To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we invited readers to pitch us ideas, and we sent five of them on assignment. This writer and her husband traveled to Ireland for a musical pub crawl.
About the author
Irene Williams, 37, is a PR executive in Nashville. JP Williams, 32, is a singer and guitarist who has performed at the Kennedy Center and at colleges all over the U.S. (Irene sometimes sings backup at his shows.) "I met my husband when he played guitar on a demo of a song I'd written. Now married for a year and a half, we call ourselves the Blonde Leading the Blind. Because music brought us together, we'd love to take a trip in the Irish countryside where the pubs come alive with music nightly. You'd be amazed by how a blind man experiences things—it's all about the sounds, flavors, and scents."
Our pub crawl in Ireland begins in Westport, a town in County Mayo on the west coast. JP and I have come to Ireland in search of live music, and Westport, so we've read, has some of the best. In fact, one of the pubs in the town is owned by Matt Malloy of the Chieftains, a renowned Irish band.
Excited to finally be in Ireland after a long day of travel, we drop our bags at McCarthy's Guesthouse and head straight to Matt Malloy's. Outside, the street is quiet, and we start to wonder if the place is even open. It is a weeknight in mid-January, after all.
But when we open the door, a swell of music and conversation overwhelms us. Malloy himself is in the pub that night, working the crowd like a regular. After listening to the band play a mix of traditional Celtic songs and contemporary numbers—including Steve Earle's "The Galway Girl"—we make our way over to Malloy. He knows quite a bit about Nashville, and we trade notes on our favorite venues. I have trouble hearing him over the din of the party—the laughter of the people around me and the beating of all the musicians' feet on the old oak floors.
The next morning, after an Irish breakfast of eggs, bacon, and black pudding, we take a leisurely drive to the village of Leenane. Since we wanted to be able to wander on our trip, we bought a package from Brian Moore International Tours that covers six nights' accommodations at inns and B&Bs, and a rental car (800/982-2299, bmit.com, $490 per person). I have to be the driver and navigator, so I recorded myself reading directions before we left, and JP plays them back on a tape recorder as I drive.
We travel through a stunning valley filled with abbey ruins, thatched-roof cottages, and ancient cemeteries. As we start on our way back toward Westport, I spot our first Irish rainbow. I describe it all for JP, who says he has to adjust to hearing my voice come from the right side of the car instead of the left.
JP takes the stage the following night at McCarthy's Bar, a gig he booked before our trip. The pub is owned by the same people who run our guesthouse and is right next door—a highly convenient setup. The crowd loves JP's music and gives him a rousing reception, and I spend half the evening scribbling "jpwilliams.net" on cocktail napkins. Throughout the musical seisiún (Gaelic for "session"), JP trades the mic with local musician Gerry Carroll, who plays acoustic guitar and sings his own songs. When Gerry ends the night with a Gaelic rendition of Ireland's national anthem, everyone puts down their pints, stands up, and joins in—including the only two Yanks in the crowd.
Our next stop down the coast is Galway, Ireland's third-largest city and home to a major university. The drive only takes about an hour and a half. We tackle road trips in bite-size portions since I'm the sole driver and JP can't savor the scenery. After checking in at Almara House, a B&B owned by an engaging couple named Marie and Matthew Kiernan, we stroll around the city. JP finds the pace of the city invigorating, and I enjoy the shopping and people-watching. I'm keeping such a keen eye on everyone, I even spot a celebrity—Will Ferrell! JP is floored by the chance encounter with one of his favorite actors. He can't stop talking about it for the rest of the day.
That night, at a small bar called Tig Coili, we catch a show of rollicking Gaelic tunes played by a group of musicians on accordion, fiddle, squeezebox, banjo, and bouzouki (a mandolin-like instrument shaped like a halved avocado). The pub is packed with students back from holiday break, and a man offers his seat to JP. We thank him with a pint of Guinness, and he says the gratitude is unnecessary, as "such actions are common in Ireland." The Irish generally are quick to take note of JP's blindness and offer subtle accommodations. We find it refreshing.
Following the recommendation of a fiddler we met in Westport, we head to Limerick to check out a pub called Dolan's. Next to the fireplace in the band's corner, JP and I dine on delicious chowder and enjoy several sets of the band's improvised Irish melodies—one song segueing seamlessly into the next. The musicians ask us to join in, and when the pub closes, a Delta flight crew on a layover invites all of us to continue the show back at their hotel. We jam in a conference room just off the lobby until 2 a.m., when the manager shushes us like a schoolmarm. JP and I quietly trade hugs and e-mail addresses with our new friends before turning in for the night.
Our trip is winding down, and we make our way to Shannon, just outside Limerick, and stop at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. JP is fascinated by the tour of the 15th-century castle. He experiences it in a very different way than I do, feeling the cold stone walls with his hands, maneuvering along narrow stairwells, and calling out so he can hear his voice echo in the grand halls. We nearly bypass Durty Nelly's, a pub beside the castle, because some of the musicians we met said it's touristy. But we step in anyway—and I'm thrilled. The tight quarters are bursting with big-band and Irish ditties, and the locals (and a few tourists) are singing at the top of their lungs.
After the barkeep announces that it's last call, the piano player, who has performed at Durty Nelly's for 46 years now, lingers to tell jokes and laugh with the crowd. Out of nowhere, an a cappella seisiún begins. A young woman sings a mournful tune about a lover lost at sea, followed by an older man's baritone tribute to County Donegal. The crowd then invites JP and me to share a few of our own songs, backed only by the swishing sound of the barkeep sweeping the floor. It's a sweet decrescendo to our trip.
Quay St., Westport, 011-353/98-27-050, mccarthyslodge.com, from $110
2 Merlin Gate, Dublin Rd., Galway, 011-353/91-755-345, almarahouse.com, from $124
N18 Limerick-Ennis Rd., Bunratty, 011-353/61-360-788, tour $23
Bridge St., Westport, 011-353/98-26-655, mattmalloy.com
Mainguard St., Galway, 011-353/91-561-294
3-4 Dock Rd., Limerick, 011-353/61-314-483, dolanspub.com
N18 Limerick-Ennis Rd., Bunratty, 011-353/61-364-861, durtynellys.ie