Ceol: living music history
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
November 2000

When I'm in Ireland, I spend as much time as I can in pubs.

Yes, I'm there for the pints -- the Guinness and Smithwicks particularly -- as much as the next man at the bar, but the whole thing which makes Irish pubs better than their American counterparts (besides a better class of potables, of course) is the music.

On my most recent visit to that fairest green isle, I passed a pleasant weekend in Dublin. The bulk of that time was delightfully spent in some of the Temple Bar pubs, where traditional music still fills the rooms to overflowing with people -- people who dance, drink, smoke and give the music and musicians their due. (Special greetings to the Norseman and to Oliver St. John Gogarty's, where I found mighty craic on a few occasions.)

That Sunday afternoon, after doing a few touristy things like visiting Dublin Castle, learning local history at Dublinia and paying my respects at the GPO, I debated the wisdom of hiking another mile, across the Liffey at Grafton Street to Smithfield Village. One lure there was the Jameson Distillery. But the hook that got me to go was Ceol, the Traditional Irish Music Center. I didn't know what to expect there -- I feared it might be little more than a glorified CD store with a few minor exhibits. Boy, were those fears unfounded.

Ceol (Gaelic for "music") is a fascinating look at the roots and development of Irish music. Not only is the placed packed with information and fascinating cultural and historical tidbits -- it's got buckets of personality to boot.

The designers also had a wicked sense of presentation, making my too-few hours at Ceol a true delight.

The experience begins in the Coat Room -- literally a circular room lined with stiffened coats and a few attentive statues watching as various music performances are projected on the walls. It's a simple introduction to the museum and it cleverly sets the mood for things to come.

The next room is dominated by kiosks with interactive computer stations. It sounds frightfully educational -- and it is -- but it's also fun and self-directed. You take the time you need to learn about the aspects of Irish music that interest you the most. It's also the barest hint of the interactive, multimedia experience yet to come.

The next room is called Stories, and I could easily have lingered there longer than I did. You sit and listen to recorded voice tracks, old-timers recollecting the old pre-CD days when people gathered for live music in kitchens and at crossroads, as well as remembering the experience of hearing the old tunes recorded for the first time on 78-rpm vinyl records and the incursion of radio programs and gramophones into Irish culture.

The love of the music flows through their words -- it's an enlightening series of tales. If you have trouble understanding their thick accents, don't worry. The text is projected on the wall for easy reading.

Next is Instruments, literally a room with traditional instruments artfully displayed, just in case you're not familiar with the fiddle, whistle, uilleann pipes and other Irish music standbys.

It was in the Songs section that the center really starts to show its stuff. The first portion provides more interactive kiosks, this time allowing users to choose songs by style or region. Small video versions of various singers performing the appropriate music bring the examples to life in a way no dry list or recitation could ever do.

Even better is the next room, with a circle of life-sized metal sculptures representing the members of a music circle. The head of each is a video monitor and, with a little imagination, you soon feel like you're sitting in on a real session of songs.

There's also a hands-on area for children, which helps keep the nippers occupied while you're exploring the other exhibits.

Then it's upstairs for a series of displays devoted to stepdancing, a debate on innovation vs. pure tradition in Irish music circles, a record of the people who "collected" Irish music in time to preserve it and, finally, a massive screen presentation of performers on their home turf doing what they do best.

All in all, a trip through Ceol is several hours well spent for any Irish music enthusiast. Kudos to the designers for creating an amazing, entertaining and intensely educational presentation.

If a trip to Dublin's Smithfield Village isn't in your immediate future, you can sample the site from afar via the Internet. Take a look at Ceol online for a hint of the musical delights in store. The Visitor's Guide provides details of the museum's interactive layout -- it may be just enough to encourage you to plan that long overdue vacation abroad.

[ by Tom Knapp ]