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Moving memories of special times, past and present

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I'm trying to write this in Maisie's cottage garden in the afternoon of the warmest and brightest day of our summer, a genuine heat wave such as you have over there in some states.

All around me rosebuds are bursting open with red and orange and even yellow new life, and the new pup called Pepper is assaulting my left sandal with total ferocity and the tears are rolling down my face because, through the cottage door off the CD player comes the singing voice of my father Sandy, dead and buried since the early seventies but surviving still through the miracle of an audio captured by Robin Morton about six months before Sandy went away to heaven.

Forgive me for the tears, of joy as much as recalled sorrow, but it is deeply moving to hear the singing of a gentle ghost.

Enough of that. Just back from my jaunt to Kinsale, I was plunged last night into the liveliest event of all of the currently flourishing Gathering tourism initiative this year.

I was dismissive of The Gathering idea when it was floated first last year, but I now confess that I was wrong. It is a dramatic success, and my evening in Miltown Malbay with brother Cathal last night proved the point in a million notes of music and thousands of smiling sunburned faces.

The annual gathering of our musicians in the West Clare town is officially called the Willie Clancy Summer School in honor of the famous local piper, but in common parlance, in Clare and elsewhere, it is known simply as Willie Week.

Musicians and their friends come from all over the world to play and to listen and to hone their skills in the many workshops that exist to transfer our mother lode of music from one generation to the next. It was always special and it is very special now in a time of economic doom and gloom.

And, in the midst of the sunshine, in the heart of the town, let me tell ye about an amazing snowy shower which I observed at the bank corner in the heart of the town.

At the high political and business level on the other coast the airwaves are humming with troubles such as those revealed by the drip-drip release of the appalling Anglo tapes of the bankers, humming too with the political troubles created by the creation of new legislation aimed at solving ethical problems relating to abortion in Ireland, and the statistics coldly reveal we are still in recession.

But the surreal snowstorm at the bank corner reveals to me exactly how the merry people of rural Ireland are reacting in their guts.

The little snowstorm is created by the receipts flowing from the ATM machine on the wall of the bank. Paddy and Tommy and Bridget are withdrawing cash from their accounts to fund the fun of the evening. Seems like nobody is bothering to pick up their fluttering white receipts.

I scan a dozen or more of them during a break at the ATM and none of them are for less than €100, most for €200 and €300.

Recession huh! 

There are many harsh facets to it, such as unemployment and emigration, and we hear daily and hourly about those, but that little run on the bank, music and song in the background, three beautiful young girl fiddlers playing on a shop windowsill a few yards away, testifies to the kind of hardy resilience which, for sure, is bringing us through.

And which, again according to the travel agents' statistics, is now flooding the island with the visitors of The Gathering project.

Incredibly I meet an old Donegal friend in the Central Hotel -- still at the heart of the Willie Week -- and do ye know what he tells me?

He informs my sunny face that there are even Gathering events in Purgatory this summer!

No, I have not lost my wits entirely. The Purgatory he is referring to is the centuries old St. Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg near the village of Pettigo.

It's core pilgrimage ritual is the harshest in the Catholic world. I've endured it as a boy and young man and can vouch for that.

You spend three barefoot starving and sleepless days walking around the sharply stony beds, praying the while, and you are eaten alive by swarms of midges.

My friend tells me that Lough Derg this summer is also staging special Gathering events. Incredibly to me pilgrims of all classes and creeds are being welcomed on to the onetime totally Catholic island for one-day programs of spiritual exercises and reconciliation, even with food and music!

I swear before you all that I will go to Purgatory before this summer is over, not for the abbreviated rituals but for the harsh old barefoot ritual, and I will report back here if I survive.

Down all these years I still remember the pure joy and sensual satisfaction of putting your shoes and socks back on over your battered and bruised soles when it was time to leave on the third day. And dammit you still had to fast until after midnight after leaving.

But your fellow pilgrims back then were the salt of the Irish earth, and there was also great craic over the black tea and toast which kept you alive during your suffering. Yes, I will go back soon.

Sandy is still singing in the background (he sounds like brother Mickey sings nowadays), and I have also to tell ye that Kinsale is really special for a visit.

It is a beautiful upmarket town and port, of course, a gourmet paradise as well, beautiful beaches populated by hardy kite-surfers.  There is a strong Spanish influence, mainly from the galleons of history that foundered in the offshore waters.

There is a natural bias, I suppose, towards fishpots rather than fleshpots in the bistros and bars that we sampled, and they were all excellent.

I especially enjoyed the atmosphere of one establishment called the Spaniard where the waitress was not just highly efficient but also extremely and sharply witty.

Jason's house was close to the beach and, in another index to the difference between the coastal offerings of south and west I was pleased to see that you could purchase splendid crepes from one of the mobile stands rather than just the routine burgers and chips.

A nice touch that, and the vendor was doing a roaring trade as the bright kites illuminated the skies over the waves below.

Cathal is anxious to immerse himself in a session somewhere among the scores of sessions that stretch all the way through every pub in town during Willie Week.

Promising to come back with brother Sean before the end of the week, we reluctantly part and I make my way home through the wonderland that is the west in summer.

Somewhere near Connolly village, a long lovely vixen flows across the road in front of me, pure poetry in motion, another icon of the special time that is in it. Long may it endure.

And Sandy begins to sing again.

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