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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Soundtracking a Soul-Cleansing Trip to Ireland

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 8:56 AM

In the Irish town of Recess, there is a monument that proclaims: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened." I've never visited Recess during what has essentially become biennial excursions to Ireland; I've only passed by during bumpy bus rides from Galway to Clifden and back. Nonetheless, the monument articulates a perfect emptiness that I find intriguing. I'm a father of five, so there's a keen appreciation for those rare instances when domestic life lurches to a magic marker-stained, crumb-ridden halt and nothing truly happens. On the other hand, I understand how much that emptiness stings when there was hope that something -- nay, anything -- would happen. Or similarly, how about when something was expected to happen, yet something else does entirely?

I'm in Ireland -- the Diamond, Donegal Town, County Donegal, to be more precise -- considering this very question, particularly in relation to cosmic-level matters, when my friend's libido pointedly interrupts. He's closed a deal with a Waterford lass -- after purchasing them a case of Buckfast, agreeing to watch a Colin Farrell flick, and yawning through a lecture on the core strengths of socialism -- but now suddenly she's hedging. Paddy (all names have been changed to protect the lecherous) has great expectations for this evening, but they're about to vanish in the sharp, peat-scented air. "Dude," he says, a simple expression that serves many purposes for Paddy; at this very moment it's a plea for help. Somewhere, the stonemasons are readying their chisels; "On this spot in the Diamond in the year two thousand and such-and-such nothing happened."

Ireland is my sanitarium -- a place to wash away the physical and spiritual wounds that have accumulated. Mick (another pseudonym), my other companion on this particular trip, feels the same. We've traveled here many times together, staggered from pubs in every corner of the island: Killarney, Cork, Cobh, Kinsale, Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Galway. Every destination is a salve, every drop carries a cure. My trip playlists reflect this. I choose songs that are like soft fabric on the skin, songs that massage the scalp, songs with languid organs and soothing slide guitar and supine vocals and layers of reverb. For this particular journey I've included Beach House's '05 self-titled debut. I discover I'm partial to the back-to-back grandeur of "Tokyo Witch" and "Apple Orchard," and the collective sense of blissful inertia. "In this music in 2005 nothing happened ..."

Anyway, back at the Diamond, Mick and I chuckle at Paddy's deepening misfortune. His high-spirited relationship with the Waterford lass is descending into suspicion and silence. "Dude," he pleads to Mick or maybe to me or maybe to both of us. He's desperate. I want to tell him, "We are each our own devil and we make this world our hell," because nothing kicks a man while he's down quite like an Oscar Wilde quote, chiefly because they all sound so erudite and assholish. But I think better and remain silent. (Besides, there will be plenty of other opportunities to do this later in the trip. At a dimly lit club where the DJ is fond of Detroit techno, Paddy tugs at my sleeve. "Dude, that girl over there -- she wants to take me home. She's pretty, right?" "Paddy, illusion is the first of all pleasures." Or, at a crowded pub where folks are doing acoustic covers and Paddy is coaxed into performing Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush." "The world is a stage, Paddy, but the play is badly cast.")

Mick and I finally depart, neither of us eager to witness Paddy's "dude"-laced attempts at amelioration -- or, you know, the moment when he falls flat on his fucking face. The sounds of live music and a raucous audience draw us to the nearby Abbey Hotel. Inside, we're disappointed to discover a garishly dressed man on a Casio keyboard playing to a large crowd of tipsy 70-somethings. It's like we've stumbled upon the wrap party for the Irish remake of Cocoon. We've taken our first sips of stout when the garishly dressed man launches into the opening melody to "Molly Malone." "Does anyone know what the poor girl in this song died of?" he asks the audience.

"Molly died of AIDS!" comes the response from a particularly fluthered blue hair.

This is no Wilde quote that even begins to encapsulate this entire scene. We ask for the check.

Outside, there's no sign of Paddy and his friend. We walk in silence down a country road to our lodging. Later in bed, determined to have my final musical encounter of the day be something with a bit more weight, I put on my headphones and play the World Library of Folk & Primitive Music volume dedicated to Ireland. Recorded by American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in 1951, the 33 tracks are regarded as one of the first comprehensive examinations of Irish traditional folk music.

The songs are blushingly earnest, ethereal, frayed at the edges. They are artifacts from when Irish folk was rooted in soloist performances, meaning they are largely free of the sophisticated arrangements and instrumental counterpoint typically heard in modern times. There are songs sung in Irish and songs that feature just a voice and a tapping foot to keep time and songs that consist of nothing more than solo playing on the fiddle or the uilleann pipes.

I took a photojournalism class in college in which my professor spoke of every great picture having a spark of serendipity -- a photographer shooting from the right angle at the right place at the right time. I consider this as Kitty Gallagher's "Keen for a Dead Child" plays on my headphones and I realize I'm holding my breath during the woman's unaccompanied, drawn-out, melancholic verses. Fatigued from the night's events, disoriented by the countryside's impenetrable darkness during our walk from town, groggy from the bucketfuls of Beamish, alone in an unfamiliar bed with immediate family an infinity of miles away -- it's a perfect convergence of current emotions and visions and the evening's grand events and moments of minutia that bring this song into focus sharper and more fixed than I imagined possible. It's an instance where the right notes play at the right place at the right time.

Gallagher cut the song just 40 minutes north of Donegal Town, on Lomax's reel-to-reel recorder at the Central Hotel in Letterkenny. Her otherworldly performance doesn't convey the impression that she's merely providing Lomax with an example of an Irish ballad. In her mind, she's not in a cramped hotel bedroom, singing into a microphone held by a relative stranger; she's standing at the bedside of her own dead child or the dead child of a family member or neighbor, steeled and detached enough so that her emotions don't bubble over and prohibit her from giving the deceased a proper and memorable death song, unwavering and confident that every word sung is helping usher this soul to its proper resting place. Suddenly, the Beach Houses who occupy my therapeutic-themed playlists sound so insignificant.

When I wake in the morning, Donegal feels different. Ireland feels different -- like it's no longer a destination for escaping the madness of home and partaking in a bit of personal, stout-fueled cleansing. There's a suspicion that this island will be the setting for more complex meditation, a place for sorting out who we are and why we journey to the strange places that we do and what we feel when we're apart from those we love and what delivers us the most comfort. A place for understanding the man who left the States in order to better understand the man who journeys to Ireland.

In his travel writing about the Aran Islands and the Connemara district of County Galway, J.M. Synge wrote, "On some days I feel this island as a perfect home and resting place; on other days I feel that I am a waif among the people." Ireland has long provided me with the same security Synge expressed; now I can relate to the solitude, the bite of separation, the sense of perspective that comes with being a stray.

What was that question posed earlier? About expecting something to happen, but then something else does entirely? I suppose it can involve an unfamiliar song, a somewhat foreign land, and a burst of self-knowledge, just as much as it can a girl from Waterford who won't let you take her home.


Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to

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