Fekkin' Savage: Learning to Drum in Doolin, County Clare — Page 2
By Gillian Kendall


Later Monday, though, we got a visit from a serious bodhrain instructor sent our way by Blackie. Richie Lyons was a slight, pleasant-looking man who drums like a possessed wizard. He made the sky stop raining and the sun come out so we could have daily lessons in the hostel courtyard, accompanied by the River Aille. The drumbeats echoed off the stone walls and walkway—at least his did. My own striking was too faint and hesitant to echo or even produce much effect at all, at least at first.

Playing any instrument is harder than it looks, but playing a bodhrain is harder than anything I'd ever done. Just holding the tipper is awkward and counterintuitive. You grasp the curved and uneven bit of wood between thumb and fingers with the wrist cocked hard and the tipper turned inwards as if you were trying to slice your own wrist. You don't hit the drum but stroke it, and the motion always begins downward, not up, on a drum held in your other hand, from its back. As I struggled to get the positioning right, Richie reminded me not to tense up. "Hold it loosely," he said, and showed me—again—what I was doing wrong.

Richie was a hero of patience and good example. He slowed down to a speed I could hear and taught me some simple, slow lyrics to go with the simple, slow rhythms. Though verbally dexterous I have no sense of rhythm, so it was better for me to learn " Bacon and sausages, rashers and EGGS!" and drum in time to that than it would be for me simply to learn the beat. By the third day, I could with great effort almost keep up for a minute or two with a recording of a simple tune, while Richie played his drum and recorded us and sang the lyrics and encouraged me.

Variations on an Irish Jig

The session on our last night was at McDermott's. So about 10:00, under a dusky pink-yellow sky, Marie and I again walked the half mile back up the village. As we opened the door we encountered a wall of sound, but not like the kind at a rock concert. This was a soft, dry-stone wall of sound, old as the earth. In one corner of the pub stood Blackie and Cyril, this time with banjo player Karol: this was the full, official Foolin' in Doolin.

Foolin' in Doolin

While Marie grabbed the seats, I got a round in for us and bought some for Blackie et al as well. Blackie passed by on his break, and I handed him his pint: I told him how great my teacher was, and thanked him for the drum, and asked him how his gig that afternoon had gone. "It was great," he said. "Savage."


"Yeah, savage is great, awesome. Fekkin' savage."

He was going outdoors to smoke, and I wasn't, so we clinked glasses, and I went back to Marie to share my new vocabulary word.

In the second set, Marie stood up and danced, alone, and was much smiled at and praised and applauded. Blackie said after finishing the song, "Well done, the dancer," which made me proud of her indeed, and then on the next song she got someone else to dance with her.


Then a man came up to the front of the room near the band with a broom. I thought that someone had knocked over a drink and he was clearing up, but in fact the broom was his partner: as Foolin' in Doolin did another superfast reel the man did a broom dance. First he lay it flat on the ground and skipped very fast and around over it, his heels clicking like tap shoes, but soon he lifted the broom up higher so he was jumping as well as dancing, faster and faster, like a Russian acrobat, defying gravity and normal space-time limitations, and the bodhrain grew louder and the music whirled upwards, till he — clack — dropped the broom and quick grabbed it up again, an incident for which he later apologized to Marie and said he hadn't danced for years and was out of practice.

Marie asked him to dance and they made a splendid couple on the floor. She quickly learnt some Irish steps, and they got more approval and more space as people shuffled their stools and chairs back, making room. More women got up to join in, and then a few more men, and by the last tune I was up along with Marie and our friends from the hostel and the town, all of us grooving Gaelically in the small spaces between the full tables, with people smiling and taking our picture and then leaning around us to see the musicians. We were getting our Gaelic moves down and about to get a drum to learn on, and everyone in the pub was having a really good time in time to this terrific music. Even if I did then have a few drinks in me that night, and if I myself was still very slow in comparison to the fast music, it was savage crack anyway. Fekkin' savage.

Gillian Kendall is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, which the New York Times Review of Books considered one of the "notable" travel books of 2006. She also edited the anthology Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards. See more at GillianKendall.org

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Related Features:
Finding Old Ireland Alive in Place, Words, and Song by Michael Shapiro
Setting Foot on Celtic Sod by Becky Garrison
Off the Beaten Path with a Wayward Bat, in Florida by Gillian Kendall

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