Unfortunately you won’t see video of the Fleadh Cheoil bands here, as my wanderings will take me to Dortmund just as that festival kicks off, but in the days leading up to the festival, the town has buzzed and hummed and generally jigged to the beat of bodrhans. Here I have clips of some of the best music I’ve heard over the last two weeks -and many of these acts will be performing and competing in the festival from 10-17 Aug.
My first taste of trad came Monday night at The Harp Tavern, where a veteran guitarist led two teenage apprentices on fiddle and concertina. He played reels and jigs, but Danny Boy was the one I had to record.
The Swagman’s Pub was a bit of a shock after The Harp. I didn’t know that trad mixed so well with funk – nor with mindbending jazz chords and Hungarian motifs I’d more expect to find in Bartok or Mahler. The Crackheads were cracking – here’s two snippets of two tunes.
My Yeatsian compatriot Brian Devaney holds a session at The Furey’s Pub every Sunday with his band The Out of Towners. On 3 Aug. I thought the place was filled to capacity. But after I fought my way to a spot by the door, where I thought I’d be able to film the band, I watched a dozen, two dozen, two score more file past and warp time and space to fit. The Out of Towners are a funky foursome, drawing heavily on American blues and folk, with bodhran, steel and acoustic guitar, harmonica, cajon, and electric hurler, a bizarre and sometimes ornate instrument that one of the players handcrafts from hurling sticks. Their soulful folk-blues interpretations made Beatles songs suddenly new, and their originals were startling, fresh, and funky. But I loved their Bob Dylan covers best, and was moved close to reverie by Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Subterranean Homesick Blues, and One More Cup of Coffee.
The following afternoon the Yeats Memorial Building hosted a pre-Fleadh Fleadh with Daithi Gormley, Cian Kearins, and Caoimhe Kearins. Sligo residents have been watching the trio win Fleadh competitions since they were pre-teens, and they hope to win again this year across several categories. They played reels, jigs, and tunes from the turn of a few centuries. Cian’s flute playing was particularly adept, while Daithi, a music scholar working toward a Masters, played some of the deftest whispering, barking, and humming accordion I’ve heard. I was most captured when hearing Caoimhe’s singing – she has a lovely spring-pure lightly nasal lilting, and practices a level of subtle control I’ve never heard live before. (Below is a video of her singing on her last North American tour.)
Some of my favorite music, though, came from the events surrounding the release of Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD. I’ve already talked about Glen Austin’s stirring new scores and the talents of the ConTempo Quartet, but I didn’t manage to catch those on film. The a capella tenor performances, though, were unforgettable.
That said, the music that most surprised me was Katie Cassidy’s bluesy cover of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun.
There was a thud and a fizz and white foam sprayed all over the crowd around the wine table. There was no champagne to mark the launch of “32 County Poet” Michael Longley’s tenth collection, The Stairwell – this was a toppled two-litre of 7UP – but the accident was in the spirit of cork-popping and it set the tone for the rest of the night.
With Yeats Society President Damien Brennan as Master of Ceremonies of the 7pm reception, things were bound to get bubbly. He began by acknowledging Michael’s wife Edna Longley, who that morning had delivered a lecture at the Hawk’s Well on Yeats, Joyce, and the 1890s.
“Can you imagine the bedtime thoughts they have together?” he asked. And I suppose we couldn’t help but wonder.
Brennan also referenced Postscript, Saturday night’s tribute to Seamus Heaney, at which Longley spoke. Brennan was hardly the first to note, then, that Heaney was born in 1939, the Year William Butler Yeats died, at the age of 74. Heaney died in 2013, also at the age of 74. Last week, Longley turned 75.
“You’ve made it past the post,” he told Longley, to shocked and not-so-shocked guffaws.
Brennan’s is always an interesting act to follow, but Longley earned more laughs. He told about his father, about meeting the British Queen, and about “Lauren Bacall, who had a walk-on role in my fantasies.” (Perhaps he was thinking about the unforgettable line from To Have and Have not?)
Though he has made it past Brennan’s “post,” Longley didn’t seem to be counting. His new poems in The Stairwell dwell on death – his own and the deaths of close friends and relatives – but they aren’t “last words.”
“The next poem is what matters,” he said. “It’s the only thing that matters.”
At 8pm, at the Methodist Church, summer school Assistant Director Matthew Campbell re-introduced Michael Longley with a selection from his new book – the one phrase that makes any new volume of poetry worth the price of admission.
“Bone shapes out of our gloomy womb-tangle,” Campbell recited, a line from “The Feet,” a poem about Longley’s late twin brother Peter, dedicated to Peter’s widow Catherine. “An experience that has found its words,” he called it – something Longley’s been giving the poem-reading public with regularity for the past fifty years.
Many of the poems were somber and elegiac (though Longley asserted that elegies were balanced by “birth poems”), but not matter the subject, the laughs didn’t stop.
Longley read a poem “For my granddaughter, Amelia, who’s 11 … No, it’s on page 11 … She’s only one … Where would I be without you, Edna?”
He read through a brisk selection of poems from The Stairwell as well as three unpublished poems,
“only a few weeks old.”
“A lot of my poems are short. I think most poems are too long, really,” he said later, in his dry, clipped deliver, something like a Belfast Dumbledore. “I have a one-line poem,” he said, and read it. “They’re making a movie adaptation.”
Longley, like Yeats, has a mixed poetic, political, and familial heritage, both Irish and Anglo, sometimes both, often neither. Longley claimed Yeats as the greatest English-language poet after Shakespeare, and of course had to qualify this: “He could be so foolish and silly, and that moves me too. A great man making a fool of himself.”
“It’s amazing writing poems at 75 … and feeling that I’m only beginning, you know,” Longley told his audience as he began to wrap up.
After fierce applause for what could have been Longley’s final poem, Campbell took the podium and coaxed him into an encore – not a task, given the crowd, and given the poet.
“I forgot a poem,” Longley said, and after the applause died down, he began again.
The consumption of poetry and music in this town proceeds at a pace so rapid that the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil, the world’s biggest trad music festival, seems an impossibility – surely, there can’t be any more to do. But residents of Sligo expect the population to double from 10-17 August, with fiddles and pipes on every corner, bridge, and balcony.
The Gallery Press Reading
On Wednesday I attended one in a series of Tread Softly Festival readings at the Methodist Church on Wine Street. This one featured Andrew Jamison, Ciaran Barry, and Ciaran Carson, three of the most widely read poets from Ireland’s premiere poetry publisher, The Gallery Press. There to kick things off was poet, editor, translator, and Gallery Press founder Peter Fallon who first brought up Jamison.
The specificity of Jamison’s images was what first struck me – his poems at times approached lists (albeit beautiful lists). “Let’s face the music, go back to the ballroom,” he says in a poem about Chekhov’s Olga Mikhailovna, trading in the cliche for an original image; “everyone will wonder where we’ve been.” The poem is as much about his enchantment with Chekhov’s character as it is with Chekhov’s short stories themselves. (A story, Jamison said in an aside, is like a dram of whiskey; a novel, like a pint of Guinness. And poetry? He left that metaphor for us to spin.)
In “Amen,” composed of memories of his grandmother, he says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us.” The omission haunts us; we can’t help but hear the ghosts of the words he left out. The meaning of the rote phrase is thrown open: deliver us from evil, deliver us from good, deliver us from knowledge and remembering and not remembering and responsibility. Deliver us.
After a week in a seminar with Professor Herbet Tucker (of the University of Virginia) my ears were attuned to Jamison’s prosody. His careful consciousness here, his subtle rhymes, refreshed my senses dulled from a life lived in the land of the free verse.
Ciaran Barry then performed, a contemporary of Jamison’s though with three volumes already published; he spoke with a slight tremulance in the back of his throat, like a priest incanting a prayer the power of which fears him, or a potter holding a bowl delicate from the fire.
His poems were more surreal and less concrete than Jamison’s, suited to his style of recitation (which, I suppose, might hearken to W. B. Yeats’ famous BBC readings). His themes were predominantly historical, and he explored them with understated humor, muted pathos, and sensitivity. “Electrocuting An Elephant,” the true surreal story of Thomas Edison testing his new electrocution device and camera, ended unforgettably: with “One eye open that I wish I could close.”
Finally the eldest poet, Ciaran Carson, closed the night. Rather, though, it was an opening and a closing: he began and ended his reading with tunes on his tin pipe, strange old melodies that took the audience, for a time, into a new dimension of aural and emotional understanding. Carson read original poems and a series of poems he had translated from French.
“Do we not wander the byways of language? I don’t know what it means but it sounds great,” he said, and sent us off into the night, down other byways of language and thought and – most essentially – sound.
Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD release and reception
I’ve been lucky enough to call Joan McBreen – esteemed Irish poet, daughter of Sligo, and veteran of the Yeats school for some thirty years – my seminar classmate for the past week. On Thursday she released The Mountain Ash of Connemara, a CD of selected work set to new arrangements by Glen Austin, and performed by the RTE ConTempo Quartet, and the launch was one of the most moving of the moments that have arrested me since I landed in Ireland. The string quartet’s masterful interpretation of Austin’s scores had what the Irish call “the true drop,” something distilled from the natural elements on which Joan draws in her poetry into a elixir. We hung on every unexpected pluck of the strings – we soared on new melodies suddenly familiar.
One thing was obvious at the 6pm reception in the Glasshouse Hotel: Joan McBreen has many, many friends. Two tenors sang a cappella lays of soldiers and lost love; one of the tenors recited a bawdy poem; Yeats Society President Damien Brennan and Summer School Assistant Director Matthew Campbell gave speeches – and all the while Joan went around passing out sprigs of Mountain Ash. I wore one like a green and orange pocket square. There were reels and jigs; there was abundant wine; and spontaneous recitations of Yeats and Heaney and McBreen’s own poetry popped and crackled in different pockets and booths throughout the evening.
When the party was winding down, Joan approached the booth with all the youngest Yeatsians. “You’re all students, you don’t have any money,” she said as she passed out copies of her new CD.
Stiff-arming a creeping cold and stifling a cough, Sinéad Morrissey opened a copy of Parallax, her fifth collection of poetry, which won her the T.S. Eliot Prize this past January – but she didn’t look down. Instead she recited a poem from memory, reciting in her measured, mousey, forward-moving voice.
“If the rain could be translated into words, Little You, and Little Me, Little You, and Little Me, would be the closest thing to meaning you could catch,” she said, her eyes never breaking from her audience.
Sinéad told bizarre and engrossing tales of her childhood in Belfast, and of moments in time beyond her own life appropriated for her artistic “thesis” of parallax: the first jigsaw puzzle, made in 1766; David Nivens riding an elevator to heaven. She brought us to the Belfast Communist party’s annual Christmas Bazaar, and gave us nail-shaped pencils for Maggie Thatcher’s coffin.
I haven’t been in Sligo long, but I waste no time in getting to know a new city. (At two in the morning after my first night in town, I took a wrong turn walking home and found myself a mile up the road to Ben Bulben, next to an unlit Esso gas station and very little else. This is about my only qualification to write this piece.)
So, here it is, a guide for culture vultures, beer snobs, Yeatsians, jazz cats, and trad lovers.
The Cafe Scene
Anyone accustomed to late night coffee joints in the U.S. or the streetside cafes of Europe – clean, well lighted places anywhere in the world – might panic in Sligo: most cafes close at six. I don’t have some miraculous exception, unfortunately – local culture dictates that the cafe crowd shifts to the pubs, and if you need to do a bit or work or a little reading, or just want to enjoy a drink in relative quiet, Sligo’s rowdy pubs are no place for you. One glaring, glowing exception is A Casa Mia in Sligo’s Italian Quarter, open late and serving light plates, wine, and coffee drinks at tiny work booths and one massive communal table. The constant soundtrack of operas broken by the occasional (soft) bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace is a definite plus, though the food, the hours, and the atmosphere should be more than enough reason to visit.
Honorable mentions include Osta Cafe & Wine Bar, however, which is open until 7 Monday-Friday and 8 Thursday-Saturday – although their hours are flexible and patrons often push them well past their schedule. Aside from offering a decent wine selection, good coffee, and excellent, fresh, local food, the cafe also hosts Irish- and French-speaking discussion groups on Fridays and Mondays – anyone is welcome to join. The best part, though, has to be the view: the Georgian Yeats Memorial Building on the left offering a noble counterpoint to the postmodern Glass House Hotel on the right, all above the Garavogue River bright with swans. Meanwhile, just off Wine Street diagonally from the tourist office, the Cafe Fleur offers quite good espresso drinks and a salad bar with an array of imported meats and cheeses. The salient con of the Cafe Fleur is its popularity, as it’ll be crowded at lunch time. And through the wifi is good, there are no electrical outlets in sight. I encourage you to visit Oscars Cafe on Wine Street just before the entrance to the Quayside pedestrian street and shopping center, which has the best croissant in Ireland. Sean, the proprietor of this 20th-century film-themed cafe, moved from his old Cafe de Paris this year. In his new location he peddles standard coffee, a variety of cakes, and the best damn croissants you can have outside of Gay Paree. The recipe is a closely guarded secret, but as one of those poets would say, gather ye pastries while ye may.
The Trad Scene
Traditional Irish music is alive and well in Sligo, Ireland: walking past the pubs on Teeling, Quay, or Wine Street, you’ll sometimes hear it as early as five o’clock. Some of the best players have come out of Sligo; and in turn the city brings the highest class of performers to its coziest venues. The Harp Tavern on Quay St. offers trad every Monday night, buoyed up on free-flowing Guinness (as well as the other standard beers of Ireland – Carlsberg, Heineken, and, inexplicably, Coors Light). The Snag, just a quick walk down from Osta Cafe, also offers trad and folk bands in Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and Shoot The Crow off O’Connell St. hosts good bands most nights of the week.
Trad fans should book their tickets for Sligo now: the Fleadh Cheoil (the world’s largest Irish folk festival) is coming to Sligo 10-17 Aug., and will likely double the town’s population. There must be half a dozen excellent folk sessions going on seven days a week already – once the festival starts you won’t be able to escape it. Prepare to be humming and jigging in your sleep – and (so I’m told) say goodbye to sobriety.
Jazz, Punk, and All the Rest
While trad’s all well and good, Sligo is home to so many young jazz cats with heads full of syncopation and seventh chords that the fiddle-and-concertina set have to share space with a modern and decidedly global jazz scene strong enough to support the annual Sligo Jazz Festival and a permanent school of bebop acolytes and generally hip cats. People come to Sligo just for the jazz: case in point, America’s Christian Scott, the Congo’s Tropicana Musica, and a host of students from continental Europe and the Americas in for last week’s festival. 5th on Teeling is the first club I’d head to for jazz and blues, but my favorite music pub has to be The Swagman. This bar explodes backward from the front door, with plenty of high secluded booths and a parallel beer garden lit in jolly yellows and perfect for taking a bit of air or nicotine or a girl. The bar also has the city’s widest selection of craft brews on tap – one of my favorites was the Galway Hooker IPA (that’s I for “Irish”), but visitors should grab at least one pint of the Swagman’s homebrew, Shtuff. But I’m drifting off course: the Swagman’s best feature is its music. On a Tuesday night, I found The Crack Heads, a bass, fiddle, electric guitar, and cajon/bodhrán band self billed as “Irish folk wi’ a bit of the funk.” Actually, they played jazz-funk filtered through Irish trad and even incorporating Hungarian motifs. The bar has music every night: on a Wednesday, I found a DJ mixing W.A.R., A Tribe Called Quest, and Led Zeppelin. (And Parliament-Funkadelic, when I asked.)
Fureysis worth mentioning, if only for their Sunday night band, the Out of Towners. This bar is packed on Sunday nights, such that moving, sitting, drinking, standing, and sometimes talking prove difficult. But the music is worth it – the Out of Towners are a funky, bluesy, deeply original band, with new material as well as a host of covers that will surprise and delight. (I’m talking Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” here.)
There’s too much going on in Sligo’s art and theatre scene to mention in a single post. Suffice it to say that the Hawk’s Well Theatre‘s schedule is the first place any visitor to Sligo should turn to (or perhaps the second, after grabbing a pint and a local to fill you in). The theatre offers a diverse mix of events, including lectures, plays, and trad concerts from acts too big for the local pubs. The plays presented here won’t be as stylistically avant-gardeas the fare in Galway – but this is one of the only places in the world you’ll get to see Yeats’ plays, which are often too minimalist and stylistically challenging for art directors and dramaturgs elsewhere in the world. Last week the theatre hosted jazz trumpet stylist Christian Scott; this week they present lectures from world-class Yeats scholars, a sold-out performance of The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, and a tribute to the late poet Seamus Heaney, led by his friend and contemporary legend Michael Longley (who’ll also have a book launch in the Hawk’s Well Monday at 7). For visitors coming to Sligo in the next few weeks, the theatre will put on Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones followed by an octet of concerts from top artists across the entire spectrum of the trad scene, from Michael Rooney’s harp suite to the trad “supergroup” Máirtín O’Connor Band, much of this part of the Tread Softly Festival running through 8 Aug. Poetry fans shouldn’t be dismayed that they missed Wednesday night’s Ciaran Carson, Ciaran Berry, and Andrew Jamison reading at the Wine Street Methodist Church: there isn’t a dull day in the festival, and the schedule is here.
I’ve been in Ireland almost five days now, and I’ve barely had time to answer my emails. I spent the first two days in Carrowduff, County Clare, visiting what’s left of the old Ryan farm, and a day in and around Limerick and Ennis – but more on that later. For now I’ll skip to the good work of the folks behind the International Yeats Society Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.
Edinburgh’s hopping, getting ready to hold arguably the world’s biggest literary festival; hep cats are cooling their heels in Copenhagen; Glasgow just said goodbye to world class actors in for its own arts celebration; but I can’t think of a single European town that rivals Sligo in per capita hipness. It seems like nine out of ten people here are semiprofessional actors who moonlight with trad bands in the local pubs and write poetry as a hobby. Everyone’s preparing for an exhibition or a reading; and of course everyone reads W. B. Yeats.
Last week Sligo played host to Christian Scott, headliner of this year’s Sligo Jazz Festival. He anchored a week of nightly concerts, daily masterclasses, and many, many midnight jams. The whole thing buzzed, banged, danced, and howled to a close Sunday night at 5th on Teeling, a cool little joint with two stages and an embarrassment of craft beers. (I didn’t order a Guinness the entire night.) By chance, Sunday also marked the official start of the Yeats Society International Summer School. After a bus tour and opening ceremony (which I missed) and a dinner at the Sligo City Hotel (which, of course, I caught) the students – a group of undergraduates and newly minted PhDs, scholars and critics and dilettantes (like myself), from Ireland and the UK, the US, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Japan, and the Philippines – found their way to 5th on Teeling, where one of their number, also a member of the Sligo Jazz Project, was taking part in the Jazz Fest wrap-up party and jam. The Yeatsians watched from a cozy wood-paneled room, pocked with ineffectual and entirely superfluous wall lamps, as Tropicana Musica, a smooth Afrobeat band visiting from the Congo, got everyone dancing on the floor below. The space seemed made for such cultural cocktails: the dark lounge stepped off into a bright purple dance floor, in a room lined with flat and ocular mirrors and covered in a dusty shag fur. Septuagenarian tattooed Irishmen shuffled next to slick women in pixie cuts and halters that halted at the navel. There were roving packs of local adolescents well below Ireland’s alleged drinking age of 18, and as many languages bubbling and percolating as one might hear in Grand Central Station.
Naturally, I joined the action. While Tropicana Musica hummed steadily away in the back room, local and visiting musicians assembled in the front room for one last jam. A jerry-rigged drum kit, a couple congas, a piano and a stand up bass stayed on the small stage, while the cats came and went carrying their own horns, harps, and gitfiddles, breaking often to take a craft brew to their friends in the booths. Because of space constraints, a Swedish man played the trumpet from his seat in a booth by the stage, smiling mildly to wild applause.
Brian Devaney, an actor and fellow student at the Yeats School, beckoned to me from his congas on the stage. I hopped behind the kit for two songs, what one Irish pianist shruggingly dubbed a “slow, slow blues … wi’ a bit of funk,” and the night’s second rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago,” led by a searing harmonica.
Somehow I made it to the first lectures at the Hawk’s Well Theatre at 9 the next morning. Immediately I was impressed. Margaret Mills Harper and Matthew Campbell, Director and Assistant Director of the summer school, opened with lectures that brought all present into close communion with the poet, a spiritual-intellectual state that will no doubt sustain through the next two weeks.
Seminars followed, mine led by Herbert Tucker, who told us to abandon metaphor and theme and imagery and even historical or biographical context in favor of metrics – the charms woven through the warp and woof of Yeats’ poetry.
After so much close reading (which I have to say I haven’t practiced to this extent since Jack Kenny’s and Tom Zabawa’s classes at St. Joe’s) I had to relax with a Syrah (and my homework) at the Osta cafe on the banks of the Garavogue, with a view of the stately, subtly dilapidated Yeats Memorial Building to the right of Hyde Bridge and the aggressively modern Glass House Hotel thrusting itself like some deconstructed postmodern Titanic through the old buildings on the left.
Later that night the Young Yeats division of the society hosted a social at The Harp Tavern, on Quay Street, in easy view of Ben Bulben on a clear enough day. The bar provided finger foods while we Yeatsians spread out and acquired the requisite pints of Guinness.
The trad band was supposed to start at 9, so naturally they all found their way to the stage at about 10 to 10. Sean, the guitarist and bandleader, had been forced by some snafu to recruit two exceptionally talented (and exceptionally young) girls from the local pool to play fiddle and concertina. As with seemingly everything in Sligo, the performance was collaborative – Sean invited a fiddler from D.C. to take the stage, and thrice called on a large group of reelers and jiggers to whirl in madcap fashion before the stage. They, in turn, sucked an Austrian undergraduate by the name of Elizabeth into their circle.
I, likewise, found myself pulled in by irresistible charms, in this case the charms of a vacationing family from Charlotte, N.C. Quite by accident the patriarch, a lawyer, had run into a colleague and a friend of mine, who happened to be studying at the Yeats School. For over two hours the band played and every time I tried to rise to buy a round of drinks, the patriarch waved me down and bought the round himself. Southern hospitality, it seems, knows no borders.
I don’t plan on getting much sleep for the next two weeks. Unrelenting 9 a.m. lectures follow on the heels of evening reading bleeding into loud and cozy mornings in the pubs. A night not spent listening to “The Rose of Tralee” and “Finnegan’s Wake” is a night wasted. This morning I listened to Lucy McDairmid give a lecture blending Yeats’ revolutionary poems and the memoirs of women close to the 1916 rebels, followed by Wim Van Mierlo on Yeats’ Creative Impulses, drawing on the Romantics and the often indecipherable early drafts of W.B.’s poems. I ended the afternoon again on the banks of the Garavogue, committing to memory “No Second Troy,” – a homework assignment – before heading off to the Donal Ryan reading at 8. Then, of course, music in the pubs, maybe The Swagman this time, where, so a colorful cartographer named John the Map informed me, I can find an even wider selection of craft brews.
Two days I’ve been in Sligo. I know already it isn’t a town you visit once.
[Check out my Flickr Gallery of Ennis, Ennistymon, Limerick, and Galway here andmy Sligo gallery here.]