This was our next-to-penultimate trip to Ireland, No. 4 of six. The next two would be one. The first would establish an Irish residency. On the second, we would be married.
Our journeys had taken us all around the Teddy Bear Isle, from its eastern back of Dirty Auld Dublin to the belly of its Wonderful West with Clare and its daunting Cliffs of Mohr. Like many Irish, it had a troubled head, but one worth examining. Somewhere near the rear was Cork, where our families had exited not so many years yore.
We had avoided the feet, for at its toes lay the Ring of Kerry, seemingly the only part of the Bear mentioned in the States. It was for “whiteheads,” ancient Hibernians of American descent. That was our perception and it proved prescient. Buses crowded the narrow roads and their thin grey lines stormed the shores. Marching bands were sure to follow. We drove on. Our she did. She liked the left side. The road was hers. She was mine.
The Dingle Peninsula is usually packaged with the Ring of Kerry, but lacking that fanciful name and stuck with a quizzical one the former is often overlooked. Thank you, St. Patrick.
There is a coastal course that takes one high above the Atlantic and into ancient “beehive” settlements. Below are waves crashing upon the cliffs, and yes, those are surfers far below.
It’s striking feature is the area known Dingle Beach, mentioned in Mary Black’s modern Celtic anthem “A Song for Ireland” and featured in the tragic romance “Ryan’s Daughter.” There is no finer shifting, glowing, drifting place upon any shore.
The town is upon it busy one with shipping and fishing appearing to outweigh tourism. The narrow lanes are lined with lovely painted doors and this twilight place makes the colors dance.
Night comes knocking and the feet follow. There seems to be only one bar. It is huge. It is packed with paddies. The only open table is right in front of the “band,” which consists of two scruffy suspects. There is no public address system. Unlike Dylan, Ireland has not gone electric.
We occupy this small slab and our evening’s entertainment is across it.
Their buffer is our home.
Across this span is the duo. Upon closer look, the fiddle player is not so disheveled. He is almost neat. His partner, now playing a button accordion, is another matter, all drooping matted hair and endless grisly beard. He is quite the mess but something lurks beneath, What there is of his face is buried in the instrument, one is he playing remarkably well. It is apparent these two have switched roles. The fiddle player, usually featured in any setting, is the rhythm, the accompanist. The star is our man of the squeezebox.
Still, the accordion is a novelty. My eyes went down to his feet for there was encased a banjo.
This primitive instrument is thought of as the Yankees’ doodle but it of course it is older than the New World. The five-string version is pure Americana and mostly Earl Scruggs. The fifth string supplies a drone of self accompaniment, the right thumb providing freedom for the fingers. It is the choice of virtuosos and its self-appointed messiah is Bela Fleck.
Ireland does not do five strings. It has humble gods.
One was sitting across from me. He took the four from its case and went at it with a small pick held guitar style. Every note is plucked. It is more like a mandolin but chords are never played. It is all melodies, runs and mesmerizing improvisation.
Again, with this particular pairing, the fiddle is only in the background, never featured. It serves only to support our star as the path is established and the journey begins.
No matter the genre, all musical explorations follow the same map. The road is the destination.
Our man establishes theme, drawing it out, flourishing each note. This is our song, remember it well, you might not hear it again.
Yet it is always there. Each turn recalls it, builds upon it. Goes in and out around it. He is picking up speed, bouncing to the beat. So am I.
At this tiny table, we are so close our knees are almost touching. I am already rocking in my seat but now I realize it and go with it. I am careful not to stamp my feet or clap my hands. I do want to be part of the music yet I am in it, every thrilling run, twist and turn, I am right there. And he knows it.
Years earlier, I had seen banjo great Barney McKenna of the Dubliners. My rock and bluegrass heroes are many and thankfully I had witnessed many such flights. But the master who came to mind this night was familiar only from recordings. John Coltrane could make you wonder why you ended up in Montauk when headed for Levittown. He took you places. And so did the Four-string King of County Kerry.
When the end voyage was over, the banjo man leaned over. He looked mad. He always looked mad. He motioned for me to step closer. I had to lean and turn an ear. I was getting good with accents. He was talking, and it was about me.
You, yourself, he asked, do you play?
Uh, not really.
What do you mean, not really. Do you play?
I used to play bass.
Ah, bass is the one for you, all right. You don’t play now?
No, not for a long time. I work nights, weekends.
Forget all that. You have to play. You have it. You have it fierce. I know. You have it.
I gulped and shuddered. I told him it was a great honor to hear that from one so accomplished. He did not disagree.
We looked around. Many had become four. The two of us said goodbye and hit the street.
What did he say to you?
He said I should play bass.
We would return to Ireland for the residency and the ceremony. A reception was scheduled for back home. I would play. Friends were performing. I took a quick lesson from the lead guitarist and borrowed a bass from his band.
The thing to remember, he said, is keep playing no matter what. Nobody cares what the bass plays but they know when it’s not there. Keep thumping.
The reception came. I sat in. It was messy, but nobody noticed.
I didn’t know you were going to play, she said. That was great.
Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I’m still thumping.
And I owe it to the Man in Dingle.
PS: I meant to get this out in time for St. Patrick’s Day, and then again on our anniversary. But the March presents a forgiving calendar, one that allows me to say Happy Birthday, Mary Jo!