You’re in Dublin on holidays. You’ve played at the Cobblestone and O’Donoghue's. You’ve delighted in the fine selection of musical accoutrement at Walton’s Music on Georges’ Street and rummaged through the amazing selection of trad CDs at Claddagh Records in Temple Bar.
But now you have some free time, and the session at Peadar Kearney's doesn’t start until 5 (which means sometime 5:30ish, Irish Time).
What’s a holidaying Irish Trad Player to do?
Consider taking a short walk to an historic Dublin Trad Music shop, newly restored and re-opened. Just a 14 minute walk from Oliver St. John Gogarty’s in Temple Bar, straight up Capel Street north of the Liffey, you will find The Horse Shoe.
Originally from rural Co. Clare, John Kelly was a highly respected fiddle and concertina player. He moved to Dublin and in 1945, John and his wife, Frances, opened a small music shop at 85 Capel Street. The Horse Shoe quickly became a magnet for many of the eminent trad players of the day. Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Dennis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Patsy Geary, Bobby Casey , Johnny Leary, and Joe Heaney are only a few of those who stopped by for a few tunes and a bit of musical chatter when they were in Dublin.
It was from this rich soup of musicians and their chats (and sessions) at The Horse Shoe, and at the nearby Piper’s Club, that was born not only a band, Ceoltóirí Chualann, which included many musicians who later formed The Chieftains, but also where the seeds were planted for the creation of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1951. The music flowed and the shop even had a tune named for it.
The Horse Shoe (An Crú Capaill in Irish) was written by Patsy Geary and is also known as Patsy Geary’s Jig.
John Kelly died, and the shop closed in the late 1980s. The shop, like the area in which it is located, decayed. During the Celtic Tiger, the northside neighborhood became an immigrant district and 85 Capel Street became a Romanian Market.
Fast forward to 2012. Enter a self taught artist, and an amazing fiddler named Brendan P. Lynch. Brendan purchased the shop, and on November 10, 2012 re-opened the newly restored space to the public.
Brendan is indeed a remarkable man. Born in Ballyboughal, north Co. Dublin, he has two solo CDs to his name: Tunes from the Hearth (2000) and From the Heart of Fingal (2005), and he is featured on CDs by many other notable artists. Brendan P. (the P is to differentiate him from the Irish author Brendan Lynch) is also the Music Director at the Arlington Hotel in Temple Bar so if you have seen the Irish Cabaret there, you have probably seen him perform.
But that’s not the end of the story. The restored Horse Shoe is also used as gallery space to showcase Brendan’s beautiful line drawings, photographs and watercolours. The rooms (on 3 floors) are small, but the art and music they contain are mighty.
And there you will also meet Brendan. The shop doesn’t open until 11. Brendan is a musician, after all – mornings are for yoga instructors and people with small children. And it closes at 5 - Brendan is playing out most nights. But if you bring your instrument, you might be able to get a lesson on fiddle, banjo, mandolin or bodhrán. Or look at his selection of lovingly restored fiddles. You might find yourself bringing home an extra special souvenir of your time in Dublin. I did. And now I wish I was as good as my fiddle.
But even if you’re not musically talented, come and soak in the history of the place. A man with an easy laugh, Brendan will regale you with stories of the small history of Irish music. In a fitting bookend to the shop's personal music history, one of his first acts upon re-opening The Horse Shoe was to invite John Kelly’s family to a session in the shop.
So that’s the story. A piece of history preserved. A new chapter begun. Best of luck to Brendan, and I thank him for his part in passing the music on. And if you're in Dublin, say hi to Brendan for me!
The Horse Shoe
85 Capel Street
Open 11 – 5pm most days
I'll leave you here with a segment from RTÉ in June 1977. John Kelly, Sr, John Kelly Jr, and James Kelly (from the group Planxty) play Ceathrú Cavan/The Wild Irishman.
UPDATE: Sadly, The Horseshoe closed it's doors in June of 2014. A shame, really.
How often have you gone to a concert or session to have the performer say something along the lines of
"I got this tune off the legendary Joe Pat O'Shaunessy one night we were locked in at the aulde Harp and Pint Pub in Bailebeag, Co. Donegal. He was a fine fiddler so, and now his grandson is grown and teaching this same tune to his own children."
Do you feel inferior yet? How many of the tunes you know did you learn at the knee of some Jedi Master of Irish music?
This is the dilemma that we, as musicians who play Irish music but whose parents had the misfortune not to birth us somewhere in rural Co Kerry face daily. Ah, the shame! We have rhythm but our parents didn't.
What is a poor American (Irish) musician to do?
We work with what we have. We turn to technology.
It starts innocently enough. You buy a CD or download an mp3 file of a couple of tunes that strike your fancy. I'm going to learn that set, you think. But wait, the tune rushes past your ears faster than the beer you just drank requires recycling. Was that da da da DA da DAAA ~or~ da da DAAA da da DAAA?, you ask yourself.
Well, there's software for that. Some people swear by the
Amazing Slow Downer, but for ease of use and added features I personally prefer Transcribe!
Despite the name, Transcribe! does NOT actually transcribe the music into notation. (There is a software that does that - TwelveKeys - but I've never used it so I can't speak to it's functionality.) With Transcribe!, you can slow down any music file on your computer or change the key it's played in without hurting pitch in the least. The tunes work best. If you try the program on a song you get an amusing reverse homage to the Chipmunks.
Oh, no, no!, you say. I learn MY tune sets the old fashioned way -- by going to sessions. All I can say is you must have a phonographic memory. Or a really good digital recorder.
Some people have good luck using their iPhone recording app, but I think I must be dumber than my smart phone.
The choice of digital recorder is as personal as your comfort level with the number of buttons you have to push to get it to work. Personally, the less I have to manipulate small switches or touch screens in a darkened pub after having a beer or two the better.
I own the Zoom h4n. I find it a bit difficult to operate quickly, but if you are less technologically impaired than me and do manage to get it running in a timely fashion, the sound fidelity is great and it's easy to upload the files to your computer. The only other downside is that the unit itself is very bulky. It's really hard to be inconspicuous as you set it up and get it started.
I recently purchased the Olympus LS-5, which is much smaller than the Zoom, and promises to be much easier to use. (Strangely enough, I found this unit for more than half the price of Amazon.com at an online record shop in the UK, even after the shipping. Go figure!) The Olympus model has a lot fewer buttons to push - so far so good.
I'm not saying that I've got the best recorder going, I'm sure there are very good ones out there that I don't kow about. If you'd like to check out a nice comparison review of other models, click here.
There's An App for That:
You're at your Thursday night session. The group swings into a tune you KNOW you know. But you can't for the life of you remember what the name of it is. It's driving you MAD.
Well, there's an app for that too. It's called Tune Pal. It's a digital version of the old TV show "Name That Tune".
All it needs is a few bars of the tune to identify what's playing. In fact it's so accurate that there are people who try to play very obscure tunes just to see if they can stump the Tune Pal.
And not only will it identify the tune, it will give you the ABC notation as well. It's available for iPhone, iPad, Android and you can use it on your PC if you have a microphone hooked up.
And just last month a new app came out, created by an Irish woman, and performed by a 15 year old girl from Cork called "Irish Fiddler".
There are also apps for tuning your instrument, Metronome apps, Guitar Tab apps and so very much more.
Things change. You can't smoke in the pubs anymore. The Celtic Tiger is now a scarred old tabby cat. And in Ireland, pubs are closing at the rate of one every two days. Pretty soon that dark, sticky old pub won't even be there to house the current Fiddle Hero. Traditional music isn't really learned in the traditional fashion any longer, even in Ireland.
We are the test tube babies of Irish music. It doesn't make us any less legitimate so long as re respect the music. Welcome to the digital age.
PS - I'd love to hear what devices you use to help in your study of the music. If there are enough responses, I'll update the blog to include them.