When I first started Irish set dancing in Dublin 1999, my friend Maureen used to occasionally stop mid-step when we were dancing, turn her head and say in a slow, breathy voice “Isn’t that just beautiful music?”. I could only politely agree with her, not really knowing whether it was any better or different to the last 20 tunes I had been dancing to.
But it was a useful tip for an Irish dancer new to the scene, who was more consumed with the terror of forgetting what comes next (until I realised that’s a contagion amongst set dancers!), standing on my partner’s toes or trying to remember how the reel step goes.
I knew The Blackbird and St.Patrick’s Day tunes from my Irish step dancing days but I hadn’t paid any more attention to the music than that, apart from being proud that I could tell a jig from a reel, and a hornpipe from a polka – only when I started dancing to it, you understand. And how much the poorer I was for that lack of attention and interest, I only know now.
The first time I can recall the music really making an impact was my first night dancing to the world-famous Tulla Céilí Band and Martin Hayes in Miltown Malbay, at The Mill. There was something sweet and gentle about that music that was memorable in a way that got deep into my psyche, which is perhaps why I have such great affection for the Clare music and dance tradition. It’s probably also why they have thrived since 1946, with some change in band line-up but little change in that sound. (There is much more to this story of my connection with The Tulla but that chapter will wait for another time.)
Now when I dance to the Tulla in Clare, which I have done for many years since, it’s like being part of a lullaby, familiar like a favourite soft warm sweater, wrapped up in a cocoon of the other 300 people dancing there. We glide around, glassy-eyed and slightly giddy, swept along by sweet lyrical tempo and rhythm. Blissed out.
That’s not the end of the story, though. That’s just the start. Ireland is full of brilliant music and musicians, and in fact, so are many, many other countries in the world where there are dedicated musicians everywhere, quietly getting on with it. Now that I have my ears, my eyes and my mind open to this, I see them everywhere. I have had the pleasure of meeting the very well-known musicians to the absolutely invisible, all who give generously to their pursuit, keeping the music alive and spreading happiness.
I feel lucky to have had the opportunity for this, and these strong memories are what pulls me so to share it with others, and to want to go back for more.
Is leigheas é an ceol ar an anam briste
Music is the healer of the broken soul