The white sign glared from the black asphalt road: “Very Slow.”
It is a sensible warning, for there is no need to hurry in West Ireland. The corridor from Doolin in County Clare to Dingle in County Kerry stirs with scenes of earth, rain, and fire supported by a cast of Irish characters.
I came to Ireland accompanying the Stage Door Canteen, a swing band from Falmouth, Mass., my hometown. Its big-band sound differs from the traditional Irish Celtic music I discovered on Ireland’s Southwest Coast.
Though there was the sound of a roaring fire in the parlor of Moy House, it was a shot of Midleton single malt Irish whiskey that soothed my nerves after driving six hours on the left-hand side of the road from Dublin to the West Coast.
Moy House is a refurbished 1820s private home built of local sea stone and situated on Liscannor Bay, now a Bed and Breakfast set on 15 wooded acres with a river running through it. The welcome letter to guests invites “weather and, time permitting, you may wish to borrow a pair of Wellies and head down our lawn to the Atlantic…”
The “weather permitting” part was a tip off. They say the same thing in Ireland as in New England. “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”
But no matter the time of day, the last weekend of February, is magical in Doolin. It is the place where the best Irish musicians play in the Russell Memorial Weekend that honors the three late Russell brothers, Micho, Pakie, and Gusso, Doolin’s world-class concertina, timber flute and tin whistle players, respectively. Born in the early 1900s, the brothers Russell have left an indelible impression on Irish music.
The weekend celebration is Ireland’s Woodstock. Impromptu jamming takes place in Doolin’s three pubs—O’Connor’s, McDermott’s, and McGann’s. Thankfully, pubs and restaurants are smoke-free these days.
The Guinness flows like water at these establishments, and noisy chatter sounds like some syncopated rhythm after a while. It is constant merriment and mayhem for three straight days and nights. The crowd could be described as affable. People are generally in tune with one another and share the limelight
However, one evening the crowd suddenly became dead silent at O’Connor’s. Local Gerald Shannon began singing a cappella in Irish. All eyes and ears focused on him.
No one sipped a drink; no child stirred during his captivating poetry and storytelling. Gerald’s timbre voice seemed to take his listeners on a journey to their inner path.
Music is Doolin’s lifeblood. Even blustery winds and torrential downpours seem to harmonize. After three days, this coastal village felt like home. With a population less than 1,000, Doolin’s seaside surroundings and the vibes mirrored my village of Woods Hole on Cape Cod in Southeastern Massachusetts. There’s even a ferry service to the Aran Islands, just as there’s one to Martha’s Vineyard not far from my house.
Not surprisingly, I met two locals who had connections or lived in Cape Cod, which made me feel as Celtic as a Cape Codder.
James Cullinan, a Doolin man, once worked as a chef in Falmouth. Now 48, he is proprietor-chef of Cullinan’s Seafood Restaurant and Guest House in Doolin. Whenever possible, he drops the spatula to play his violin at O’Connor’s down the road. A virtuoso fiddle player, Cullinan, and wife Carol, an accomplished pianist, moved to Doolin in 1994 to cook, play, and live in the “very slow” lane.
“Playing music is like cooking. It takes concentration and total commitment,” said Cullinan, who picked up the fiddle at age eight and is self-taught.