(click on pictures to enlarge)
I do not need a lot of encouragement to visit Dublin so when I got an invitation to a retirement event in honour of a friend and ex-colleague, I was only too happy to have an excuse to go there last weekend.
Dublin is a lovely city as I described in a previous post, but what stands out is the warmth and humour of the people. The retirement event was held in Trinity College where one of the buildings is connected by a covered walkway above street level to the adjacent Pearse St. train station. The walkway has glass sides and one can see people walking across it from the street below. The locals refer to it as ‘The Bridge of Thighs’. Only in Dublin………………..! St. Stephen’s Church above is referred to as the Pepper Canister or the Pepperpot Church and you can see why.
One of the highlights of our visit (and there were many!) was getting a chance to see how the Uilleann (prounced ill-uhn) pipes (Irish bagpipes) work. We went to Hughes Pub, where traditional music is played every Sunday, at a time when the musicians had just arrived and before the pub had filled up. Our friend Renee who took us there knows the musicians and introduced us to the Uilleann Pipe player, Gay McKeon. He kindly showed us how the pipes are constructed and played. The word ‘uilleann’ means elbow in Gaelic and refers to the fact that the pipes are played by pressing air out of a bag using the elbow. It is a much more complicated instrument than Scottish bagpies or the Italian zampogna and in addition to the bag, it has bellows to blow air into the bag, a melody pipe or chanter which has a range of two octaves, three drones which provide the underlying sound and three regulators or closed pipes which give a rhythmic or melodic accompaniment to the melody. The pipes and drones produce their sound through the use of reeds. Gay was leaving the next day for Mexico city and had to get a special set of spruce reeds from the US as the air in Mexico city is so dry and different from the moist air of Ireland that the sound of the reeds would be affected. As you can imagine, playing the pipes requires a lot of co-ordination, a good ear and years of practice. Gay told us that he had started learning the pipes at the age of 9! Making the pipes is also an art and a full set of Uilleann pipes can cost around Eur 10,000 though there are simpler practice sets which are cheaper.
Irish music is played by ear and is improvised, so the tradition is handed down from teacher to student. Naturally, a lot of musicians come from musical families. In Cobblestones and Hughes Pubs on a Sunday, musicians gather randomly to play together. I was pleased to see a number of accomplished women musicians as well as a number of young musicians. Its good to know that the tradition carries on. Interestingly, Gay told us that the Uilleann pipes are popular in a number of countries and he gives lessons through Skype to people in Cuba, Mexico and even in Italy.
Finally, I have to add that listening to Irish music in a pub calls for a good pint of Guinness and there was no shortage of that!