The Mecca of Irish Trad

The eaves are arched, the windows stained-glass, the music spills out over the congregation from a balconied stage.  The allusions to church architecture inside The Quays in Galway are obvious.  Like a cathedral, there are aisles and corridors, rooms off to the sides, doorways that lead to spaces for quieter reflection.  The main altar was a long, two bartender bar.  The shorter bar near the doorway, presided over by an older man in less of a rush, was the confessional.  We sat at a table for a meal and two pints.   Boiled bacon, cold cod mash, a beer and a cider.  "Is there live music tonight?"  A tall young American asked the front room bartender who gave a look that read 'of course' and simply said, "you'd better go back there if you want a good place for it."  We followed the overheard advice and resettled ourselves in the main space which proceeded to fill up around us.  It was heaving by the time Prospect Hill began their set.
Every night of the week, you can count on live traditional music at at least a handful of Galway's pubs. The Crane, on the West bank of the river, away from the concentration of central pubs, promises nightly live music in their upstairs bar. We sat at stools downstairs, across from an inebriated old man who was passionately schooling a young stranger about politics. We figured, when we saw people walk in with instruments, we'd know to follow them upstairs. One after another, customers came in.  Cold hands deep in their pockets, they would approach the bar and ask for a Guinness before the door had closed completely behind them. We drank and waited and then suddenly, a lively reel broke through the room. The corner booth's coffee drinkers had gone into superman's phone booth and transformed into a superband without even standing up.  The crowd continued to talk, but were sure to clap and hoot at the end of each set of reels.  A round of applause, the next round of drinks.
During the day, music fills the streets.  Buskers are planted around each corner with open guitar cases sparsely covered in a confetti of coins.  They close up and move under an awning during the bouts of rain, having a coffee, staying dry. Then, they're right back out again in their spot. Or a new one.  Their routines were anything but monotonous. The day after we saw the "MacNamaras Band" (above), Santa had ditched his accordion, Elvis and the O'Bamas, and picked up an electric banjo and amp in another spot. You'd see a guitarist alone one day and with a group of guys another, like the streets were filled with a single band that disassembled and reassembled at their whim. One big jam session.
"Trad," as traditional music is colloquially called, is the pervading sound of Galway.  Street musicians may blend it with acoustic pop or soft rock, but the roots are unmistakable.  The young members of Prospect Hill's set gave us an hour long primer in Irish trad, and hooked us in to searching out more. The vocalist put down her banjo for a sean-nós ('in the old style') song, sung in a high Irish-language chant style. When they threw in a more contemporary sounding folk tune, the lyrics were a lamentation in the tradition of caoineadh songs of sorrow. Of course, traditional Irish music has always been made for dancing and the reels were the main focus of the night. Reels are fast-paced tunes in the vein of a jig or polka or waltz, a repetition of measures with a set meter.   In tow were the Reel Masters, a step-dancing duo who brought down the house, jumping over brooms, stomping and twirling along to the banjo, accordion, mandolin, guitar and bodhrán (a traditional Irish drum).
Live music in Galway has a specific feel to it, a dynamic between musician and audience that doesn't really match up with anything I've experienced before.   It's more fluid, like out from any crowd can emerge a musician who, after his or her set, blends right back in with a Guinness in hand. Sometimes, a scheduled set would start without us knowing immediately where the string-plucking was coming from.  Then, in the corner we'd spot a duo whose hands worked feverishly across strings.  Sometimes the crowd would quiet down, stand at attention, clap afterwards.   Other times, the din would only get louder as voices struggled to be heard over the tunes.  We could never really tell which way things would go, but everyone else knew whatever the local code was.
If the musicians indoors competed with conversation, the ones outdoors had a tougher opponent. Rain. The street musicians are as much a part of the outdoor atmosphere as the infamous Galway rain and the two forces often jostled for attention, taking turns silencing each other. Or maybe just giving each other a rest. A short, heavy rainfall acted as a curtain and the performers would pack up and hurry offstage (and into a pub or under or awning). Then, the curtain would rise again and the sun would cast its spotlight on the performance once more.  Showtime.
In Galway, live music is a centerpiece and a soundtrack. In the forefront or in the background, it is always around. No one complains when a soccer match is turned off because a set is about to begin. Guitar cases are strung across backs at the rate of messenger bags. That woman sitting next to you with a tea or that man whose had a few too many Smithwicks may be the headliner. On Halloween night, two bouncers stood outside The King's Head and college kids piled through the door in droves. Inside, a man in a turtleneck played pop/rock under neon lights. It was far from traditional folk music, but it also wasn't the DJ set I'd expected by looking at the crowd. Maybe if it had been trad, the act would have had an easier time getting people's attentions. Maybe not.

A compilation video of some of the trad sessions we enjoyed in Galway - with a conclusion that would make Michael Flatley sweat.
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