The Jig Is Up

On the remote west coast of Ireland, Doolin—the epicenter of traditional Irish music—sings the economic blues away.

“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.

Late in the evening, I squeeze onto a stool at a packed McDermott’s Pub and recognize Geraldine MacGowan—one of Doolin’s local heroes and an international trad star—sitting in with the boys. She’s hard to miss, with her head of thick red hair and her wicked smile. She keeps time on the bodhrán and nods greetings to patrons as she plays. Eventually, she takes the microphone and sings a mournful ballad of loss and regret and fear. The locals nod with understanding.

At a break, Dolores Rice, a Dubliner down for the music and banter—the craic—explains, “Instilling fear is a Catholic tradition in Ireland. It’s something we’re very comfortable with. You can almost hear the priest say, ‘You thought you’d get away with your money grab, but the devil gets you in the end. You can’t sin without being punished.’” She looks around the crowded pub. “But we’re happy now, our most fatal certainty has been realized.” The Irish may have stopped going to church in large numbers, but it’s impossible to get the church out of the people.

Outside, a light rain’s begun. I make my way over the stone bridge and past McGann’s Pub. The band inside is slashing into a reel, and I stand under the glow of the lone streetlamp, listening. The music burns to a crescendo and then breaks hard. There’s a moment of absolute silence in the countryside, and then it’s shattered as the crowd inside erupts. In Ireland, the day may have written checks the night can’t cash, but out here in Doolin, on this night at least, the credit’s still good.