Hailing from the music capital of the States, I really didn't expect to find the same sort of scene in Ireland. After all, at home, there's a concert every night of the week, whether it's at a big downtown hall that seats thousands, or a basement venue where there's standing room if you're lucky – and even then, only for a few dozen people, with a limited sense of personal space.
But Ireland's music scene is as robust as anything I've ever seen. It was one of the most surprising things about the country, for me, and also one of the most enchanting. I can't walk anywhere in Cork's downtown without coming across someone on a keyboard, or a guitar, or a set of pipes. They're singing for tips, I know – but also for the craic of open-air performance, and for the love which the Irish bear their music.
Don't believe me? Walk around the city some afternoon. You can't get away from the music, and I mean that in the best way. (Was anyone else around for the Cork Guinness Jazz Festival, by the way? The city was practically a New Orleans model of competing musicians, one stationed on every corner. It was gorgeous.)
Best of all: there's mad talent here. There really is. I've walked into a pub which advertises “traditional music” with some private reservations, wondering if I should seek out somewhere quieter – and walked out vowing to buy the performer's CD online. One girl in Galway who writes and performs her own music (Katie O' Connor: look her up!) had me wishing that I'd taken up guitar, although I also knew I wouldn't hold a candle to her.
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But it's not just a few elite performers. Everyone in the country appears to have a brilliant musical flair. I don't know what it is, but the Emerald Isle seems to have more than her fair share of talented artists.
I've heard street guitarists plucking out requests, any song you could think of, here in Cork. I've heard an amazing duo – electric fiddle and drums – play céilí music for hours, without rest or restorative, in Cahersiveen. I've heard a trio in Belfast do an amazing rendition of “Galway Girl” that was literally stuck in my head for a week. Most famously, I've been kept awake by a crowd of people in the streets of Galway singing “American Pie” with a solo guitar player until four in the morning (yes, it's a favorite story of mine already).
A defining moment of the trend, for me, was stumbling across my peers on a weekend away. Six guys were sitting in a semicircle with guitars, whaling out “Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons in perfect harmony. A knot of about sixty college students were sitting around them belting along, pints in hand.
For me, that moment embodies Ireland – and it’s one of the characteristics of the Irish which I'll miss most when I leave.