"Have you a few drinks in you?" Blackie's long face, framed by ink-black curls, looked sympathetic. Not critical.
"No, I'm just slow," I said.
I could see why he'd think I'd been drinking: we were in one of the best pubs in Ireland at 11 p.m. at night and everyone's good time was enhanced by Guiness, Harp lager, or Jameson's whiskey. But I wasn't under the effect of alcohol, just rollicking to good fast music. And I was trying to explain to Blackie that I wanted to play an instrument that I'd never touched, and the name of which I could not pronounce.
So began my introduction to the Irish drum.
Sure, you can to go to Doolin, the Irish-music capital on the coast of County Clare, and just hang out. A hell of a lot of people do, particularly in the brief summer time when the rain sometimes pauses and the evening light stretches till midnight. This busy yet still un-ruined seaside town offers a soft, sloping, inexpensive base for surfing Ireland's biggest break, climbing in the Ailladie, hiking on the Burren, and, most notably, hearing traditional Irish music.
But on my most recent trip to Doolin, I pushed past my comfort zone of Guinness and good walks. I'd spent previous visits sitting in the town's three great pubs—one of them, McDermott's, has been called the best pub in Ireland—listening avidly to trad music for long sunlit summer evenings and into the night. This time, though, I wanted to do more than most tourists do: I wanted to get involved and I wanted to get to know the locals.
And so, I devoted myself to something I'd wished to do since my first visit to Ireland: learning to play a bodhrain, an Irish drum. To that end, I stayed at the Aille River Hostel ("best in Ireland" in several different rankings). It's a world-class hostel in an updated 300-year-old cottage on the bank of the Aille River, in the dip smack in the middle of the upper and lower villages. With almost no traffic outside, with the front door open to the air, the sound of the river hurtling by is usually the loudest noise in the big communal kitchen and the large, stone-floored living room with the wall-sized fireplace. Unless there's a jam session going on, that is, in which case human voices and fiddles take over.
I had drum lessons from a magnificent teacher, and "the lend of a drum" from Blackie O'Connell, piper of the internationally beloved Foolin' in Doolin band. Blackie's a local, who named the group for what he and banjo player Cyril O'Donoghue and fiddler Karol Lynch were doing on the nights they first started playing together. Now the band tours around the world, but when in the country Blackie still performs in Doolin several nights a week. Getting to know him —or any of the many other regular performers—is like getting the key to the city.
I got hold of Blackie on the phone a few weeks before my trip, and had told him I'd like to learn how to play the "bow-rain." He'd corrected me, saying, "BO-rohn" and thus giving me my first lesson.
That night in May, as my friend Marie and I were eating soup and salad—both accompanied by brown bread and butter, like every meal in Ireland—a tall, thin young man with a big curly ponytail walked by to the loo and winked at me in passing. Ten minutes later he was setting up his mike and taking what looked like a giant's flute out of a bright red case. I went to introduce myself and Marie, and Blackie seized my hand in welcome and kissed Marie on the cheek. "We'll work you hard this week," he promised.
For the performance Blackie pulled his ponytail out so the curls dangled down his chest, and the Irish bagpipe lay huge and unwieldy across his thin lap. Blackie, mandolin player Cyril, and singer Geraldine McGowan sat on narrow black benches in the corner and sang like the future of my own favorite life. Before, between, and sometimes during playing Blackie and Cyril laughed hard at something and their laughter was audible along with the music and blended in well.
The Irish bagpipe is unique in that it has a bellows under the arm as well as a kind of keyboard that plays notes. So, as Blackie says, the player can accompany him- or herself, though, Blackie says, "It sounds bad to say play with yourself."
When Geraldine picked up her bodhrain I couldn't see because she's left-handed and I was on her right side, but after a few minutes I heard a sound like the pub's heartbeat. The reel got faster fast and Blackie added some amazing grace notes, then the pipes and the musicians' fingers blurred and I was so excited I was thrumming the tabletop, jigging knees, clapping hands, tapping toes, bobbing my head up and up and down and down, and I said loudly over the music to Marie, "Just think, in a few days we'll sound just like her!" Finally, after decades of listening to this music, I'm going to learn how to drum.
I was uncoolly and frantically tapping and jigging everything, and I felt so fast and fluid as if were matching the drum. Surely I could do this with a tipper—the wooden stick used to play it—in my hand. Perhaps for once I'd be a natural at something, my lost Irish roots would suddenly blossom into buds of musical ability that had only to be nurtured with whiskey and rainwater and perhaps a bit of practice.
As of Monday afternoon, Marie and I had had zero — count 'em, 0 — lessons in Bodhrain and hadn't yet even managed to borrow a drum. However, Marie had taken herself into the Doolin Music shop and purchased a CD called Total Beginner's Bodhrain Lesson. She showed it to me triumphantly over lunch at McDermott's. Delighted by her ingenuity, I said, "If we had a CD player we could start to teach ourselves how to play, if we had a drum."
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