“It’s the worst we’ve seen in our lifetime. And there’s absolutely no hope for the future,” my mother-in-law told me recently. “Everyone is frightened, we just don’t know where to turn.” She was, of course, referring to the great Irish economic meltdown, now firmly entrenched in its third year. Her tremulous voice was thick with the famous Irish doom and gloom, but there was truth in her words.
In the ’90s and early ’00s, double-digit economic growth made Ireland the European Union’s poster child for success. Dublin exploded from a sleepy backwater to a city boasting some of the most expensive real estate in Europe. And then it all ended. To quote a friend, “The party’s over and the hangover is feckin’ brutal.” My own home in the city lost half its value, seemingly overnight. But Ireland is more than just Dublin, and out in the picture-postcard west, where the rising tide never raised all boats, rural life was, and remains, dependent on the harvest and livestock. And so I decided to head out and see just how the recession was weighing on the Irish spirit far from the city lights.
Slideshow: Andrew McCarthy describes Doolin’s otherworldly landscape and music scene (Photos by Seamus Murphy)
I first arrived in Doolin, in County Clare, 25 years ago. A village of several hundred, strewn over a few miles on one main road, Doolin unfolds along a winding track that rises over a stone bridge, runs past two of the three pubs that anchor the town, dips into a swale, climbs over another bridge, works itself up a hill past a few shops and Gus O’Connor’s Pub, and then rolls down to the sea, where ferries ply the route to the Aran Islands. To the south, the coastline rises up into the Cliffs of Moher, 700 sheer feet of splendor above the Atlantic. Whitewashed houses with thatched roofs oversee sheep grazing across deep-green fields enclosed by crumbling stone walls that have stood for centuries. You can practically hear them singing “How are things in Glocca Morra?”—except that in Doolin, you’re more likely to catch the sounds of searing fiddles, rising flutes, and thumping bodhrán drums. The village has long been the epicenter of the traditional Irish music scene, and thanks largely to the success of Riverdance more than a decade ago, “trad” music is in the midst of a renaissance. On most every night, in any of Doolin’s three pubs, young musicians sit in, side by side with old, tearing into reels, jigs, and laments. The music may not have exempted Doolin from the recession, but it’s kept the place buzzing. “The people are still out and about, they’re just spending a lot less,” Orla McGovern tells me from behind the counter of her aptly named Traditional Music Shop on Fisher Street.