Foolin’ In Doolin

The town of Doolin, Ireland, circa 2003.

“Two people got blown off the Cliffs this year so far,” the bus driver informed the nearby passenger who had asked about the Cliffs of Moher.  Our bus from Dublin to Doolin was nearing its destination, and with that, the famous Cliffs of Moher.  “In fact, two to three people usually die each year because they get too close to the edge without minding the high winds.”

I guess I would have to be cautious while at the Cliffs.  I didn’t bring my parachute.  But before the Cliffs of Moher, there was Doolin!

My travel buddy Alisa and I had decided to go to Doolin, a small town in County Clare, and also visit the Cliffs while we were there.  Why Doolin? Because a friendly (maybe drunk) Irishman in Quay’s bar in Dublin recommended it as we knocked back the pints.  Always follow the advice of the locals no matter how inebriated.  Well, not always because they might advise something crazy like snorkeling in a giant vat of mayonnaise or running for political office.  But this gentleman had bought me a Guinness, so I thought he was at least worth listening to. 

Doolin is well known for having fun and lively music sessions, which is why I wanted to go there.  You see, I love Irish traditional music.  And in Ireland, traditional music is a large part of the culture.  In pubs around the country musicians will gather at various times to play tunes and songs together.  Since it is traditional music, most musicians and singers know many of the same tunes and songs.  They gather together to play music they love while consuming metric tons of beer for the fun of it.  These gatherings are called sessions.  

During these sessions, if you happen to get drunk enough to run around the town naked while laughing at telephone poles in the process, or you make a whole slew of new friends, or you learn what “whack fo’ the diddle” actually means, or you make a fool of yourself by trying to speak with an Irish accent, that’s all part of the fun. No judgement.

Doolin here we come!  The only real hurdle was getting there on time.

You see, the traditional music sessions in Dublin ended around 9:30pm to 10:00pm, and after that, they pumped out the latest popular music on their sound systems. So we were a little disheartened after we bought our bus tickets and realized we wouldn’t arrive in Doolin until just after 9:30pm.  As we later found out, we had nothing to worry about.

After scaring the tourist who had asked about the Cliffs of Moher, the bus driver dropped us off in Doolin.  Alisa and I hurried to the hostel where we purchased our bunks and dashed up to the dorm room.  We didn’t even bother trying to lock up our packs.  We just threw them on the bunks and dashed away, flying out of the hostel and down the lane.

Not far from our hostel we saw the sign for O’Connor’s pub just up the street.  To me, it was like a beacon of good times ahead.  Especially since the sun was setting and its beams of light illuminated the door, as if the rays of the heavens guided us to the pub while a chorus of angels cast their holy singing voices in welcoming chants of, “Drink here!”

The street was eerily quiet as we approached the pub.  It seemed we were the only people awake and about in this small, Irish town.  But we learned the truth when we stepped inside.  A cacophony of sound greeted us, as we heard traditional music playing as soon as the heavy, wooden door was barely a few inches ajar.  Once fully opened, the din of people chatting and the clank, clink, crash of pint glasses added to the mix.  Inside, O’Connor’s pub was packed more full than an arena crammed with teenage girls and old creepy dudes at a Brittany Spears concert. 

I looked back outside, and saw almost no live humans while the inside was full of churning bodies, music, beer, and good spirits.  I knew this was the reason for the empty street.  Everyone was inside the pub.  A good sign.

Alisa and I threaded our way through the entryway and found the session band.  There were two fiddlers, a flute player, a guitar player, a button accordion player, and a bodhran player.  This bodhran player had the most rustic and unique bodhran I’ve ever seen. His bodhran’s frame was made from tree bark, instead of the nice, finished wood that has been sanded and stained.  A crude goatskin was stretched tight over it and fastened in place with rope.  And it sounded fucking amazing.

The music was rocking in full swing, belting out favorites like Drowsie Maggie, The Star of Munster, The Mason’s Apron, and Julia Delayney’s.  The session band had the attention of the entire pub.  Given the amount of people in here, probably the population of the whole town.

The next thing on our list, and this is important to complete your all-Ireland experience at a country pub, was beer.  Easier said than done at a Doolin pub.

Navigating this crowded pub to reach the bar was like a mosh pit at a Megadeth concert.  I would know.  The only difference was that here in this modest country pub there were no Mad Max villians or guys wearing chain mail.  This made approaching the bar a little less dangerous.  Only a little.  I may have seen an orc from Lord of the Rings, but I can’t be too sure.  It was in passing and we were thirsty.

Alisa and I managed to reach the bar and get some pints with only a minor bit of elbowing and sword fighting, then returned to the band to enjoy the rest of the evening.  The band would play a rollicking set of tunes, and we would drink more beer.  The band would later take a five or ten minute break, and we would drink more beer.  Every now and then a new fiddler or flute player would show up and the other musicians greeted him or her happily.  

We drank more beer.

Sometimes in between instrumental sets, someone in the pub would break out in song.  That’s the beauty of a session.  Anyone can join in.  One particular man that sang several songs that evening stood out in my mind.  I don’t remember his name, but I’ll refer to him as the Old Irish Singer.  He stood next to the session musicians the entire evening.  He was an older gentleman with short, gray hair, which was covered in a wool tam o’shanter cap.  He was neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat, but did possess a bit of paunch.  He carried his paunch like a badge of honor and wore a coarse, tweed jacket most of the evening with a scarf draped around the back of his neck.

We guzzled more beer.

The Old Irish Singer always had a pint of Guinness in one hand and a set of wooden spoons in the other.  During the instrumental sections of music, the reels and jigs, he merrily clacked away with the spoons in rhythm with the tunes.  In between the reels and jigs, he would belt out some of the best renditions of Irish traditional favorites that I’ve ever heard.  And he did it all acapella.  

We continued beering drink.

The music session wasn’t scheduled for any set timeframe.  The band played until late into the night.  By the time they ended, many of us remained in the pub chatting and socializing.  We got to chatting with the Old Irish Singer about how awesome everything was.  He informed us that O’Connor’s was one of three pubs in Doolin; all three equally busy and raucous every night, and that he alternated between O’Connor’s and Mcgann’s.  

The effect had no beer on us, because we could liquor our hold!  So more beer please!

This went on until around 3:30am or so.  It would have continued until dawn, but one of the men behind the bar, maybe the owner, I don’t know, went about the main room and shouted, “All right, we’re closing!  Get the hell out of here!”

Alisa and I stumbled out of O’Connor’s pub and into the pitch black.  Yes, it was pitch black because Doolin was too small to be bothered to put up streetlights.  We allowed our eyes to adjust to the dark, allowing the chilly air to shake off the beer goggles, and then staggered back to the hostel while narrowly avoiding a fall into the nearby stream.  

People shouldn’t leave random streams just lying around where hapless drunks could fall in!  Think of the safety hazards!  Falling into the stream would have been quite awkward, because we would be standing at the edge of the Cliffs of Moher the following day.

Myself during the session at O’Connor’s pub wearing an Indiana Jones fedora like a proper dork. Circa 2003.
The Cliffs of Moher.