I don’t like trad music. To me it all sounds the same. They say Hell is full of accordion players – I know exactly what they mean.
So therefore it was a strange move for me to go to a trad school for a week. In Donegal, right beside Mount Errigal – the complete middle of nowhere.
I was only ever in Donegal once before. It has that endless desolate landscape – the sort of place that could be a Taliban stronghold, if only it the winters weren’t so rough.
As we drove through this bleak mountainous landscape, I could imagine seeing Ross Kemp jumping out of a jeep with a camera crew, out looking for insurgents in the hills. This certainly wasn’t my Midlands-style landscape with it’s reassuring flatness. The Taliban wouldn’t last five minutes in Offaly – we’d see them coming from miles away, and we’d be out with the hurls.
So why a week in Taliban trad territory? I wanted to see if I could be indoctrinated. Not by the Taliban – lurking around the back of Mount Errigal in their shawls, but by the trad music itself. Total immersion – like the way the Nazi’s used to make their prisoners learn German.
Because I believe you can indoctrinate yourself into liking any kind of music, if you give it enough time. It’s happened to me before, by mistake…
I once shot a load of hip-hop videos for a group of rappers in London. I never liked hip-hop before that. I’d never been exposed to it. But then in the hundreds of hours I spent absorbing those beats while editing those videos, I fell in love with the music. Now it’s all guns, drugs and bitches for me.
So could I also fall in love with that incessant fiddling, those brain-piercing high notes on the squeezebox, and that bloody banjo too….?
My main concern was that a week wouldn’t be enough time do a proper indoctrination. You need a significant amount of time to be properly brainwashed – any cult leader worth his Cool-Aid will tell you that.
But I needn’t have worried. I soon realised a lack of trad was not going to be a problem in this particular hostel.
Because trad players don’t get tired. They play all day, in sessions until five in the morning, and then they’ll be up fiddling away again around the breakfast table – three hours later.
At any stage of the day or night they’d be fluting and fiddling in the hallways, playing banjos in the lobby – basically knocking out the trad anywhere there were chairs available. The hostel kitchen proved particularly popular for all this fiddling and fluting – there were plenty of chairs in there. Not even the cutlery was safe – a pair of spoons was swiped by a young fella with the look in his eye of a man who’s going to show you how it’s done – whether you like it or not.
The next morning I walked into the kitchen to witness a Chinese woman speaking fluent Irish to her local Donegal husband. While waiting for the toast to pop, I enquired – in English – how she became so proficient in Irish. A language that’s unfortunately become both obscure and irrelevant – not just to Chinese people – but to fair few of us too.
She told me she’d moved to Donegal five years previously, and decided to learn the local lingo. She said she felt it was important, particularly as she was living in a Gaeltacht area.
I felt ashamed – I learned that same Irish for fourteen long years, and I can barely string a sentence together. That, coupled with the far more pressing and relevant fact that I am actually Irish – and not Chinese – further depressed me with my comparative lack of language.
I also felt like an eejit in the local shop, without a clue how to ask for the simplest of things in my supposed native tongue. I could ask your permission to go to the toilet, or I could rattle off the ‘Our Father’ fairly quickly for you. You can thank the Presentation Brothers for those two endlessly practical skills. But that’s about the extent of my Irish-language abilities today.
But a lot of the trad players could speak the Irish. I was interested in the correlation between being able to play the trad and speak the Irish. They should probably be the two qualifications for the passport, or if a Noah’s Ark situation ever arises again and we have to pick the best few Irish people to send on the boat. Trad players and Gaeilgeoirs, they’ll get the lifeboats first when the ship starts to sink – not the likes of me, a tradless fucker frantically reciting the ‘Our Father’ in the toilet.
In conversation with a woman from southside Dublin, I enquired as to whether she could speak the Irish too. She announced that she ‘had’ the Irish – as if she was some sort of chosen one – like Jesus or Stalin or the manager of Chelsea – but that she didn’t like to ‘use’ her Irish. She declared this with a dismissive wave of the hand that really wound me up. I’d just heard a woman from fucking Guangdong speak fluent Irish, and this D4 ‘Oirish’ eejit couldn’t be arsed?
I came away from the week in Donegal with a few questions for my parents. Despite the ginger hair, the foul mouth, and the fact I’ve seen U2 play live in Croke Park four times, I mustn’t actually be Irish at all. The place was full of trad-mad Italians, Swiss, Germans….and a Gaeilgeoir from Guangdong…..but I just couldn’t get into it.
I even learned a trad tune on the mandolin – my thinking being that if I actually became an active participant rather than a mere witness, I might get into it more. But that didn’t work either…
So I guess I’ll have to stick to the guns, drugs and bitches of hip-hop – rather than the flutes and the fiddling of the trad-scallions…