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All kinds of things to do in the west of Ireland

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Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

My midsummer meanderings continue...

I'm above in Galway City and it is the start of a new week of the high summer, the streets crowded with tourists and locals alike, buskers busking on most of the corners around Shop Street, the sun shining and everywhere the tingle of that special buzz which never leaves the atmosphere of the famous City of the Tribes.

And I meet Mattie Joe for the first time in nearly 20 years, and not one bit change in him.

I encountered him first when I was doing a story out in his Connemara about salmon poaching using a "stroke haul" which is a very lethal instrument altogether.

It is a triple-hook attached to a length of line and the old poachers used it the way top surgeons use a scalpel.  They let it rest on the bed of the river until a salmon passes nearby and then strike.

Sometimes they do it at night with the aid of a flaming sod of turf, but more often, especially around the city bridges, they do it in broad daylight when there is no baliff around. Then you can identify the likely poachers along the banks of the rivers because they are all wearing expensive sunglasses to give them underwater vision for accuracy.

That style of poaching is cruel in the extreme, but there is some slight mitigation in the fact that it hails back to an era when the fishing rights were owned and enforced by English lords, and there were big families of hungry children at home.

In my Galway years I was told it was common for poachers who had stroke-hauled a big salmon to pass it immediately to a small boy, probably a son, who, if a baliff arrived on the scene, would dart into the great cathedral near the Salmon Weir Bridge and would thereby gain sacred sanctuary from any pursuit!  I never got full proof of that but I'm told that it happened alright.

Anyway, there was an unchanged Mattie Joe on the pavement and I stopped to talk to him. I honestly don't think he remembered me at all, but that did not matter.

For what it is worth he was still wearing an expensive pair of sunglasses under his straw hat! Old habits die hard.

He told me he was nearly 80now but was still looking forward to the Galway Races as if he was 16 years old. It is the best week of the year, he said, and if anything tis getting better.

And I grinned behind my face when he said that because, if he did not remember me, he would not have known I clearly recalled talking to him about the craic of the Galway Races all those years ago.

And the fact of the matter is, like many Galwegians, especially from Connemara, he told me back then that he never attended the races in Ballybrit in his life. Thousands enjoy the races by relishing the life and buzz and excitement in the city itself, miles away from the track on the outskirts!

That has always been as much a reality as the fact that other thousands of natives deliberately select race week to get out of Galway for their annual holidays. It is one of the busiest weeks of the year for travel agents.
I'm in the warm Clare village of Feakle on a Saturday night for a singsong. Feakle was the birthplace of the legendary Clare witch Biddy Earley and of the international songwriting clown Johnny Patterson ("The Stone Outside Dan Murphy's Door"), and it is a mighty place to spend a night.

It is said there are more musicians in Feakle than anywhere else in Ireland, but on this night there is not one of them in action.

That is because it is a night reserved for ballad singers in Lena's fabled pub, now operated by the lively Ger Shortt, and every tonsil in town is there.

I've often thought that were I a traditional musician I would hate the sight of a ballad singer.  That is because the great musicians put all their skills and arts into playing hours of sessions, fiddles, accordions, flutes, pipes in ritual unison on great tunes.

And half the time, especially after the first hour, only a small corps of purists are listening to them. The rest of the gathering often relegates the mighty music to background status muzack whilst they talk and drink away.

But then somebody is called upon to sing a song and always a total hush falls on the company.  The singer can have the voice of a crow turning over the endless verses of an obscure ballad, but by God he will always have everybody listening intently.

It is one of the great mysteries of pub sessions. It always happens. That's why if I were a maestro musician like, for example, local Martin Hayes the fiddler, I would not be fond of any ballad singer.

In Lena's Bar, though, not a musician in sight on the night (their night is Thursday) but a song from about everybody in the house, including the fear a ti (landlord) himself.

Ballads from men and women, old and young, from pensioners to teenagers, from locals and strangers, and you could hear a pin drop all the hours of the night. Unique and hugely enjoyable.

I think it happens on the first Saturday night of every month and, if you have a ballad or ditty in your throat at all, you'd enjoy it to the last verse. I did.

I'm at home in the cottage, sitting in the garden among the roses, and a neighbor who operates a B&B delivers a letter to me by hand.  One of Mr. Fleming's guests is from Oregon but bears the absolutely enchanting name of Montana Detweiler.

Her grandmother is Yvonne Detweiler, resides in upstate New York, and is a very faithful reader of this column down the years and loves the entire Irish Voice. Montana asked me to create an autograph for her grandma and leave it in the Honk for subsequent collection by her at the end of her vacation.

Highly delighted, because the last time I was asked for an autograph was about 10 years ago, I'm delivering the autograph to the Honk in about three hours when the orange twilight slowly dims. In the meantime I'm dedicating these meanderings to Yvonne her own self.

And the autograph will eventually arrive with her, I'm sure, in another meandering mode via Oregon and Montana...

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