nook with three-sided seating which resembled a booth with no table. This was where the musicians sat, well out of the way of the lounge, but close to the barman and the loo. I hope I need not explain that this location well-suited the musicians. In Ireland, musicians in a pub are background music to all the craic going on in the lounge as well as the more serious drinkers who sat at the bar.
With my friend, I got to sit with the musicians. I was too young at the time to totally appreciate where I had landed. But I listened, each evening, surrounded by a varying assortment of guitars, fiddles, tin whistles, Irish bouzukis, bodhrans, flutes, mandolins, spoons, uilleann pipes… and those are just the ones I remember. But much more importantly were the people playing those instruments, such as Alec Finn, Jackie Daly, Frankie Gavin, Johnny Mulhern, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, Tommy Ryan, Mick Jurity… and those are just the ones I remember, as that summer was 47 years ago.
The music was exquisite. It touched places inside of me that I did not know existed. And though I was tucked into that nook surrounded by people, walls, barstools, and the door to the loo, the music transported me to the Irish country side with which I was falling deeply in love. It was that summer in Galway that Irish melodies became my friends. By day, I could hear them tripping over the waves on Galway Bay and slipping through the stone walls in the Connemara fields and, by night, in the hands of those musicians in that little nook at the back of The Cellar. In this way, I began to understand the tie between the Irish landscape and Irish traditional music.
When I returned to the States at the end of that summer, my high school girlfriends were swooning over James Taylor. He was the new thing. I tried to get into it, but by mid-October I gave up, accepting the fact that I would never be the same again. Something deep within me had shifted that summer. Before I left Galway, I had bought an album by Sweeny’s Men, entitled The Tracks of Sweeny. It was as close as one could get on a recording to what I had experienced in The Cellar. I surrendered most of my albums several years ago, but The Tracks of Sweeney is still tucked into a nook beside my desk in my study. I no longer have a turntable to play it on, but that’s ok. I just need to hold it once in a while.