I first fell in love with Ireland through its music. Irish music is full of rich descriptions of its rolling hills, its crystal lakes, its misty shores. In spite of all the songs I had heard, and all the pictures I had seen, nothing could prepare me for the sublime beauty of the west, which is where I ended up in my early twenties with nothing but my red Kelty backpack strapped to my shoulders. After a wild cab ride into Killarney, I wandered through the cobbled streets overwhelmed by the sights and sounds all around me. A music festival was in full swing, so the town was bursting with young people, drinking, laughing. The sound of fiddles and tin whistles poured from the dark entryways of smoke-filled pubs (this was when you could smoke in pubs. Dating myself here!), and I ducked inside one of these establishments. Inside, I received my first lesson in the Irish art of good craic. Craic is an Irish Gaelic word that’s difficult to translate. It means something like “good times,” generally mixed with music and several rounds of pints. Ireland is legendary for its hospitality, and if you’re open and willing to receive her many gifts, the country will welcome you with open arms.
Which is how I found myself in the company of a raucous group of gentlemen from Cork who had no problems taking in the lonely American tourist into their fold. I wish I could tell you I remembered a lot of that night, but let’s just say I also received a good lesson in how many pints of Guinness it takes for me to get completely fluthered (fluthered is an Irish slang word for “please don’t tell my mother I was totally wasted in Killarney with a bunch of strange men”). But I do have one memory of me standing up and singing one of my favorite Irish songs “The Moorlough Shore.” I grew up in a musical family, so all of us sing and play guitar. Much to the dismay of our friends and spouses, we’re all prone to bursting into song at random times, especially inappropriate times. I once got sent home from school with a note from my teacher saying my singing “was a huge distraction.” So you can imagine my wonder and joy when I found an entire country completely ecstatic about that otherwise embarrassing tendency.
The Irish have a deep and sacred love for music, but especially for their traditional songs, which contain some of the most gorgeous poetry you will ever find on this earth. One incredible phenomenon you will find in Ireland is that when someone in a pub starts to sing, the whole pub, I mean the whole entire bar, even if there’s a hundred people crammed in there, will stop talking and listen. And you don’t even have to be very good! I’ve watched a mob of people stop their conversations and listen with rapt attention to the frail voice of an old man, half in the bag and slurring all over the lyrics. Because of course, the Irish know that even that faltering rendition of the song is better than no song at all. So late in the evening, when the patrons started taking turns singing, I looked on in wonder at the attentiveness of the crowd. Cliché, I know, but you could have heard a pin drop, it was that quiet.
I leaned in to one of the Cork lads and whispered, “Does everyone sing in Ireland?”
He smiled. “Do you sing?”
I shrugged. “A little.”
He grabbed my hand and raised it in the air. “She’s a singer!”
“What? No!” My heart pounded, and that whiskey shot I had taken beyond my better judgment threatened to make a guest appearance.
“Oh, we’ve got a singer!” the rest of the Cork lads joined in. “A singer! She wants to sing!”
They pushed me to the middle of the pub, and everyone was clapping and shouting. “Sing! Sing!”
So calling up all my courage, I closed my eyes and opened my mouth, belting out the first song I could think of. “The Moorlough Shore” has many iterations, but the most famous tells of a young man who one night proposes to a young woman, sure she’ll totally say yes. But it turns out, the woman has promised herself to a soldier boy away at sea, and she has sworn to wait for him for seven years. The man is enraged and leaves her, but later in life he finds himself mourning his impatience, wishing he had stayed. At the end, he laments,
Farewell to Sinclaire’s castle grand.
Farewell to the foggy dew.
Where the linen waves like bleaching silk
and the falling stream runs still.
Near there I spent my youthful days,
but alas they are no more.
For cruelty has banished me
far away from the Moorlough Shore.
I think of that song now, and how naïve I was, for I didn’t know yet what it felt like to miss Ireland. And that is why everything I write is in some ways a love letter to this incredible place, to its peaceful hills and its wild beauty.