Doolin for music
A rambling by Tom Knapp

Doolin is a mecca for traditional Irish music. The small town on the west coast of Co. Clare isn't a thriving metropolis like Dublin or Galway -- its claims to fame are its proximity to the Cliffs of Moher and its ferry access to the Arran Islands. And for those in the know, it's the place to hoist a few pints in pursuit of great craic.

The town boasts only a small string of shops, three hostels and countless B&Bs. More important are the three pubs: O'Connor's, McGann's and McDermott's.

McDermott's is the youngest of the three, and I'm convinced it was built in part to lure tourists away from the other two. Yes, the big sign on the outside wall advertising live music does catch the eye, and the menu is a tempting draw -- McDermott's in my book has the best food in town. But the music seems more staged (perhaps, in part, because the musicians perform on a stage instead of cramming into a booth or corner somplace, as is the norm).

McGann's, just a short toss from McDermott's, always seems to have great instrumental jams. When I'm in Doolin, it's the first place I'll go in the evening because I know I'll be satisfied. O'Connor's, on the other hand, is always a question mark. Located on the far end of Doolin, close to the pier, O'Connor's can at times be dishearteningly blah. But when things get going there, it has the mightiest craic of all.

Although I'd been to Ireland four times previously, I'd never before taken my fiddle along for the trip. Lugging it through an airport is a pain and the potential for damage is great. But this time, in 2001, I decided to risk it.


I went first to McDermott's for dinner, where I was flattered to be recognized by a man who waited with me in line for a rental car at Shannon earlier that day. Since the wait was more than 90 minutes, I passed some of the time fiddling a few tunes -- and now, hours later and miles away, I found someone who said I brought a few smiles to an otherwise frustrating wait.

After retrieving my fiddle from the car, I strolled down to McGann's, where I found a fiddler, guitarist and accordion/squeezebox player at work in the corner. I tucked my fiddle under a table and decided to just listen for a while -- but the guitarist spied me and called me up. For more than an hour I played with them, often playing lead, and the cheers and applause were heartening to say the least. Still, it was a bad night for music, the guitarist told me -- a dozen or more young American sports fans were raising a ruckus, doing their best to drown out the music. Typical. When the others decided to take a break, I packed up my fiddle and headed down to O'Connor's.

The musicians' corner was more cramped, with a pair of guitarists, a banjo player, an uilleann piper, a tin whistler, a bouzouki player and, oddly, a doumbek player. Despite the crowded table, they all shifted to make room for me, and it's there I stayed for the rest of the night. By closing time, the players had dwindled to myself, a guitarist and the tin whistler. The crowd was undiminished, however; if anything, they were packed more tightly around us, clapping and cheering and screaming for more whenever the music paused for a moment. It took a bartender's decree, past closing time, to finally shut us down.

I felt like something of a celebrity as I packed up and wove my way through the diehard pubbers. People clapped my back, shook my hands, gave me hugs and swore they'd buy me pints if only the bar was still serving. Some asked if I was local; others asked when I'd be back. It was a thrilling night.

In the past, I'd be content to visit my Mecca as an observer, happy just to be there and listen. But now I've crossed to a new level -- no longer just a witness, but a participant as well, not only welcomed into the fold but lauded for my efforts.

It's a lovely, wonderful feeling.

by Tom Knapp