25 to 29 August 2006

Letterkenny, Belfast, ...

Julian, Catherine, Jamie


Off to the Fleadh - the Fleadh Cheoil na h√Čireann - the annual Irish Music Festival, this year in the town of Letterkenny in Donegal, the most northerly county of the Republic of Ireland. I took the Friday afternoon off work and flew to Belfast where Catherine met me in her Ulster Wildlife Trust black Japanese jeep thing - "the Slug" - with badger pictures on it, and drove us up to the festival. Catherine went last year and had a whale of a time, so we were really looking forward to it.

We drove over the mountains where there would have been grand views if only it hadn't been completely foggy and getting dark. At Derry (Londonderry) we crossed the border and I sorted out my confusion over whether I would need Pounds or Euros: it was first the one and then the other. I had expected to see border guards with guns but in fact all we saw as we drove along was miles-per-hour signs changing to kilometres-per-hour. It's pretty friendly and peaceful up in that area.

When we reached Letterkenny (Leitir Cainnin) the main road into the high street was blocked at a roundabout by the Garda, and on explaining that we'd booked places in the Port Hostel we were directed away to approach from a side road. Closer in, now, there was another road block and Catherine explained politely again, to a female officer this time. She asked if we had any proof of the booking (no), made a note of the hostel name and went to consult with her colleagues. The problem was that the streets were full of people milling around and sitting in groups playing music, especially as it was now after ten o'clock on a Friday night and the festival had been running all week. The hostel was just up a side road off the high street. The Guard came back, checked that we would not be parking on the streets, smiled and moved the barrier aside, exhorting us to drive carefully through the crowds.

The Port Hostel for International Visitors is run by two very nice women, Karen and her sister whose name we didn't firmly establish, who are a bit quirky and keep strict discipline. There are a dozen or so rooms in the building, and then some camping is allowed on the lawn at their discretion: about ten tents including us, which by no means filled the space. Campers are not allowed into the building except for the toilet and shower room which has an outside door and is in a state of half-finishedness apparently just the same as it was last year. Karen selected a space for us between some other campers and a tree, and proceeded to tell us about all the other campers, and introduce us to each other when they walked by.

C was pleased to find that Datsa, a fun-loving, loud and flamboyant woman from Latvia whom she made friends with last year, was already there.

After pitching our tents we were ravenous for some hot food, having stocked up with lunch-type food at a supermarket on the way but only eaten some crisps, so we went looking for a restaurant of any kind, while keeping an eye out for likely looking sessions to join afterwards. After traipsing the length of the main street the only thing open seemed to be a cheap pizza place. The pizza it served was rather good in the circumstances. After that is was too late to get into most sessions and we were both tired so we went to bed listening to live music carrying up the hill to the hostel from a small stage behind one of the pubs.


At a reasonable hour, maybe half past eight, I awoke to a fresh green garden, and I went and took a shower seeing as they were available. I returned to find Catherine boiling up water for coffee and tea, and we sat in the porch of her tent and cooked up sausages and eggs and mushrooms for a proper breakfast. C's spirit camping stove worked a treat. During this long breakfast some unseen musicians started playing rather nice mellow music on a fiddle or cello across the camp site. We then had some important tasks to do: pay for our stay to ensure we kept good relations with Karen and sister; get C's guitar tuning peg fixed, which had been broken by FlyBe baggage handlers a couple of weeks beforehand despite the "Fragile" sticker; go to the theatre coffee bar to sample their delicious coffee and cakes; and go to the Drum Bar to introduce ourselves so that we would have a chance of being admitted to their excellent session in the evening.

The first thing we came to was a stall selling attractive locally made Irish woolen sweaters (and some of Scottish wool) in bright but not garish colours. Catherine wants one for the winter and put in an order for one made from a combination of the colours and styles on display.

Down the street, on the right, the first music shop we came to was blaring Irish music out of loudspeakers against the spirit if not the letter of the "No amplified music in the streets" orders. I felt that was preventing other people from playing in the street in the vicinity, and it seemed ridiculous that a music shop should not have musicians playing for real. But they didn't have tuning pegs (actually they're known as "machine heads", the type geared down by a worm gear and pinion), so the job went to the shop up the high road just outside the pedestrian-only central festival area. The man there found and fitted a similar head while we waited. One of his colleagues was setting up to play live outside his shop: good for him.

Instead of the theatre coffee bar we ended up going to Simple Simon's, an establishment having a small coffee bar with organic light lunches such as soup, salads and cakes, joined to a shop selling specialist foods and a mail-order business selling stationery products mostly made from recycled paper. A woman with a harp in its box had, she said, been playing it earlier and was now off to watch one of the competitions; it's a pity we missed her playing.

In the afternoon the sessions started up and we found ourselves in the Drum Bar. The hush startled me as we squeezed in to the packed bar room, the combination being unimaginable in England. Drinks were bought with whispers as an old man sang his ballad. After he finished, there would be a minute or two of everybody talking and then "Shhh!" as another one began. Eventually songs started to come out that I knew or half knew and this was my favourite part. I liked to join in, and I divined fairly quickly that it's not the done thing to join in with the verses, only the chorus.

Nearly everything I know about Ireland is from songs - not that I know much, but dozens of place names are familiar. On tap, as well as Guinness was "Smithwick's" ale and I smiled to myself as I realised that must be what Christy Moore is singing of in "Delirium Tremens" when he says "Smitic". So I was very pleased when I ordered "a Smitic, please" and didn't even get a raised eyebrow.

All of a sudden Catherine sang The Wild Goose (Kate Rusby's version) and immediately got the respectful hush through the room. I tried to help out with the choruses on that, and it went down very well despite my help. It was strange to be watched by a room full of strangers, especially those nearby whose faces seemed to say "Ah, so you do sing then!"

Later we went out into the pub's side alley where the music session lived.

Evening... out of our depth at the Fior Ceilidh... nasty noisy pubs... meet Jamie in Gallagher's Hotel.


Expedition to fetch Jamie's boyfriend's bike from some people he stayed with the previous year near Glenties... tea and music in their shed while waiting... meet the brother in town... up the hill to the lake for lunch in the car and a boggy walk... off to the seaside, dunes, kite buggy, paddling, dunes in the rain, botany lesson... into the hotel in Glenties for a bit, and meet Mr Campbell for a bit more music... finally meet Moira and ?, invited for wine and cake and a chat, get the bike, drive "home" looking out for the monument to the fiddler...


Strike camp, nearly missing the rain cloud... Lose the car key... Coffee in the theatre... Find Jamie in the hotel, for a session with an 80-year-old fiddler...


On the road again... the Folly... Giant's Causeway...


Youth hostel... Lammas Fair at Ballycastle, horrible mess, pizza eaten by the ferris wheel... a good night's sleep.


Got up rather late... lunch on the cliffs near Sheep Island, sheltering from rain showers...


Catherine's estate...

JAF monogram Copyright: text © Julian Foad, 2006; photographs © Julian Foad, 2006.