Music Brings Communities Together

In every place I visited, I felt a strong sense of community among the people in Ireland. Each place appeared to be a close-knit community with everyone knowing one another. Irish communities were even welcoming to visitors and new members. In each community I encountered, music was a major tie between members of the community. Music brings communities together whether its people who play music or people who enjoy listening to music. Typically, traditional Irish music is played at a pub where community members gather to enjoy. 

 Music is important in Irish communities now and dating back centuries ago. In the 1800s, families lived in small cottages with only 4 bedrooms for 8-20 people on many acres of land. The community would gather in one home and share stories and songs. However, music was different in the 1800s. As one of our tour guides, Dearbhaill explained,“People would tell a song or say a song they would not sing a song.” Although the music was slightly different, it was still a common tie that connected the community together like in Ireland today.

In Cloughjordan, Westport, Inisheer, and Inishmore a sense of community through music was evident. When we were visiting Cloughjordan, it was biodiversity week and musicians put on a concert for people to listen to songs about nature. After the concert, the musicians moved to the local pub for more people in the community to enjoy. This was a common practice in other communities in Ireland. In Westport, many pubs had live music for people to listen and enjoy. Likewise, in Inishmore and Inisheer the pubs had traditional Irish music. In both islands, at the pubs, a group of musicians sat around a table and played together and took turns performing solos. People who were not necessarily with the musicians were invited to join in and play with them and play their instruments. In Irish communities throughout history and to today, music is a tie that brings the community together. 

Warm Hearts

Ireland is a place that holds many warm hearts, inspirational souls and happiness in every part of the day. Coming to Ireland I was not sure what to expect of the people. The mask that pop culture puts on the people of Ireland tends to be a pub full of loud drunks that end up brawling in the streets. Contrary to popular belief this is not the case at all. The idea I had about pubs and simply the community changed the second night of my trip to Ireland.

As a large group of 16, we ventured to one of the only pubs in the small village of Choughjordan, where we decided we were going to spend our night. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting but I was expecting some sort of music. Yet when I walked in there was just a low murmur of voices. No music at all.

Now, for those who do not know much about Irish pubs in the country there are two important things to understand. One being there are two sides to a pub, a small side and a large side corresponding to noise levels. Secondly, when people are performing live, everyone sits and listens. You do not talk over the singers like you might in a typical bar in America.  Since we were not accustomed to this social norm, the band moved to the smaller side of the pub so that they could play in peace since we were being loud. Later that night I decided to venture into the small room to hear the music.

While the music was captivating, it was even more impressive to see how the people interacted as a community. Everyone was sitting around with the band as they played various instruments such as the harmonica, whistles, banjo and so on. Everyone performing got the chance to play a solo that sent shivers down everyone’s spine in the room. There was a lady that we had met at the local market earlier that day named Kathy. As she walked into the room everyone was pleading for her to sing a song. She modestly said that she was not good enough (even though everyone in the room probably had already known how good she actually was) but eventually agreed to sing a traditional song. Her voice was beautiful.

I was sitting close to the banjo player that night who was quite friendly. A classmate and I were interested in the dynamic of the group. The main essence of the people’s spirits was fully captured when he said, “There is nothing better than getting to play my music with these lovely people who continue to inspire me.” This is when it hit me that it was not about how good of a musician you were. No matter who you were, the people in the room appreciated you and allowed others to inspire them. The gratefulness that people have for each other was one of the most fascinating moments of the trip.

“Tell A Song”

Walking into a bar in America, you instantly get hit with bass pounding music. You have to create a new way to communicate with your friends because you cannot hear the person directly next to you, unless you get close to their ear and scream into it. American bars typically are filled with people who are there to see how drunk they can get. Looking across the bar you would probably see more strangers than people you recognized. Typically, everyone stays with the friend group that they came with, and does not bother to get to know the other people who are there. Americans in these settings do not create a sense of community, but rather, a sense of solidarity.

Walking into my first Irish pub in Cloughjordan, I could instantly feel a sense of community.  Eight musicians were seated in the back of the bar with all their instruments in hand and drinks placed on the table in front of them. Their playlist consisted of traditional Irish songs, on top of their own personal compositions.  If a song was played that was well known by everybody, then everyone would join in. It was never restricted to just one person singing. The most common question I received was, “Do you play any instruments?” Hinting that they wanted me to participate in their songs. The only breaks that were taken, were in between songs to have a couple sips of beer and a chat with the fellow musicians. 

Throughout the songs you can hear the beat of a drum. However, no drum was in sight, until later in the night. When a drum was lacking, the beat of the drum was created by the musicians and audience tapping or stomping their foot to the beat of the song. This allowed even the non-musical people to contribute to the composition. The audience engaged with the musicians by singing along, and some even contributed their own pieces. As I was an outsider in this pub, the people sitting around me tried to get to know me and my story. People asked me what I was studying, how long I was here for, if I played any music, and how I am enjoying the music. While this was a casual conversation, the effort that was put into the conversation by the locals was heartwarming. You could really tell that they were interested in getting to know me. For those who did know each other, they used this space as a place to catch up with neighbors, locals and old friends. Anyone who was not a regular here, quickly became part of the local community. Leaving that pub for the first time, I felt like I was part of the Cloughjordan community.

Digging deeper into the music culture of Ireland I learned the phrase, “Tell a song.” Dearbhaill, from Cnoc Suain, explained that the phrase, “Tell a song”, was used in place of “Sing a song.” “Tell a song,” implied that the words are more important than the singing itself. Sitting in various pubs I could hear the musicians use this phrase. When people were immigrating during the famine, their Irish music was taken with them. Leaving Ireland with a void, that could only be filled with music. Slowly the music began to reemerge, rejoining the Irish community. Irish music brings people together during the good and the bad times, to create a wholesome community. 

An Irish Community, Through Thick and Thin

Irish Flag, swinging from a boat passing the Cliffs of Moher

A woman on the radio explains, with a choked voice, an abortion she underwent at a young age. Her story was told in the growing aftermath of the vote which took place May 25, and the initial polls revealed that it would be a yes to repealing the 8th amendment, a law which banned abortion in Ireland. The woman on the radio admitted she was afraid most people would vote no, to keep the amendment in place. Upon hearing this was not the case, the woman stated, “It’s incredible. I should have had more faith in the Irish people.”

In the two weeks I travelled in Ireland, I frequently felt an overwhelming sense of community among the Irish. I stayed in several towns that were located in more rural areas, and it seemed that most people living there appeared to be extremely friendly with each other. The first example of this I experienced was at Ryan’s Corner House, a pub in Cloughjordan. A group of us went to this pub to buy a drink, and it immediately became clear that the Irish living there were relatively close with one another. Nearly every time someone entered the pub, a group of people already seated would greet that person by name. This was a complete change from the bars in the United States, where most are only familiar with the people they came with. While not every town in Ireland may have that same familiarity as Cloughjordan, I experienced similar instances in other places around the country. In Ennis, there was a pub called Yolo with an outside seating area. There was a group of older Irish men smoking, and I saw them offer lights and cigarettes to other people around them, some of whom were complete strangers. There was a band performing at that same pub, and they played one traditional Irish song that I did not recognize. The other people at the pub, clearly Irish, all began singing along to this song together.

The Irish people at that pub in Ennis, like many other pubs I visited along the way, all seemed to share something interpersonal that I, an outsider of the country, could not relate to. It was refreshing to see people with such a strong sense of community. Even more refreshing was to see that this sense of community did not seem to fall apart during instances of tension, like the woman on the radio explained. To me, the vote revealed the strength of the Irish community.

Becoming Part of the Tune

An Evening at Grace’s

As I approached Grace’s Pub, there was a calm chill in the air. At 9:30 in the evening, it was still light out, yet it was paired with the quiet stillness that one typically associates with the night. Stepping inside, I chuckled to myself as I immediately noticed a sign hung above the bar: “Drinks on the house. Bring your own ladder.” An elderly man and woman stood behind the bar, filling pints of beer as regulars and members of my study abroad group filtered in. We were there for a music night, a weekly occurrence at Grace’s Pub as well as pubs all across Ireland.

Once the head of my Guinness had fully settled at the top of my pint, I walked into the side room at the right of the bar, a small cottage-like room with comfortable furniture, a cupboard in the corner filled with tiny knick-knacks, and a piano in the center of the wall. There were personal touches everywhere I looked, a very different look from the typical American bar.

Pints continued to flow and conversation bustled as I sat with my classmates. We were all in awe of the decor, describing a comfort lended to us by our surroundings. Amid conversation, I heard music begin to play. Finding a break in conversation, I excused myself and stepped back into the main room. I was met with the sounds of instrumental music being played on flutes, guitars, a ukulele and bodhrán. The musicians were seated at a long table, and locals crowded into the surrounding area. There was a natural keenness to sit and listen, but not just placidly. Everyone was brought into the music and actively listened, whether they sat there drinking their beer and swayed to the music, tapped on the table, or clapped to the beat.

I leaned against the fireplace and watched them play. It was evident by the way they played that they were deeply connected to this music, even when words were absent. The instrumental tunes told a story, with variation in tempos. As a tune would start, one person would begin playing, and one by one each instrument would join in until they were playing together as one. When someone was going to sing, a hush would fall over the pub so that they could begin. Hours passed and the music played on–not even a spilled beer made them miss a beat.

Towards the end, a man named Johnny approached me, watching me sway to the music. He had been playing the guitar most of the evening, singing a few tunes as well. He leaned in and said “It looks like you’ve got a sound.” In that moment, I felt like I’d been invited into an intimate community. I wasn’t just someone on the outside observing–I’d become part of the tune as well.