(Click on picture at top to scroll through all the pictures)
I had chosen my shoes poorly. Their stiff, unforgiving soles and lack of ankle support made this hike up to the Cliffs of Moher more wobbly than I would have liked. I was scrambling along the "locals" path to one of the most visited and impressive sites of western Ireland, guided by Aodán Coyne and Fiachra Hayes, two-thirds of the Irish band Socks in the Frying Pan, with Fiachra patiently leading me by the hand. In his excitement to increase the dramatic reveal of the breathtaking view, he forbade me to look toward the sea. After precarious and slow progress, we finally reached the last bend of the cliffside path. Finally, I could take in the famed view. I looked out, toward the cliffs. I took a photo of Aodán, who had moved toward what seemed like the edge of the world. Aodán looked over his shoulder at us, then back toward the sea. And then jumped.
Photo: Aodán Coyne at The Cliffs of Moher
The drama of the moment was not lost on me, though I somehow felt that Fiachra knew that this surprise was in the works. He ran to the edge, looked down at the shelf, about five feet below, where Aodán now stood, lamenting his sore knee. “I saw that extra step you took," Fiachra said. "I was thinking you might keep going.” This elaborate joke cemented my view of the Socks; they are as sparky, warm and hilarious offstage as the characters they seem onstage. And they love surprises and great punch lines.
Photo: Aodán and Fiachra conspiring at the Cliffs of Moher (Click on picture at top to scroll through all the pictures)
This was all part of the royal Socks treatment: a tour through County Clare, courtesy of one of the most talented Irish bands to get to Kansas this century.
But the Winfield-Irish band transition had not been easy for me. David Munnelly (www.DavidMunnelly.com) and his series of bands at Winfield had been instrumental in igniting in me a passion for Irish traditional (“trad”) music. I was in the audience when the band recorded a live album at Winfield in 2006, and I was there again when they released it at Winfield the following year.
Photo: David Munnelly and Kieran Munnelly, Winfield 38, Stage 1, 2009
Through David Munnelly’s years at Winfield, I was mesmerized not only by his conveyance of trad through button-box brilliance, but also by the wealth of talent to which he exposed us. One of those remarkable talents is Nic Gareiss, the awe-inspiring Michigander who truly personifies joy in his percussive dance and music (www.NicGareiss.com). And I still watch the Munnelly band play Karine Polwart’s “Follow the Heron Home,” with Shauna Mullin on vocals, recorded on Front Porch Radio (https://youtu.be/M2LJbGIfiKM on YouTube).
So I was bereft when he stopped coming to Winfield, leaving a chasm that had to be filled. Fortunately, my campmate Betsy urged me to give the Socks in the Frying Pan a listen. I was charmed from the first Socks performance that I saw. Their magical combination of virtuosic musicianship, impassioned vocals, and striking harmonies, combined with wry banter and downright goofiness, has propelled them into a favorite position at the festival.
Photo: The Socks, from left, Fiachra Hayes, Shane Hayes and Aodán Coyne on Stage 2 at Winfield 43 in 2014
After I saw them for that first time, I spoke to Shane Hayes, the Socks accordion player and the older brother of Fiachra. “You know that David Munnelly used to play here. Those are big shoes to fill.” Shane assured me that he had received Munnelly's benediction over a cup of tea before the Socks' first Winfield trip. Winfield has had a special place in the Socks’ hearts from the beginning; in fact, while Shane loves his students and is a dedicated teacher, he assures me that Winfield is a top priority that he will not miss.
Back to Ireland. A Socks Kickstarter campaign was responsible for this first trip to Ireland. For several years, The Socks have crowd-sourced the production costs of their albums, and in 2016 I sponsored them at a level that offered an irresistible promise: “Spend a day of 2016 on a guided tour of some of the best places in the west of Ireland with your own personal tour guides - The Socks. See the Cliffs of Moher and Lahinch beach among many other world famous places with your three favourite tour guides. After, join the lads for a private session and a few pints at a secret pub location until the early hours of the morning singing songs and sharing stories. Just get here and we'll do the rest!!“
Could you blame me?
My Irish adventure started pleasantly enough. Aodán and I exchanged emails to arrange the meet up, and I spent the couple of days before the tour in Dublin and then in Ennis, hometown of the Socks and 2016 and 2017 location of the Fleadh Cheoil na h’Éireann - the trad music, song and dance competition and festival. Along the way, I visited several acclaimed trad pubs and drank warm port*. On the appointed morning, I went to the lobby of the Old Ground Hotel and waited for Aodán and Fiachra to appear. (Shane’s dedication as a schoolteacher has him sending his students encouraging messages as he prepares to go on stage - he was teaching and couldn't join us until dinner). Ennis’ favorite sons/my tour guides arrived and shuttled me off to our tour of the county.
After a few minutes of meandering down a narrow lane in the vicinity of The Burren, Fiachra asked me to lower my window. As I was cranking it down, Aodán pulled the car to a stop along the nearly deserted road just outside of the ancient burial and geological site, flanked by a thicket of scrub and bushes. Fiachra called out the now-open window to the only living soul on the side of the road. “Hello, could you help us with directions?” The sheep that he was addressing had – until that moment - been grazing peacefully. It now picked up its head, and bolted. “You hear how the Irish are so friendly, but this guy…” Fiachra and Aodán joked. The mood of the day was set.
We arrived first at the Burren Perfumery. The native plants of the area are the scent sources for its perfumes, lotions and candles (we scouted for Christmas presents) and a well-produced short film explains the history, geology and botany of the area. Given that it was a grey day in December, we had the place to ourselves. The adjoining teahouse was open for self service (quiet when we were there but a busy lunch spot in high season) and sat down to have a cuppa. The day was cool and overcast, and mugs of hot tea and biscuits took the edge off as we chatted. After we warmed ourselves, we headed to "Poulnabrone dolmen," a portal tomb at The Burren. We walked the acreage and read up on its ancient history.
Photo: Poulnabrone - The Portal Tomb, The Burren
Photo: Seacoast near Fanore on the Wild Atlantic Way, County Clare
Photo: Doonagore, near Doolin – this 16th Century fortified house (a “tower house”) is a private home
The seacoast has a special haunting beauty in the winter, though even then it remains remarkably green. We followed the Wild Atlantic Way along the coast of the County to Doolin. Called the heart of Irish trad, Doolin is home to many cozy pubs, one of which is the famous Gus O’Connor’s, where I had my first Guinness. Guinness is said to be best when it is drunk as close as possible to the place where it is made, and I will leave it to you to judge for yourselves, but the pub was inviting and the beer was welcome.
Photo: Gus O’Connor’s Pub, Fisher Street, Doolin
Photo: Inside of Doolin’s Gus O’Connor’s pub
The fire warded off the grey chill of the December day as the Socks regaled me with tales of the road (some of which are documented in films on the Socks’ Facebook page--puppets and helium singing are all there), and patiently answered my questions about trad culture and the Irish language. We talked hurling, the resurgence of bi-lingual road signs (English and Irish) and Fiachra’s interest in surfing. (Surfing is popular in the chilly North Atlantic; in County Clare, Lahinch has surfing schools for many a brave soul.)
Photo: Quin Abbey, a 15th century Franciscan National Monument, Ennis
After dinner and a tramp around a Franciscan Abbey, the Socks dedicated a song to me on local radio and we proceeded to a session night. There was mighty craic for the few of us lucky enough to be at Knox’s Pub in Ennis. Fiachra couldn’t resist, and ran home to get his fiddle, returning to play with Tom Delany on Irish Bouzouki and pipes and Brian O’Loughlin on flute.
Photos at Knox’s Pub: Fiachra on fiddle, Brian on flute and Tom on Bouzouki
This day along the Wild Atlantic Way was a beauty and my first trip to Ireland inspired me to look into whether I had any Irish ancestry. Happily, according to my DNA test, I'm 40% Irish, certainly enough to justify a return trip this summer, a deeper dive into Irish music, a closer study of the pubs of Ireland, and more regular visits to the Emerald Isle.
County Clare made an indelible impression and the Socks proved on their home soil that they are the authentic talents that we are treated to at Winfield. If you see the opportunity to sponsor a Socks’ Kickstarter to get treated to a tour of the county in the future, I say go for it. Just wear comfortable shoes.
*While everyone is familiar with the Irish national drink, Guinness (Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse is the number one tourist attraction in Ireland) I was less familiar with other Irish tipples prior to my visit. Like warm port. I was more or less a port snob before I went. I didn't actually know much about port, beyond the fact that it is from Portugal, it's usually decanted and is sipped from a snifter-like glass. That is, until I reached Ireland. I have a feeling that if I had been told what I was drinking before I drank it, I would have turned up my nose and refused. But as it happened, I had a bit of a sore throat from my travels, and I worried that I had the onset of a cold. Out at the pub, anyway (why would I stay away?), I confided as much to the bartender. He promptly put this wonderful drink in front of me. The clove-studded lemon had an intoxicating smell inside of the warm liquid, and I fell in love with the drink. It also helped my incipient cold and sore throat. I kept drinking them for good measure, naturally, discovering that this is a most soothing beverage for the cold weather. I invite you to overcome your port snobbery and try warm port: 3 ounces of port, one spoon of honey, hot water to fill the mug, and a lemon slice studded with cloves (make sure to put on some Irish music while you drink it – for good measure).
Photo: Warm port
Pecan Grove camper Kelley Hurst runs her own market research company and writes coffee table books about Italy (Italian Country Hideaways by Universe/Rizzoli and Luxury Houses: Tuscany by teNeues). She is considering writing about Ireland in the future – but first she needs to do more on-location research.