Never mind a pint. What I’d kill for at this point in the pandemic would be to play some tunes in a pub. To join a few other séisúin-deprived musicians one afternoon, and settle into the snug near the front door, the smoked-up window holding us in and the world out.
For the sake of the afternoon, we’ve been certified Covid-free, and being free of masks would be especially nice for those of us who want to sing, or blow into an instrument.
There’ll be a few fiddles and a flute, a button box, and a banjo, a decent guitar to keep us all in line. A mandolin or a low whistle would be welcome, but I won’t be fussy. As for me, I’ll have my whistle: I’m not the best player, but I’ve learned enough jigs and reels over the years to sidle my way into most sessions.
We’ll miss the hum of having a crowd inside, the warmth of human laughter and banter. But we’ll survive. A quiet, near-empty pub is something that many a session musician would be delighted to avail of in normal times. That’s because we have music to attend to. And today, it feels like it’s been a long time coming. Playing along to YouTube sessions or old voice recordings on our phones while locked up for the last 15 months – well, it really wasn’t the same.
As we settle in with our pint or pot of tea, there’ll be a bit of chat, enough to feel connected, to catch up and commiserate, all of us nodding that – yes, it has been a crazy time. But the real connection starts when we pick up our instruments and let our minds and bodies move back into the flow: brains and fingers working their magical marriage to find their way into the music.
After a nice warmup set of three reels we all know well, the box player might start into an unfamiliar jig, so we’ll sit back with hands down but alert, listening and absorbing, our minds working to think if we’ve heard it and where, the patterns and feel of the tune seeping into our heads as we listen to it one more time, asking the player “arís!” so we can grab it and play a sketch of it before we feel the shift into the next tune coming up ahead of us. The beat forever moving us onward.
Morrissey’s, The Lark in the Morning, Julia Clifford’s, The Connaughtman’s Rambles, Old Hag you have Killed Me, Jennie’s Chickens, Tabhair dom do Lámh. Reels, jigs, polkas, slow airs, marches, slip jigs, hornpipes, waltzes, mazurkas, slides. And songs.
We’ll bow our heads when a singer airs a song – its story unfolding through words, over the arcs and troughs of its melody, each time repeated afresh while we players band together into the shadows of it, dropping with unspoken agreement into the gaps between each verse, picking up and dropping the tune, and embellishing as we hear it. A combination of detail and mood and creativity that will never be repeated the same way again.
Our fingers now fully loosened and tunescapes unleashed, I’ll get a nod to start a set so I’ll launch into my favourite hornpipe. Towards the end of it, I’ll catch someone’s eye and nod, or smile – as best I can with my lips pursed around the whistle – to show I have one to follow it. Sure, they all know Chief O’Neills and we’re off again, going along with the tunes wherever they take us
A fiddler will lean across the table to me: “What was the name of that one again?” “I know it as the Wicklow Hornpipe,” I’ll say, “I picked it up in Canada”. “Ah d’you remember,” says the guitarist to her, “that’s Delahunty’s, we’d play it after Harvest Home”.
The bit of chat won’t last long, we only have the afternoon: just a few hours to let the tunes out to air, blow out their staleness. We’ll feel satisfied that we’ve brought some life back in to them. And to ourselves and to each other.
At some point, the angelic landlord will give us the nudge to leave. We’ll follow the lead of whoever first pulls their instrument case off the floor and each of us will start to loosen the bow, wipe down the box, dismantle the flute, placing each piece, now tuneless, into its bed of velvet.
We’ll gather our stuff in silence, letting the tunes settle into the scratched wooden tables and tobacco-stained wall, from where the signed photos of visiting musicians watch us as we walk towards the door. Politely taking our leave, heading in any and all different directions: to the Luas, or the bus, bike or car.
“Good night. Slán”, we’ll say to each other as we slip our masks back on. “Thanks for the tunes”.