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.
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.