Saturday, June 06, 2015

Lost in Time Along The Cliffs of Mohr

Doolin, County Clare
It was an evening where we were, all together, lost in time - under a dark and cloudy sky in a pub in Ireland.  It will take a long time before the memory fades of that night we three shared; myself, my wife, and younger daughter. It happened this past March.

Doolin, County Clare, is a desolate, seaside windswept village that, like much of Ireland, dates to before the first century.  Even the trees here seem set firmly against time, leaning almost parallel to the ground, bent from the constant and stiff prevailing onshore sea breeze.  Twisted and gnarled, they are determined to survive the centuries, just as have the Irish people.  Through famine, religious persecution, plunder by invading armies, and abandonment by their neighbors, the Irish have hung on and survived.  Through all this time, these people have both stiffened their resolve and softened their hearts toward others.  They face their days with smiles on their faces and music in their hearts.  Irish music.

In we ducked, out of the moist and quiet night, inside to the warm pub on this cold and drizzling Irish night.  Outside lay the lonely, sparse and brilliant dark green hillsides near the black and restless sea.   The feeling is that one has been transported to a place that spans the centuries.  You seem to go missing; between the rush of today and the quiet and calm of ancient times.  We were in O'Connors Pub, the center of evening life in little Doolin, quite far from the maddening crowds.  Over the years artists and writers, including J.M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and Oliver St. John Gogarty spent time in Doolin, often in the welcoming atmosphere of O’Connors, which dates back to 1832.

Visiting much of Ireland outside of the larger cities leaves an emotion within you often, as if you have moved strangely backward into the past.  A time you cannot exactly place, but that feels refreshing and renewing.  At home, in a way.  You find yourself in conversations with total strangers, and yet the talk is warm and familiar, as if you had bumped into an old neighbor who you had not seen in a while.  And this is what the western coast of Ireland does; something within is awakened and at the same time rested in the soul.  Earlier this same day, we had visited the storied Cliffs of Mohr, home to so much Irish legend, tragedy, and music.

The Cliffs of Mohr
Along the Cliffs of Mohr
But this night, we had come to O'Connors in search of the ancient yet modern music of Ireland, as Doolin is known as a cradle of Irish music.  We were told earlier in the day by the bartender that the music would start at "Nine Tirty (9:30) pee emm".  And so we came.

Sure enough, a small band of locals gather right at the appointed time; a flutist of 65ish, with grey hair and a face at once weathered and reflective, an accordion player who could double for Robert Plant, a second flutist of perhaps 45 still wearing his work boots - looking as if he had spent the day caring for the sheep on a hillside just down the road, and a lovely young lady fiddle player - who could also have been the local elementary school teacher.  They all appeared separately over the next 15 or so minutes; sitting down and producing their instruments out of weathered cases or backpacks.  A table had been reserved in the center of the pub for them, filled with beers and ciders and coffees for the players.  There was no sheet music anywhere - this music welled up from within their hearts and minds, and eons of Irish history. 

As each member joined the group the music just continued
naturally, there were short hellos and nods of greeting, but the music itself took precedence - entertaining and playing together was their happy task.  After about 30 minutes it was time for a break, and something unique yet ordinarily Irish happened.  Something unexpected for us Americans.  Something beautiful.

During the break for the band, a man of about 75 stood up from his place with his friends in the corner and announced, "I am goin' to sing a love song for you.  I hope you won't mind my warbling.  This is a love song.  It's called the Cliffs of Mohr."

And then he closed his eyes and began to sing.  He too seemed transported to a different place and time as he sang in perfect pitch:

Lyrics & music by Dermot Kelly         

I'm sitting on the cliffs of Moher
Looking out to sea.
The broad
Atlantic swells below me
A bridge love between you and me.
The puffins cry above the tide
The seagulls glide through the air
They’re calling you back from New York City
Back home to the
county of Clare.

Come back, come back, sweet Annie
Come back for I will be there.
We'll sing and we'll play
In the old-fashioned way
On the hillside of sweet
County Clare.
When he finished, both my wife and I had tears in our eyes, without really understanding why.  There was a brief moment of quiet, and then polite applause.  Apparently, this sort of sweet solo performance is a common thing in O'Conners.

It has taken me more than a month to understand what made this evening so meaningful to me.  After returning to my busy life here, I have had time to reflect on what we all experienced that night in Doolin.  We witnessed beauty.  Beauty in the simple band of four friends making music, beauty in the windswept hillsides, and beauty in the simple words of an Irish ballad.

I am fairly convinced that we often move too fast through life to appreciate the beauty in the ordinary.  Perhaps being out of our ordinary lives that night, half way across the planet from our homes, along our willingness to just take in the evening put us in a place where beauty could find us.  But this was not ordinary beauty, this was a mysterious and sacred thing, something from another time and place altogether.  What we experienced was a partial and momentary response to the longing we all have within us.

Pastor and theologian N.T. "Tom" Wright puts it so well:
"But the present world is also designed for something which has not yet happened. It is like a violin waiting to be played: beautiful to look at, graceful to hold-and yet if you'd never heard one in the hands of a musician, you wouldn't believe the new dimensions of beauty yet to be revealed. Perhaps art can show something of that, can glimpse the future possibilities pregnant within the present time.” 
In that little pub in Doolin, we were confronted with Beauty, and it took hold of us for just a while.  Something deep and wide and completely lovely.  The future possibilities pregnant within the present time.

Maybe if we are more willing and open, beauty will find us more often.

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