It was nine o’clock on a Sunday night when Johnny Og came to collect me, and it was raining—not one of those misty, soft rains, as is often the case on the west coast of Ireland, but one of those howling, unforgiving, relentless downpours that comes from no discernable direction, save for the threatening sky overhead. Johnny Og had stepped onto my porch, hair wet, wax jacket dripping. “Well, I’m here,” he said. “A bit worse for wear, but I’m here.”
“I can’t believe this weather,” I said, in lieu of hello.
“You learn to live with it,” he returned. “People are always running down the weather in Ireland, but I think it’s all in the attitude.”
“Such is life,” I confirmed, and although running to his car was tantamount to diving into the eye of a hurricane, a plan is a plan, and the plan that night was to pick up his father then drive to Tigh Hughes for the Sunday night sessiun.
The humble house was whitewashed and one level, with a painted black door and black slat-shutters on either side of its windows. It sat at the edge of the bog, behind a circular, gravel driveway, onto which Johnny Og leapt out, head ducked, shoulders hunched, to run inside and retrieve his father, while I sat in the passenger’s seat, listening to the rain drum a rat-a-tat-tat on the roof of the two-door Toyota. When the front door opened, Sean Johnny sauntered out as if he had all the time in the world, as if it were not torrentially raining, as if there would be no consequence to the instrument he carried in his hand with the casual adroitness of someone who considered it an extension of himself.
I jumped out of my seat and started to angle in back, but Sean Johnny immediately said, “You’re all right there,” in an accent heavy with the back-of-the-throat tones of the Irish language as he wedged himself into the back of the car. I’d never met Sean Johnny before, but I’d heard of him. There wasn’t a soul in Connemara who didn’t know who he was, nor his son, Johnny Og, for that matter. But I was new to the region, and hadn’t realized the soul-stirring impact of either them; I didn’t know they were so revered in Connemara that nobody ever used their last name.
“She’s a fierce night, Da,” Johnny Og began, and I thought I heard his father say something that sounded like “sha.”
“We’re running a bit late tonight, Da, so we are,” Johnny Og continued, and I thought I heard the word “sha” once again. I was puzzling at the way Johnny Og prompted the conversation. It seemed halted, leading, and awkward to me, until it hit me his father didn’t have complete command of the English language. I felt the heat rise to my cheeks at the realization that they were speaking English for my benefit, so I only turned to smile and nod when Johnny Og said, “Da, this is Claire, she’s an American.”
There’s an uneven asphalt road that leads to Tigh Hughes in Spiddal, but somebody has to tell you about it. Left to my own devises, I would have never noticed the road, which lies just across the street from the Catholic Church on the coast road in the middle of town. Hughes, as it is known locally, is a pub that has sheltered generations beneath its one room roof. The locals go there night after night; they go for the drink and they go for the craic, but on Sunday nights, they go for the Irish traditional music.
It was standing room only when we ran for dear life through the back door of Hughes. There were voices ringing, young lads posturing, pints scattered everywhere, and nowhere to sit. In the corner, wooden benches met at the juncture of two back walls. The musicians sitting there made room, while I let myself be carried wave-like to an elevated spot on a window seat against the front wall. From here, I could see the players: a woman on the tin whistle, a rhythm guitarist, Johnny Og and his father. A man sat at the end, balancing a wooden board on his knee and wielding something I took to be a marionette, but later learned was called a clacker. It danced and kept time percussively, in a tap somehow commiserate with the pattering rain outside. Johnny Og played the button accordion, and his father played the melodeon. When the music began, they took turns in circuitous splendor, setting the pace in rhythms that sounded like laughter.
The thing about Irish traditional music is the more you listen to it, the more complicated it becomes. It’s impossible to discern who leads and who follows, but the musicians seem to stay connected through some inexplicable mode of telepathy. I was mesmerized by the little things that night: the way Johnny Og and his father kept time with their tapping feet, the way the woman playing the tin whistle bobbed her head side-to-side like a bird, the way the guitarist played with such thrashing percussion that there was no need for a drum. It went on this way for an hour, then suddenly a hush felled the air with such levity you could have heard a pin drop. I cast my eyes to Johnny Og as he began a slow, haunting air, and the crowd stood silently, as if at attention. He had a look on his face as if he were peering beyond the room and into another world, and when it was over, no one moved for a reverential moment, until the musicians roused themselves and began once again.
When the music subsided, I was invited into the musician’s circle; that cluttered, haphazard, inner sanctum, marked by the tell-tale accoutrements of a trad musician’s presence: scattered pints ringed with tinted brown foam, car keys, packs of cigarettes, discarded jackets, and carrying cases strewn hither and yon. The man with the clacker stood as I approached. His name was Cahill, and he was monstrously big in his weathered jeans and burnt-red, flannel shirt. “This is Claire," Johnny Og introduced, "she’s an American,” and with that, Cahill lifted me off the ground in a big bear hug, toppling over a full pint of Guinness, which puddled the wooden table after it splashed my knees. For one suspended moment, all eyes watched me, poised for my response. I saw Sean Johnny studying me, and was so aware my next move would create a chain-reaction that I decided to laugh. When I did, much laughter and joking erupted. There were quips and back-slaps and a “Brighid, she’ll be needing another pint,” and the night carried on like every other in Hughes, with rain pelting down on the outside, and that mysterious, other-worldly, mood-setting ambience on the inside that only an Irish traditional sessiun can bring.
Claire Fullerton is the author of contemporary fiction, "Dancing to an Irish Reel," which is set on the west coast of Ireland.