Thursday, July 30, 2015

Music, Justice, Whiskey: Dublin I

Ireland has always held a bit of romantic mystery for me, as I think it does for many people.  Its enigma is compounded by the tiny sliver of Irish heritage I can claim for my own.  My great-grandmother was from Belfast, which technically makes me one-eighth Irish.  Though I can't name any distinctively Irish traditions, cuisine, or other heritage that percolated into my upbringing, I've always identified most with my Scottish and Irish ancestors on my father's side (rather than the English and Welsh from my mother's side).  I was reminded of this during a curious encounter last February, when I was having a conversation with a new friend.

"Where are you from?" she asked, in the process of learning more about me.

"Oh, from Pennsylvania originally," I replied in a self-deprecating tone.  After all, there's nothing that special or exotic about Pennsylvania unless you're from there (in which case it's obviously the best state in the Union).

"No, no," she insisted, "where are you REALLY from?"

I realized with a surprise that she was asking the coded question that infuriates many non-white Americans, and that she really meant "what is your heritage."  Since I am white, I don't often get this question; people are generally satisfied with "Pennsylvania" and don't press further.  I explained that on my mother's side I was English and Welsh, and on my father's side there was a bit of German (i.e., Pennsylvania-Dutch), but the closest non-American ancestors I knew of were my father's paternal grandparents; she was from Ireland, and he was from Scotland.

"Ahhh," she said, satisfied.  "I was going to guess Irish."  Seeing my nonplussed expression, she continued. "The Irish have a sort of passion about them, you see. Like what I see in you.  And the culture of the Irish tend to be a bit-- well, sticky.  If you take a family of German immigrants to the U.S., their children will of course be German-American, but many of the distinctly German traditions and attitudes will be lost within a couple of generations.  Irish-Americans, however, tend to retain their emotional heritage--their tempers, their passion, their spirits-- well after the actual nationality has been lost."

She proceeded then to tell a story about a friend of hers who was a priest, and about as Irish as they come.  In her job as a community organizer and activist, she was trying to persuade the priest to get his parishioners on board with a particular social reform agenda that her organization was pursuing.  The priest held up his hand before she could fully explain, and said "Sister, no need.  Music, justice, whiskey: I'm Irish."

This story has stayed with me to this day, and I was cautiously eager to see if the truth of the priest's claim would be borne out by the city of Dublin and the character of its people.

We arrived at the John Lennon Airport (where the walls in the international terminal are plastered with Beatles portraits and quotes) several hours before the departure of our flight to Dublin; that flight was again delayed by an hour, so that dining in the airport could no longer be avoided.  To fill the veggie void, I logically ordered nachos (at least they were supposed to come with guacamole).  True to form, they were out of guacomole, and the "mixed greens" side salad turned out to be peas.  Less than an hour after we finally took off, we landed in Dublin!  I headed for passport control with some trepidation: before the start of this trip, I had carefully counted the remaining stamp-spots in my passport and concluded that I had just barely enough space.  However, Norway decided to stamp me on both entry and exit (which isn't common), and both stamps took up two spots. Ireland's entry stamp also took up two spoaces (barring the northern counties, which are legally part of the UK, the Republic of Ireland is an independent nation).  With only a tiny bit of room left in my passport for stamps, I was no longer optimistic about making it through the rest of the trip without getting extension pages added. I'm not sure what happens if you run out of room while abroad-- do they not let you come home?  Regardless, I didn't want to take the chance and ended up getting pages added at the American embassy in Rome (more on this later).

Barring the overreaching passport stampers, our arrival was smooth.  We met our Airbnb host, Paola, in downtown Dublin after taking a bus to the city center.  Despite the pouring rain, she walked out to meet us and even brought us umbrellas for the ten-minute walk to her apartment. The place was ideally situated in a spot just across the River Liffey from Temple Bar, the touristy and bar-filled neighborhood that surrounds or borders many of Dublin's most famous sites. Our first full day of sightseeing was a Sunday, and it showed-- the streets were absolutely deserted until about noon, and most businesses were closed. Dublin is a very young city, with something like 30-40% of the population under the age of 30.  I assume most of these were sleeping off hangovers rather than attending Mass at one of the towering and ancient local cathedrals.  However, as the bells tolled for the faithful, we found ourselves just outside of Christchurch cathedral. Since nothing else was open, we thought we might as well attend the service. 

Christchurch is not a Catholic church, but rather (I think) the Church of Ireland, which is a curious mix of Anglican and Episcopalian.  The priest (the Very Reverend Dermot Dunne-- how does someone become VERY reverend?) greeted the small congregation in Irish Gaelic, welcoming us to the  last Sunday before the summer recess for the choir.  This was fortunate; the choir was excellent, flawlessly executing a difficult Messener mass as well as an additional piece by Jonathan Dove, one of my favorite contemporary choral composers.  After the ceremony, we had tea in the cathedral's crypt, which contained interesting historical tidbits as well as huge papier-mâché toadstools from the recent children's production of Alice in Wonderland.  I spoke with one of the choristers, Niall, who told me about Dublin's thriving choral scene, and invited me back for that day's Evensong featuring music by Herbert Howells (yet another of my favorite choral composers). However, Megan doesn't necessarily share my interest in church music and I couldn't countenance the idea of forcing her to sit through more of it.

After exploring the exterior of the 11th-century cathedral and its surrounds, we began walking in the general direction of the famed Guinness Storehouse with the idea of having beer for lunch.  This is one of the touristiest things one can do in Dublin, but also one of the most fun, and I have no qualms recommending it to someone who is visiting the city for the first time.  Though Guinness is no longer made on the property, Arthur Guinness apparently signed a 9,000-year lease so they use the old brewery building as a sort of Guinness museum.  This paen to Ireland's most famous export is made up of seven floors of history, descriptions of the beermaking process, and displays of craftsmanship, all clustered around a tall glass atrium that is shaped like a pint glass. Included in the price of admission (something like 16 or 20 euros) is a pint of Guinness at the top of this atrium, which boasts a 360-degree view of Dublin.  On your way up to the top, you learn what goes into Guinness, how to taste Guinness, how to make the barrels in which Guinness is kept, how to advertise Guinness, how to cook with recipes involving Guinness... if you are a fan of the "black stuff," it is a neat experience.

In the afternoon, we visited the more famous St. Patrick's cathedral, which was just as awe-inspiring as Christchurch and with a bit more of an emphasis on general Irish history.  In a corner I found a memorial to yet another of my favorite composers: Turlough O'Carolan, considered by many to be the last of the great Irish bards (musically, this day kept getting better and better... and it's not over yet). St. Patrick's also had more of a focus (in my opinion) on memorials and on art, with a very cool "Tree of Remembrance" which served as a sculpture and installation for "those who have been affected by conflict."

In the evening, we headed out for a traditional (read: touristy and vegetable-less) Irish dinner at a pub called Oliver St. John Gogarty's.  However, the real reason we came wasn't for the vegetables or lack thereof, but for the Traditional Irish Music Pub Crawl that starts nightly from that location.  We had read about this as a neat thing to do in Dublin: two musicians take you to several different pubs, play music, and teach you about the history and traditions of Irish music.  Our musicians--Mark (a dreadlocked guitarist of about 40) and a piper whose name I believe was Ronan-- took us around to several small, cozy pubs which had been privately booked in advance.  In each pub we learned about a different facet of Irish music, and the historical and cultural forces that had shaped it.  The two musicians demonstrated different types of jigs, reels, lilts, and airs with great dexterity on their instruments. Ronan's uilleann pipes (pronounced ILL-in) were fascinating; I had never before seen anything like them.  They seemed to be much like the Scottish bagpipes, but instead of inflating them with your lungs, you use your elbow to pump a small bellows attached to the side.  A further advantage is conferred by a set of keys which can provide chordal accompaniment, unlike the uniform drone of the bagpipes.  These are operated with one forearm (both sets of fingers are occupied with the complex main chanter). 

The delightful evening ended with the two musicians inviting the pub crawlers (about 30 people) to join them in an imitation of a traditional Irish "session."  In a real session, musicians gather in the corner of a pub to play traditional tunes, most of which are well-known to the participants, so that they can all join in together on the fiddle, tinwhistle, guitar, concertina, uilleann pipes, or whatever instrument they've brought.  However, in this case, all the audience had were their voices, and no one could be expected to know the bread-and-butter Irish tunes that feature in most sessions.  So the two musicians invited us to sing songs from our home countries.  One American obliged first with a decent rendition of "What a Wonderful World," complete with Louis Armstrong's gravelly affect.  Then it was my turn, buoyed by Megan's insistent pushes and a couple of pints of stout.  I had been to a traditional session once before at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, so I knew a little of the protocol as I asked the guitarist if he knew a particular tune.  Surprised, he answered "I know it... do you know it?" as if he wasn't sure if I was kidding.  I named the key and proceeded through a somewhat shaky version of Irish traditional ballad "Red is the Rose," which goes to the tune of the more popular Scottish air "Loch Lomond."

However shaky, the crowd seemed to like it, as did the two Irishmen.  After we had finished, the musicians shook my hand and declared the session closed, as they didn't think anyone would want to follow.  Over the applause, they asked where I was from. "California," I replied, "but my great-grandmother was from Belfast."  Ronan gave a little whoop at this and said "aha, you've got the blood in you then!"  Both were very encouraging and gave me the name of a good Irish pub in Los Angeles where I could find sessions to join, as well as a long list of female singers they thought I should listen to in order to learn more songs and styles.

Megan and I closed the night by wandering out to one of the pubs that had been recommended by Mark and Ronan (most of the pubs in Temple Bar, which cater exclusively to tourists, host live music but not true sessions, so they gave us the names of four or five pubs which were somewhat more authentic).  There we met up with several of the other tourists who had followed the same suggestion and passed an enjoyable evening listening to good music and drinking good beer.

Music, justice, and whiskey indeed.  If this is my heritage, I'm glad of it. 

Dublin Castle, which was closed Sunday mornings like everything else

Exterior of Christchurch catherdral, est. 1030 A.D.

 Interior of Christchurch

This way to beer!

This was the most delicious muffin I've ever eaten, in my entire life.

Enjoying our pints of Guinness at the apex of the storehouse

Memorial of Turlough O'Carolan in St. Patrick's

St. Patrick's Cathedral, seen from the outside