From the moment I stepped off the plane at Shannon Airport on August 12, 2006 it became apparent that the people of Ireland are the most hospitable people I have ever met. That may not say much when you consider that I have not traveled extensively throughout the world. I did my share of girlfriend vacations before I was married – a cruise in the Caribbean and a week in Acapulco- which bring back only fond and fun memories… and those memories did not include any negative encounters. More recently in 2003, I traveled to Bobbio, Italy with my daughter Rebekah. Though the people were generally accommodating there were instances of impatient responses and rudeness. Most of those occurred in Florence, our destination for Rebekah’s second half of her semester abroad. I chose to give the Italians there the benefit of the doubt and regard it as the difference between the countryside and the big city. Still nothing compares to our two weeks in Ireland. Others I know have also said the same about their time on the Emerald Isle.
I have always wanted to visit Ireland, but I never would have spent the money had it not been for the Fleadh Cheoil or All-Ireland Music Competition. To qualify for this prestigious event, you must place first or second in your regional Fleadh Cheoil. Maggie has qualified every year for the last 5 years in one event or another; whether it was solo slow aires or duets or a larger group such as the Grupai Cheoil (music group). Qualifying in the solos or duet was exciting for her but it did not justify the expense of going to Ireland. In 2006 not only did she and Monica Severance place second in duets, the 15 to 18 group won at the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil. It was decided by the parents, many of whose children also qualified in multiple categories, to bite the bullet and make the trip. There was no guarantee that we would ever win again.
I almost didn’t make the trip. Like most mothers I decided John should go and I should hold down the fort. John insisted that I make the trip because he said, "It will be the most fun you will ever have." He had been to Ireland and he spoke from experience. And so I went with a busload of young musicians and their parents. I laughed for two weeks straight. With each Bed and Breakfast we inhabited on our way from Shannon to Donegal, we were treated like family. This was not a good- for- tourism façade. It was a genuine character of hospitality that comes from the heart. Honestly, I always felt like I was in the home of relatives.
Our evenings were spent in local pubs, participating in a traditional music session with some very amusing elderly people – the keepers of the tunes. The best pub session of the three days on the road to Donegal was in the town of Ballinacarow. We arrived at this long and narrow hole-in-the-wall called Durkin’s at about 9:00p.m. There were only a couple of patrons and not a musician in sight and I’m thinking, "We need to get this session rolling, because I’m ready for bed." At about 10:00 musicians began to arrive and look suspiciously at the 15 or so youngsters huddled in the corner of the pub, waiting for the elder statesmen to signal the start of the session. We did not presume the right to commandeer their weekly music fellowship and so the kids waited and deferred to the adults- a protocol one learns in traditional music. Finally the locals, after getting their first pint of the night, sat themselves down and rosined up their bows. They seemed guarded at first - probably concerned that such young children would compromise the quality and pace of an adult session. It wasn’t long before they were pleasantly surprised and the hornpipes, jigs and reels began to pick up steam.
Now by this time we parents had decided the Guinness in Ballinacarow was the best pint of Guinness we had ever had and so it was time to have a second pint, even if it was midnight and we were sleep deprived. After all, we were under the watchful guidance of our wonderful bus driver Peter O’Brien who was having so much fun with us he took a room at each B&B instead of heading home. Before we could make our way through the now packed-out pub to get a second round, trays of food began to appear through the back door, apparently from a building across the lot. Just a note here – I don’t think there are fire marshals in Ireland. Since we Yanks were closest to the door we took it upon ourselves to serve the free snacks of local cheeses, olives, pizza, barbecued ribs, quiche and more. The music was rockin and we parents were laughing ourselves silly again. I think we called it a night at about 1:00 even though the locals, many of whom were well into their seventies and eighties, were just getting started. We still talk about that lovely evening watching our young musicians prove themselves to the elders and hold their own for three hours of music. By the time we left, they were part of the family of local Irish musicians.
We made our way to Letterkenny, but not before Peter showed us his farm neighborhood in the wilds of Donegal. We visited his home and met his wife, children and various animals. His daughter is a champion Gaelic singer and she sang a lovely song for us (we couldn’t understand it, but it was beautiful just the same). We continued the detour around the "neighborhood" for several hours so that one of our parents, who turned out to be a boyhood friend of bus driver Peter, could see some of their old buddies. When we finally arrived at our apartments in Letterkenny, it was midnight and we were four hours late. That didn’t matter to Noel McGinley our host. He and his staff were waiting for us in front of the building, ready to help us with our luggage and get us settled in. After three days on a bus singing Eagles songs, we were ready to stay in one place. Noel and his staff continued to check in on us for the entire week that we stayed in his apartment complex.
Week two of this adventure consisted of the kids all attending the Scoil Eigse, which is the week of Irish music instruction recommended for all attendees of the All-Ireland. In Lettekenny it was being held in a Catholic school building. We would walk the kids to the school in the morning and be free for the day. This was the first time in all my years as a mom that I had dropped my child off at school and could do as I pleased. While the men in the group chummed around exploring surrounding areas and Letterkenny itself, we women would do the grocery shopping and we all took turns preparing a community meal for the whole group. Only a couple of the parents had actually rented a car, so we walked everywhere we went (excepting a day trip to Galway City). At 2:15 each day the men would all meet in a pub close to the school for their afternoon pint and would then proceed to the school to pick up the whole group of kids and walk them home. By 5:00 all 30 or so members of the group gathered, dishes and silverware in hand, at the host apartment for a community dinner prepared by one or two of the moms. You would think that would be the end of a long day. After a little relaxation, it was off to the pub in the big hotel for some monster sessions. In every nook and cranny of the hotel there would be groups of musicians completely engrossed in their music, playing off each other, picking up on each other’s leads as if by osmosis. The tunes are automatic, having been learned by ear and as one set ends someone else begins with just a few notes of a tune that most can pick up. If you don’t know the tune, you can record it with a small digital recorder and learn it later. If the session becomes too big or loses steam, you just pick up your instrument and find another group of musicians whose tunes and momentum suit you. Musicians will wander and play and wander and play until the wee hours of the morning. We rarely lasted past 1:00 because the kids would tire, but the rest of the town was just getting started with the crowds at the pubs spilling out onto the main street to listen to any street musicians that had found a spot to play. We would fall asleep to the choruses of songs being sung by intoxicated crowds of men and sometimes wake up early in the morning to the same crowds still singing songs. I had never experienced a festival like this.
Finally the day of the competition arrived and although we knew we couldn’t win, the kids from Chicago performed well and received many complements worth noting. The most enthusiastic complement came from a woman I met at a small music store on the main street of the town later in the day. I was waiting outside the store when she introduced herself as Eileen Hughes, the mother of a musician from – if I remember correctly – the Dublin group. She was very gracious about what she thought was a better performance by Chicago than the judges acknowledged. She went on to explain that she and her son were not just in town for the All-Ireland, the day before they had also attended the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike conducted by Irish prisoners in a Northern Ireland prison. The Irish prisoners, all jailed for Irish Republican Army terrorist activities, were insisting that they be considered prisoners of war and not revolutionaries. The Thatcher government rejected their position and so 23 men covenanted to go on a hunger strike on that principle. Of the original group, 10 men refused food to their death. Eileen Hughes’ brother-in-law, Francis Hughes, was the second prisoner to die of starvation.
I was somewhat stunned silent, which does not happen often with me. But I was even more stunned at what happened during that conversation. Maggie, who had been roaming around with the other kids, approached me with a dreadful nosebleed. I had no experience with gushing nosebleeds and for a few seconds tried to remember what the latest advice was for stemming the bloody tide. Without missing a word, Eileen Hughes took Maggie’s chin in her one hand, to lift her head slightly back, and began to pinch the bridge of her nose with her other hand. She sent the kids off to find some napkins and explained that she had to deal frequently with her son’s nosebleeds. When the kids returned with the napkins she said it was time to pull out the clot. Clot? Before I could step in and resume my role as mother, Eileen began to pull a clot the size of a child’s liver right out of Maggie’s nose. She folded it into the napkin and sent the kids for more as she continued to pinch the bridge of the nose just in case. With her free hand she would clean up Maggie’s face. All I could do was take the bloody napkins and toss them in a nearby garbage can. She never missed a beat. She continued to carry on with our conversation about music and hunger strikers and never once hesitating to minister to a stranger even when it involved cleaning up that stranger’s bloody mess. Her hands were covered with dried blood and I wondered how many people in America, with their phobias about germs and AIDS, would have gone that extra mile. And I thought of Jesus and so many saints through the centuries who never hesitated to care for lepers and disease stricken people at their own peril. This was as close as I have ever come to that kind of faithful disregard for one’s own safety and well being. I thanked her profoundly and was nearly in tears at this last act of authentic hospitality on our day before departing Ireland.
We stayed out very late that night for one last session with the great gathering of Irish musicians who had descended on Letterkenny from Ireland, Scotland, England, and the U. S. After four hours of sleep we boarded Peter’s bus and headed for Dublin and the airport – all of us wishing we didn’t have to go. It was indeed the best time I had ever had. I may never see Eileen Hughes again, but she should know what a testimony she was to her countrymen and women. A representative of a people with an irrepressible sense of humor in spite of being one of the poorer countries in Europe and despite suffering a Diaspora reminiscent of the Hebrews. May God Bless Them All.