Tag Archives: Galway

Irish Music Served Here

Follow the piper to the best trad music pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. ©Marcie Miller

Follow the piper to the best trad music pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. ©Marcie Miller

Hostels are like crossroads where travelers meet, exchanging tips and information which often lead one to change one’s travel plans and head off in a new direction. Galway wasn’t originally in my travel plans, but then, neither was Inishmore. But if I hadn’t stayed at the Kilronan hostel on Inishmore I wouldn’t have met Rachel, who told me about the Galway Sessions, a weeklong extravaganza of  music going on throughout Galway. So I shortened my island stay and hopped on the ferry, bound for the mainland.

I was happy to see that many musical events were taking place at my favorite pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. Most of the pubs in Galway are heavily touristed, but the Crane is still enough off the beaten path to actually be patronized by locals. It’s also difficult to find—as I told one friend, you almost have to be lost to find it. But when you have wandered down the labyrinthine streets of Galway for what seems like hours, the sight of a full-sized Irish whistle player painted on the side of a bright green and white building tells you you’ve found the home of real Irish music.

Unlike the pubs in Doolin, you won’t find a horde of cameras and smart phones fixed on the musicians, with flashes going off at random. I did take a few pictures, but sans flash they aren’t very good. It’s best just to sit back and be in the moment.

The Crane has not one but two levels, both with full bar, both offering live music most nights of the week. When I arrived on Friday night I headed to the upstairs bar, where the audience was awaiting the Northern Irish band, Beoga (Irish for ‘lively’). The pony-tailed bartender was pouring Guinness non-stop, with a few simple mixed drinks and lagers on the side.

A stage lines one wall, with low tables and stools crowded right up to the edge. Even though it’s a small space, it has excellent acoustics and a sound system. I talked to the sound engineer, who said the Crane was the best place for live music in Galway, with phenomenal acoustics for a small room. And unlike the rowdy pubs on Shop Street where the music is just a backdrop for drinking, people come to the Crane to listen. In fact they have christened the upstairs bar “The Listening Room.”

Also unlike many pubs now in Ireland, the Crane doesn’t serve food. I heard a tourist ask if they had food, to which the bartender replied, “No, this is a bar.” Ha! They do serve peanuts though.

I found a stool at the end of the bar and signaled for a Guinness. I watched as the bartender poured the perfect pint—fill it slowly to within two inches of the top (just to the harp logo), let it sit one minute to settle, then slowly top it off, leaving a one inch creamy foam head. Once it’s served you have to wait another minute while it stops roiling and comes to its inky black state of perfection.

I sat there quietly sipping my beer and waiting for the music to start, but when I finally said something to the older Irish  gentleman seated next to me he looked surprised, then said, “I thought you were Irish!” Compliment taken. I’ve never seen a solo Irish woman in a bar, and they don’t usually order pints—it’s not considered ladylike. Instead they order by the “glass,” which is a diminutive half pint.

Clandestine smart phone shot of Beoga at the Crane Bar, Galway. ©Marcie Miller

Clandestine smart phone shot of Beoga at the Crane Bar, Galway. ©Marcie Miller

The walls of the Crane are lined with photos of the Irish musicians who have played there, legends in their profession but practically unknown outside of Ireland. I wondered if the band of young musicians taking the stage felt their presence. The band made their own history that night, playing a mix of traditional tunes, new songs and adaptations. Lead singer Niamh Dunne has that winning combination of great voice, killer fiddle playing and cute as a button. Bodhran (Irish drum) player Eamon Murray brought down the house with the penultimate number – a long, long drum solo that would have made Steppenwolf proud. By the end everyone in the room was whooping, whistling and clapping as hard as they could. The energy seemed both condensed and magnified by the small room. It was a night to remember, or, just another night at the Crane.

I took a break Saturday, but spent most of Sunday at the bar, with the set trad session in the afternoon and a Galway Session-ending evening concert by Rue de Canal. No, that doesn’t sound very Irish—the band is a blend of  music by Belgian accordionist Serge Desunnay and Irish musicians Kieran Fahy and Ray Barron. The band really brought home how much Celtic music has influenced, and been influenced by, other cultures. Those Celts got around.

And no, I’m not giving you directions to the Crane Bar. You’ll just have to discover it for yourself.

 

 

A Farewell to Inishmore

 

Teampall Bheanain, the 11th century church of St. Benan, sits on a high hill overlooking Inishmore. ©Marcie Miller

Teampall Bheanain, the 11th century church of St. Benan, sits on a high hill overlooking Inishmore. ©Marcie Miller

As I stood at the stern of the ferry, watching Inishmore receding in the wake, I was glad that I had spent time here and gotten to know it a little better. But as my hand closed around the small gray beach stone in my pocket, I felt that I had only scratched the surface—and I already longed to return.

Like most tourists, my first trip to the Aran Islands 10 years ago consisted of taking the shuttle bus from Galway to catch the ferry over for a day trip. Tour vans driven by out-of-work fisherman or farmers meet the disembarking day tourists, all hawking tours around the island. Horse drawn carts and bicycles are also an option. Although, with bicycles for rent seeming to outnumber the tourists 10 to 1, I imagine that if all the bikes were rented in one day the island would look like Bejing at rush hour. Fortunately that is not the case.

I don't know why they need this much verbage on a speed limit sign...

I don’t know why they need this much verbage on a speed limit sign…

This visit I gave myself the luxury of an entire week. Long enough, I thought, to really explore Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands. In Irish, Inis Mór just means “Island Big.” Not highly original, but descriptive. The other two islands are Inishmaan (Middle Island) and Inisheer (you guessed it, Small Island).

The Aran Islands are a gaeltacht, as mentioned before, an area where Irish is the primary language. Hearing the locals casually talking in Irish really makes it feel like a foreign country (but it makes eavesdropping impossible).

The islands can be reached either by the bus/ferry combination from Galway, or by a smaller ferry from Doolin, weather permitting. After a blustery weekend I was fortunate that the seas calmed and I was able to take the boat from Doolin. The hour-and-a-half trip affords beautiful views of the smaller islands as well as the coast along Galway Bay. Fans of the BBC comedy series, Father Ted, will recognize Inisheer as “Craggy Island,” with its iconic, rusty freighter washed up on the rocks.

Does he dream of greener, less rocky pastures? ©Marcie Miller

Does he dream of greener, less rocky pastures? ©Marcie Miller

The islands are an extension of the Burren in County Clare, a lunar landscape of karst limestone, scoured by glaciers to create fissures and deep gouges called “grykes,” with little vegetation.  It’s been said that all the fields on the Aran Islands were made by hauling in seaweed and animal manure, but I think that might be an exaggeration, as there is soil where obviously no one has cultivated. The islands are iconic for the miles of stone walls which divide them into a patchwork of small pastures, each farmer doing what he can to make the best of the rocky ground.

A single, round granite boulder in a sea of limestone block walls. I'd love to know the story here. ©Marcie Miller

A single, round granite boulder in a sea of limestone block walls. I’d love to know the story here. ©Marcie Miller

Island by bike

After landing on Inishmore I checked into the Kilronan Hostel, a large building right on the harbor, and went off to rent a bike. I decided I wanted to explore the island at my own pace and have the freedom to really get off the tourist trail.

The island is hilly, but rental bikes are at least 18-speeds, so it wasn’t that difficult, even for someone who is incredibly out of shape (cough). I headed north, as the bike renter suggested, cruising along the beautiful coast road on the east side of the island (facing the mainland). Fortunately the rains of the weekend had passed on and the weather was bright and beautiful. No one does blue skies and puffy white clouds better than Ireland.

The view from Dun Eoghanachta. ©Marcie Miller

The view from Dun Eoghanachta. ©Marcie Miller

I turned up a narrow gravel lane with a sign pointing to Dun Eoghanachta (pronounced Onachta), a ring fort set on a hill with a commanding view.  The lane quickly gave out, and I ditched my bike to walk up the last quarter mile or so. The fort is mostly intact, a large circle with high, thick walls and the remains of several stone buildings inside. I climbed up the stone steps to sit on top of the wide wall, admiring the view and enjoying the solitude. From there I could see a couple winding their way up the trail. As they reached the fort they made a beeline for my exact position, climbed the stone steps right in front of me (although there were at least four other sets of steps), sat down not 10 feet away—and started smoking. I handed her my camera and asked her to take my picture, then departed.

As the bike wasn’t due back until the next day, the following morning I headed to the other end of the island to check out Dun Dubhchathair (Black Fort), a ring fort perched on the cliffs along the Atlantic coast. The most popular ring fort on Inishmore is Dun Aonghusa (Angus), which has been developed into a major tourist attraction. It is impressive, with a semi-circular front facing the island, and a back side that is a high cliff. I had been there before, and wanted to see the lesser-visited Black Fort. It did not disappoint.

Almost there - Dun Dubchathair in the distance. ©Marcie Miller

Almost there – Dun Dubchathair in the distance. ©Marcie Miller

Again I rode my bike as far as I could, then ditched it to walk the rest of the way, over the crest of the island. The fort was visible in the distance, but required picking my way over the barren limestone landscape and through several stone walls to get there. These large stone forts were built by the Celts and date to the 5th century. As I stood in the silence, with only the wind whistling through the stone walls, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived there. They would have seen the same waves crashing against the sheer rock walls far below, the same expanses of stone stretching to the horizon, the same type of sea birds wheeling overhead. This time my solitude was not broken by company.

Like Dun Aonghasa, Black Fort backs up to the Atlantic cliffs. ©Marcie Miller

Like Dun Aonghasa, Black Fort backs up to the Atlantic cliffs. ©Marcie Miller

I spent another day exploring the south end of the island before the weather deteriorated into rain and wind. The hostel was not very comfortable, with no place to sit and write and very limited internet access, so I decided to move on to Galway for the weekend. Now, as I walk the crowded streets of Galway, it comforts me to hold that small piece of limestone in my pocket and think of Inishmore.

 

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