When my German friend and I decided to sign up for Cumann Gaelach’s (the Irish language and culture club at our university) trip to Oireachtas na Samhna, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. What we did know was that we would be in the minority for not speaking Irish. I’ve been taking a beginner’s Irish class, progress has been slow. The language has proved extremely hard, especially in pronunciation and spelling! Nonetheless, I packed up my Irish book, my Eircom worker Halloween ensemble, and a raincoat for the trip down to Killarney, about a 4 hour bus ride from Galway.
By the time we got on the bus, we knew exactly what we were getting into. Cans popped open and I learned that the reason most people carried so much luggage was to accomodate large portions of alcohol. The bus stopped twice for people to run into off license liquor stores to bolster the drinking stocks. Welp. I at least had a bottle of Cork gin, which was a lot for me. Everyone else wondered how I would survive on such a small portion of the “water of life”.
When we arrived at the hostel, it was 7:30pm and most people were pretty smashed, or as they would say here, “on the pisser.” Craic continued as everyone got into costumes, drinks were mixed in giant liter bottles, cans were emptied and cruched on the floor. Then it was off to the festival. Through the night, we walked on the side of the highway for a mile to the Gleneagle Hotel where Oireachtas competitions had taken place for the past 3 days. The festival is an annual gathering of Irish speakers from across Ireland and includes massive competitions in sean nos singing, dancing, and traditional music from the country’s top performers.
We nearly didn’t get in to the festival because our leader had taken off for a pub with all of the wristbands, but my friend and I told the woman at the information deskabout the mix up and she took pity on us, perhaps because we were the only two internationals at the festival. The rest of the night went down with dancing and singing, hopping between different parties in each of the hotel’s massive ballrooms. One darker and smaller room was filled with the younger crowd in garish costume grooving to a band called Seo Linn (mandolin included! Here’s their performance on RTE’s Late Late Show. Bascially, they play a lot of popular pop songs in Irish. Dominated by a huge dance floor, the biggest room sported a fancy seating area and stage where a 5-piece band played trad for a swirl of spontaneous step dancers.
We crashed in the hostel around 5am and slept until noon. Well, most people slept until noon. I got up at 10am, cursed by a body that obeys the sun. When my friend got up we tromped through our first Irish downpour to make it just in time for the sean nos dance competition finals. I almost forgot to mention that both of us wore cardboard signs she’d made for us which said “Ni thuigum” which is Irish for “I don’t understand.” These worked as great conversation starters and an excuse to ask unlimited amounts of questions. I sat next to an older couple from Connemara who knew a lot of the dancers from their area, and who also knew two of the winners who turned out to be brothers. Ireland really is a small island.
There were two hours between the end of the dancing competition and the next competition which was sean nos singing. We psent the time listening to spontaneous trad sessions which occured in the small hotel parlor rooms. I sat in a comfortable chair and tried not to fall asleep. We ended up talking to a bodhrán player who taught us the basic jig and reel beats. I played them at a snail’s pace, but now I know the difference between the tune styles which I can only pray will help me in my mandolin playing. Here’s a performance of Farewell to Eirann featuring Aimee Farrell Courtney, one of the few really famous female bodhrán players I’ve come across.
By the time sean nos singing came around, we found seats next to a practicing singer who dilligently took notes on each song that was performed. If you haven’t heard sean nos singing before, you should listen to it! The songs are in Irish and the style is highly ornamental but the types of ornamentation vary widely depending on the area the song and singer hail from. Sung a capella, the songs often tell stories, and because the stories are Irish, they’re very long. The women beside us said that if we could survive the 3 hour competition, we could survive anything! We made it through until the end, and I was lulled into a very peaceful state which was great, but not great for me staying awake. The competition was being broadcasted on national TV and they kept sweeping shots over the audience, so there might be some evidence of my less than perfect attention span. The winner was Nell Ní Chroinin, one of my favorites as her voice seemed so effortless and clear. She was also one of the youngest to compete.
After that, it was into the fray of the after party! We learned various important Irish terminology which I will never be able to use in class. I don’t think “I’m drunk” would go over well on my oral exam. Over the course of the night I talked with many people I would have formerly termed strangers and could now count as acquaintences. The part that bugs me is that I can never talk to any of them again because I have no idea who they were or where they were really going in life after the night ended. I’m finding that in traveling these really intense conversations are always happening which is exciting. But once they’re over, the both people just disappear from each other’s lives. I’m learning to get less hung up about this brevity, but there is still a part of me that wants to take all the best people I meet with me!
The next day, Sunday, really was a struggle to survive as we all staggered on to the bus and slept back to Galway. Arriving home to the flat, I ate oatmeal, tea, and chocolate (the first food I’d had all day), and fell into bed. Next I knew it was 5am and the light was still on. I had forgotten to turn it off.
If I had to sum up the weekend I would say it was strange and new and sometimes very confusing. I felt like I’d lived the University Halloween I’d never had at a small liberal arts school and this led me to some craziness. I was happy to go, but I will be happy to never do it again. Sometimes in life you just have to accept the wisdom of “Ni Thuigum!” and move on.