Traditional Music, Dance, And History in Ireland                      July 1-9, 2006


        The first week of July I explored four cities in Ireland.  During the days I visited castles, museums, cathedrals, breweries, and universities.  In the evenings I listened to live music in pubs, attended traditional music and dance shows, watched plays, and danced in discos. While riding trains between cities I read A Short History of Ireland by Richard Killeen, from which I will summarize historical highlights before describing my experiences in each of the four cities.



        In 7500 BC Ireland was inhabited by hunters and fishermen, probably from nearby Scotland.  Around 3500 BC new settlers brought agriculture.  The Celts came in waves from 250 BC to 400 AD.  Christianity was brought to Ireland by St. Patrick and other missionaries during the 5th century AD.  Patrick was the son of a Roman civil servant in Britain who was kidnapped by Irish raiders and was a slave for six years until he escaped back to Britain.  He became a priest and decided to return to Ireland, which led to the founding of many monasteries. 

        Vikings began raids in 795 AD and established towns as trading centers, including Dublin in 841.  The Anglo-Normans arrived from England in 1169, after the Normans invaded England in 1066.  This began 700 years of conflict between new Anglo-Norman landowners and old Irish landowners and peasants.  When King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic church to divorce his wife in the 16th century, the Anglo-Normans loyal to the king became Protestants while the Celtic Irish remained Catholic.  In 1845 and 1846 the potato crops failed; of the eight million inhabitants one million died and another million emigrated to the United States.

        After a series of uprisings and a civil war ending in 1921, Ireland was divided into the Republic of Ireland comprised of 26 counties predominantly Catholic, and Northern Ireland comprised of 6 counties with a Protestant majority and a Catholic minority.  The Catholic minority wanted to join the Republic of Ireland while the Protestant majority wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Terrorism by the Irish Republican Army began in 1968 and did not end until 1994.  Since 1995 there has been a massive economic boom in the Republic of Ireland, while Northern Ireland remains a divided society with separate schools, churches, and housing areas.



        When I arrived in Dublin on July 2 from my overnight flight, I used my ATM card to withdraw cash in Euros at the airport – that is so much easier now than trying to exchange traveler’s checks and worrying about when banks are open!  ATM machines are now available 24 hours in most parts of the world.  I bought a SIMM card for my daughter’s European cellphone that I had brought along so I could call my wife to let her know that I had arrived.  That was simpler than finding a pay telephone that would allow calls to the US using the ATT access code that was convenient for charging the call to my phone at home without making an expensive collect call.

        I took a bus from the airport to downtown, and checked into a private room in the Kinlay House Dublin youth hostel that I had reserved via the Internet.  I chose it because it was next to Temple Bar, the area with most pubs and dance clubs. That afternoon I did part of a walking tour described in my favorite guidebook Let’s Go, which is written by Harvard students for college students.  I explored Christ Church which has beautiful stained glass windows and a crypt in the basement.  One of the tombs contained a mother and her six children who had all died in infancy in the early 1700s; it was dedicated by her only surviving son. I walked past St. Michan’s Church but it was closed – the mummies in its vaults inspired Bram Stoker to write his book about Dracula.

         At the Old Jameson Distillery, I saw how Irish whiskey is made.  They said that Irish whiskey is distilled three times while smoky Scotch is distilled twice and American bourbon is distilled once.  They didn’t know how it differs from Canadian whiskey which I prefer on the rare occasions that I drink whiskey.  I haven’t liked bourbon since I became sick drinking it when I was a sophomore in college!  I walked back to Temple Bar and ate dinner at a Nepalese restaurant; I wanted to taste the food since I have several students from Nepal. I then watched a performance of traditional Irish music and dance at the Arlington hotel.  Afterward I went to the Fitzsimons nightclub which has bars on four floors and a disco in the basement where I had a great time dancing until it closed at 2 AM.

        In the morning I toured Dublin Castle.  While waiting for the tour to begin I looked at an exhibit of children’s art which I liked very much.  The castle was built by the English and had a throne room with gilded gold patterns on the ceiling and walls.  It also had a plaque dedicated to James Connolly, one of the signers of an Irish declaration of independence in 1916.  He was treated for his wounds in the castle before being executed.  The English had a policy of nursing prisoners back to health before executing them.

        I walked north up O’Connell Street, the main shopping area, to buy some stamps at the post office and saw a group protesting the U.S. war in Iraq.  I then walked south to Trinity College.  The college library had a huge Long Room two stories high containing thousands of old books.  It also had the Book of Kells, a beautifully illustrated manuscript of the Christian Bible, prepared by monks in the early 9th century. The exhibit explained the meaning of the images and symbols in the manuscript.

        I took a bus to go to St. Patrick’s cathedral, but went too far and had to wait a long time for another bus back. My map didn’t extend far enough to know where to get off!  I should have stayed closer to the driver which I did on the way back.  In the cathedral was the grave of Jonathan Swift who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, a children’s book that was actually a satire on politics.  I learned that he had been the director of Bethlehem mental hospital in England (called Bedlam, which is the origin of the term bedlam), who put a stop to the display of patients for the amusement of the public.  He later opened a mental hospital in Ireland.

        That evening I saw a play, “The Constant Wife” by W. Somerset Maugham.  It was about a wife who gets even with her unfaithful husband.  A woman behind me commented in a friendly way that I must have really enjoyed the play since I was laughing so much!  I then listened to a couple of guitarists at a pub before returning to the Fitzsimons disco for another late night of dancing.

        The next morning, July 4, I walked up O’Connell Street to the Writer’s Museum.  It had displays of the major works of familiar poets like William Yeats; playwrights like Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett; and novelists like Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, James Joyce, and Brendan Behan.  Joyce’s “A portrait of the artist as a young man” was very meaningful to me when I was in college.  Behan’s “Borstal Boy” was a touching story about an Irish Republican Army teenager imprisoned by the British.



        In the afternoon I took a two hour train ride from Dublin to Kilkenny, Ireland’s best preserved medieval town.  The train passed through green fields and woods which is why Ireland is called the Emerald Isle.  There were some sheep and cattle.  I checked into an expensive guest house since all of the private rooms in the hostels were surprisingly already booked when I made reservations three months in advance.  I took a tour of Kilkenny Castle, built in the 13th century.  They didn’t allow photos so I don’t have a record of what was there!  I was exploring the bulletin board by the exit, looking for concert flyers, and saw one for a dinner and Irish music show at Langston’s restaurant.  So I walked there to make a reservation. Along the way I noted the location of pubs and looked for signs in windows advertising live music. 

I continued walking to explore the rest of the town, and walked to the Black Abbey and the Cathedral which were both closed.  I returned to the restaurant for the show “An emigrant’s tale” which had songs written by Irish who had emigrated to the United States.  I then went to two of the pubs that had advertised live music.  At one I listened to two guitarists, and at the other I heard the Uisce Beatha band which I liked enough to buy their CD.

At breakfast in the guest house the next morning I overheard two American couples talking.  One woman said that she wished that she had been able to hear some Irish music there.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying that I had listened to Irish music for three hours the night before.  It isn’t hard to find if you walk by pubs and listen.



        To get from Kilkenny to Cork by train I had to change trains two times. I took a taxi from the train station up the hill to Kinlay House Cork, the second of three Kinlay House hostels I stayed in.  I took a long walk through the shopping area to the University College Cork.  My daughter had previously been there visiting an American friend who was living in Cork to play music.  The college was very beautiful.  The main quad had an exhibit of stones with ancient writing in the form of slashes called Ogams.  The Boole library was named after the man who invented Boolean algebra used in coding numbers and letters in computers.  There were beautiful stained glass windows in the college chapel.  The campus pub, which was closed, had a flyer for a 4th of July party the night before which said “American beer – Irish fun.”  Nearby was a monument to young Irish rebels executed by the British in 1921. 

        On my way back to downtown I passed many rows of townhouses, which is the most common form of housing in Irish cities.  I stopped in one pub for a dinner of Shepherd’s Pie (beef stew with potatoes on top), then went to The Corner House Pub where I listened to a group playing traditional Irish music.  I went to bed early so I could catch a train the next morning.  On the way to the train station I stopped at a music store to look for CDs for my daughter, who teaches a course on World Music.



        On the train from Cork to Galway, the air conditioning wasn’t working in my car so I moved to another car.  I realized that no one paid attention to seat reservations anyway since the seat I had been assigned was occupied by someone else.  I stayed at the third Kinlay House in Galway which was by a large park near the train station.  I always look for booklets and newspapers with listing of events, and found that the “Dance of Desire” was playing at the Black Box theater.  After buying a show ticket I walked through the downtown shopping area, which had several pedestrian streets without cars.  I stopped at several music stores looking for the CDs that my daughter wanted.  I ate a delicious spinach, cheese, and mushroom crepe for dinner, then I walked back to the Black Box theater.

        The show depicted an ancient Celtic legend about an evil stepmother, jealous of her husband’s love for his children, who turns the children into swans.  They were rescued by a king who stole back the Sword of Light.  It included traditional and modern Irish music and dance and I enjoyed it very much.  Seated next to me were some students from Pennsylvania, and one was a good friend of one of my students!  After listening to music in a pub, I went to the Cuba disco, where I saw the students from Pennsylvania again.  I also met students there from Poland, Italy, France, West Africa, and Bangladesh as well as Ireland. I danced until 3 AM!

        The next morning I had a traditional Irish breakfast, consisting of a fried egg, a large sausage, several large pieces of bacon, and two slices of toast with butter.  I rarely eat a breakfast with that much cholesterol!  I walked in the shopping area to return to a record store closed the evening before, and heard a street musician playing panpipes.  He was from Ecuador, where my daughter had studied Andean music.  I stopped at the church of St. Nicholas, named after the bishop known in the US as Santa Claus.  He was the patron saint of sailors, so seaports often have churches dedicated to him.

        I walked to the Spanish arch, a remnant of the ancient gates to the town, and visited the City Museum of modern art.  I only like certain kinds of modern art, but I liked the paintings there.  There also was an exhibit of the winners of a student art competition.  One had photos of a couple in traditional clothing with wooden boxes on their heads, representing the restrictions of tradition.  Across the canal by the museum was a quay with boats that had a group of drummers.  I stopped to listen to them for awhile.  There were several life preservers mounted on posts along the canal, and one had a sign which said “A stolen ringbouy – A stolen life.”

        I walked north up the canal to St. Joseph’s church, where I saw a statue of Joseph holding baby Jesus.  That is only the second time I have ever seen a depiction of Jesus with Joseph instead of Mary among the many cathedrals I have seen around the world.  I walked on to the main cathedral where there were many beautiful stained glass windows.  Across from it was a sculpture of a woman stepping out of a stone background titled “Emerging Equality.”  Further on was the University of Ireland – Galway which had one beautiful old square of buildings while the rest of the buildings were uninteresting blocks of metal and glass.  I found the psychology department, but it was deserted except for one grad student and one professor.  However, there were many teenagers playing soccer on a large campus lawn.

        I saw more street musicians on my walk back to downtown, listened to music in a pub, then took a taxi to a hotel a few miles away that had advertised a show of traditional music in a brochure that I had picked up.  I thought that it might be a repeat of what I had already heard, but it was different.  It was called Siamsa and included some small children and depicted how adults teach children to dance.

        Back at the youth hostel there was an American who recognized me from the Firtzsimons disco in Dublin! After listening to musicians in the park nearby, I went back to the Cuba disco where I met students from India and Japan as well as more from Poland and Ireland. As we were spilling out onto the street when the disco closed, a couple of Galway students asked me what Los Angeles was really like since what they saw in the movies was mostly gang violence in Compton!  I didn’t get to bed until 3:30, but was able to sleep until 9 AM.  I normally only need 5.5 hours of sleep, which is how I stay out late and still get up in the morning!



        The next day, July 8, I took the train back to Dublin, two days before my flights to London and Athens.  I didn’t want to be out of town the day before my flight away, since I had learned that lesson the hard way in Egypt.  We couldn’t get on our flight from Luxor to Cairo, and missed our flight from Cairo to Los Angeles.  Fortunately, my Egyptian host knew the president of Egypt Air and got us a flight on another airline the next day or we would have been stranded for a week.

        After checking back into the Kinlay House Dublin hostel, I explored more of Dublin streets and listening to live music in a pub.  I saw an exhibit on the Irish flag which explained that the Orange represented the Protestants, the Green represented the Catholics, and the White in between represented peace.

        A clerk at the hostel had recommended seeing the play “The importance of being Ernest” by Oscar Wilde.  I had seen the play before, but she said it was different since it had an all-male cast.  The play is about two women who could only love men named Ernest, and two men who lie about their names to woo them.  The players in drag were overdramatic in delivering their lines and the play was a scream!  After the play I went to the Fitzsimons disco for the third time, and had a great time again.  I met students from Ireland and France. 

        In the morning I went to the National Gallery and the Museum of Archeology and History, which had been closed on Monday (like most museums in the world) when I was in Dublin earlier in the week.  The National Gallery had paintings not only from Ireland but from other areas of Europe as well.  There were many that I liked so I bought a catalog, which had copies of most of the ones I liked, but as always omitted a few that I wanted.  Art museums generally do not allow photos with flash since the light fades the paint, and photos without flash are usually blurry without a tripod which isn’t allowed [later cameras don't have that problem!].

        The Museum of Archeology and History had artifacts from each period of history that I had read about in my Irish history book.  It also included mummies found in the bogs, that apparently had been human sacrifices when ancient kings were crowned.  They were found at boundaries between kingdoms. 

        After spending all afternoon in the museums my feet were tired, so I took a bus to the Guinness brewery.  The brewery itself isn’t open the public, but the Warehouse next door has exhibits on the making of beer and on the seventh floor is a pub with a spectacular view of Dublin.  I enjoyed a pint of Guinness with the view.  I noticed that the pubs in Ireland have Guinness on tap, as well as Carlsberg from Denmark and Heineken from the Netherlands, two other beers that I like.  But surprisingly they also have the American beers Budweiser and Miller which I do not like.  I thought they might be for American tourists, but I saw Irishmen order Bud as well.

        The next morning I took a bus to the Dublin airport, where I found a machine that printed business cards.  I had already used up most of the ones I had brought from school, giving and collecting email addresses from the many people that I had met.  So I printed another 60 for Greece.  I flew to London and spent several hours there waiting for my flight to Athens.  I will write my description of my adventures in Greece in a separate journal.