When summer comes, Ireland’s in her glory. Lazy sunsets linger for hours in a softly glowing night sky. Every nook and cranny of the land turns lush and green. Roses ramble wildly up cottage walls and over stone stiles. Towering hedgerows turn country lanes into fragrant flowering tunnels. Music wafts on breezes everywhere. Fairs and festivals spring up like mushrooms after a predawn shower. And Irish cooks turn their prodigious talents to feeding the visitors who come for a taste of Ireland’s famous hospitality.
More than a century ago, William Butler Yeats said, “If you want to know Ireland, body and soul, you must read its poems and stories.” The illustrious poet had it exactly right, for nothing is dearer to the Irish heart than the words of a dynamic storyteller. Especially when some music, dancing, camaraderie, and fine food and drink are mixed in for good measure.
If this elicits visions of an ancient Celtic gathering, your imagination is not far from the truth. The Irish fascination with words and the performing arts had its beginnings in the feasting halls of Celtic chieftains. In the absence of a written language, the roving bard who knew all the old stories and family histories, played the harp and sang was one of the most respected members of society. His arrival in the chieftain’s hall was met with celebration for his presence meant that a good time would be had by all.
In true bardic fashion, Saint Patrick secured his place in history by giving the storytelling Irish the greatest treasure they could imagine — the written word. At a time when all construction was hand-hewn and mortared, Patrick founded 385 churches and schools where thousands learned to read and write, transforming Ireland from a country with no alphabet to a land of scholars and writers. (Visit his grave in Downpatrick). By the end of the fifth century, poems, songs, sagas and illustrated manuscripts poured forth from the vast oral tradition.
Equal to a passion for words is the Irish love of music. Whether it’s the haunting wail of the uillean pipe, the trill of a tin whistle, the thudding beat of the bodran, the fluid notes of a deftly fingered fiddle, the strumming of a melodic harp, or the rhythm of flashing, dancing feet, music is the lifeblood of the land. It has soothed the Irish soul through centuries of trial and travail, and it is the cornerstone of every joyous occasion. One need only witness a weekly music `session’ held in a local pub, regardless if it be in a city or tiny country hamlet, to appreciate the integral part music plays in the cultural landscape.
Music and words come together on a bigger scale — gargantuan even — at fairs and festivals. In times past when agriculture was Ireland’s economic backbone, county fairs were a farmer’s primary means of meeting others with similar skills and products. Though the national economic focus has shifted to less pastoral endeavors, regional fairs are inextricably woven into the fabric of Irish heritage. Seasonal landmark events, such as the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, have been taking place for hundreds of years. The new national music festivals, known as fleadhs, gamer the most attention. But even local livestock markets held weekly in county seats offer a lively glimpse into Ireland’s rural roots.
Of all the livestock that graze peacefully on Ireland’s green hills, the most famous are its horses. Fine steeds figure prominently in the ancient sagas and hero tales, and aside from the reverence for words and music, horseracing is far and away the ultimate Irish pastime. Whether it’s an impromptu sprint through the streets of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway during the horse fair that has been held there annually since the mid-17th century, a point-to-point dash along a sandy beach, or a formal thoroughbred event, few things stir the blood like the sounds of thundering hooves and the roar of crowds cheering on their chosen champion.
Horseracing and horseriding score high locomotion marks in Ireland, but without a doubt, the preferred form of getting around is walking. Homer’s tale of Odysseus’ 20-year sea voyage may have laid the foundation for epic stories, but it was Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses whose one-day ramble through Dublin laid the foundation for all 20(th) century writing. In literary circles the world over, Bloomsday is celebrated with drink and storytelling. Nowhere, however, are the festivities as filled with pomp and pageantry as they are in Dublin, where a city saunter is the order of the day and all with even the slightest literary bent lift a glass to salute James Joyce, the Father of Modern Literature.
Yet when it comes to words, it has always been the spoken word that rings with the fervor of the ancient Celtic bard. From Dublin’s legendary theaters to open-air readings and performances on festival lawns, audiences sit mesmerized, caught up by the emotion couched in dialogues written by Ireland’s masterful playwrights. Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Brendan Behan rank among the greatest authors the world has known, and the torch continues to burn strong in a new generation of writers whose work delights spectators across the length and breadth of the island.
Regardless of activity, two elements form a common thread in Irish festivity throughout history — hospitality and food. In keeping with The Brehon Laws, the ancient Celtic legal codex, it was obligatory to offer hospitality, food and drink to travelers. Originally a mandate, welcoming visitors with sustenance and good cheer evolved into one of Ireland’s proudest traditions, and the assured warmth of hearth and heart now entice people from all parts of the globe to visit.
In the 12th century poem “Aisling Meic Con Glinne — The Vision of Mac Conglinne” — a hungry traveler dreams he has arrived in a land of plenty where fountains run with ale and a moat of custard surrounds a castle surmounted by a roof of sausages and meat puddings. Were the poet alive now, he would swear his reverie had become reality. The land that once suffered from famine is now rightfully known as one of the world’s great dining capitals. A cornucopia of tasty experiences — from hearty Irish breakfasts and Plowman’s pub lunches to Bookmaker’s steak sandwiches at the racetrack and haute cuisine restaurants that seamlessly blend the old with the new — delights the palates of young and old alike.
Since the days of the Celtic chieftains, some things have changed. The stories now speak to us from the silver screen; music and song have gone electronic filling the international airwaves; Irish dancers kick up their heels enchanting audiences the world over; music festivals and seasonal fairs that once were small local events draw up to 100,000 attendees; and the pedigrees of Irish bloodstock win the highest honors in horseracing circles on every continent. But in Ireland herself, the cornerstones of culture — words, music, dance, camaraderie, and fine food and drink — have remained rock steady through all the intervening centuries. And in city and town, especially when the summer sun hangs low and long in the northern sky, the doors of hospitality from cottage to castle are flung wide to welcome all who long to experience the fine time to be had at a Celtic gathering. ♦