Google Elphin, County Roscommon, and you will have some idea of the small village in which we spent almost our entire time in Ireland. ‘On the road to nowhere’ was mentioned at least twice during our time there. But what you won’t learn from Google is the warmth and music that transpires from this small village to nowhere.
Grace and John invited us to join them on what became known as a music tour, which sounded as if we were part of a travelling Irish music band. In reality, it was an opportunity for locals, as well as for Grace’s extended family, to meet each night, share a song, a jig or poem over a pint or four of Guinness.
Things really got going around midnight and in quite isolated and out of the way pubs, locals would still be arriving, not leaving, to join in the celebration of all thing Irish. One night, a woman who was said to be 93, gave us a fine rendition of Danny Boy. Soon after, another local, who had been quiet all night, stood up and offered an interpretation of Raglan Road in a near perfect voice.
Talent seems to know no bounds in Ireland. And in Elphin, the town to nowhere, we were treated to an amazing night of Irish music performed by the national winner of the Irish Traditional Music Awards – won by no less than a local band! Us Aussies were amazed to witness young people pick up their instruments and join a ‘session’ as if it was as natural as texting. No fuss, no apparent embarrassment – it’s just what you do – you pick up your squeeze box, flute, tin whistle, or bodhran and join a session.
The Aussies who were part of John and Grace’s entourage, were expected to contribute with an Australian performance of Waltzing Matilda or another Australian ballad. It must be said that Ellie went down very well with the crowds, particularly with her version of Down Under. Rob joined forces with Shay who played a mean harmonica as well as being an accomplished concertina player. But the real praise went to John and Grace who led many of the sessions with both words and music – every night.
Living in an ordinary suburban house in Elphin for a week allowed us to absorb the local community and for those who John and Grace had brought together, to jell as a group. This proved to be easy for the nine of us, as we shared many a meal, a tea, whiskey or G&T in the kitchen or on the road in the nine seater, often making our way back home along narrow roads as late as 3.00 in the morning. Rob would relieve John of the late night driving.
Our experience of Ireland was enhanced through Grace’s many siblings, who are living full lives in their local community, including her brother, John. He has taken on this extraordinary project to restore a completely dilapidated Bishop’s palace built in the 18th century. but with a history that goes back to the 14th Century. Worthy of Grand Design status, his brothers, Tom and Paddy are also contributing extensive hours of labour to see through the project as well as putting back together a small part of Irish’s troubled past.
And it’s this troubled past that we may have missed had we been fly in, fly out tourists. We learned, through song and story, the impact of the famine in the 1840’s, the oppressive role the British played in Ireland’s downfall and the truth about Oliver Cromwell, which wasn’t very kind. We visited a pre Celtic burial site, standing there on a mount in the wind and rain as we heard from a learned anthropologist about the intoxicating and seductive warrior, Queen Maeve.
Our close encounter with a little bit of Ireland showed us people experiencing real love, sweat and tears, grounded in humour, storytelling and of course, music. It wasn’t until our last day that Paddy was heard to mention that he had reached his quota of Irish music for some time! We then realised that, as the John and Grace entourage left town, village life would somehow return to normal. Now that really is something to be said for the Irish!