On vacation in eastern Connecticut a year or so ago, my wife and I stopped at the Olde Mistick Village shopping complex. Being who we are, we gravitated to the Irish shop. Beyond the obligatory tweed caps and Aran Island sweaters, I spied an intriguing round thing high up on a wall.
A bodhran (pronounced bow-ran), it was a traditional goatskin drum. You hold it in one hand and play it with a wooden beater, also called a tipper, or in the Irish, a cipin (kip-een). This one was graced with the design of a beautiful green Celtic cross.
What in the name of St. Brigid would I do with that? I had no idea, but I had to have it.
So buy, said the Mrs.
So I did.
It sat in the box for months until an old piping comrade, George Monahan of Southold, called me. We’re starting up a traditional Irish music session and you should stop down, said he. Thursday evenings, 7 p.m. at the Whiskey Wind in Greenport.
Thanks, maybe I’ll see ya there. By the way, my wife bought me this present … (What? Did you think I was going to tell the truth?) Bring it down, he said, and we’ll show you what’s what.
So I did. Now I’m one of the lads who get together weekly and keep the old musical traditions alive.
That’s how I chanced to meet Jay Loomis, a player of the bodhran, flute, tin whistle and harmonica. Then Dave Berson, ukelele (we’re not fussy) and vocals, Greenport Mayor David Nyce on guitar and vocals as well, Dave Bauer on guitar and John Brisotti, a marvel on the mandolin. George, an accomplished bag piper, is equally adept at the somewhat similar Scottish small pipes and the very dissimilar Irish uilleann pipes.
“Uilleann,” by the way, comes from the Irish word for elbow. You don’t blow into a bag, you pump a bellows with your right elbow. The air travels through a tube around a player’s back into bag under the left elbow, which is squeezed to force the air into the chanter, from which springs the melody.
Nice guys all, but I was soon wondering what a graybeard piper like me was doing in the company of real musicians. Not that piping isn’t real music.
True, some people believe “bagpipes” and music don’t belong in the same sentence. What’s the difference between an onion and a set of bagpipes?
Nobody cries when you cut a set of bagpipes in half.
I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that maybe this playing and singing business wasn’t such a good idea.
Not to worry, said George, who teaches history at Suffolk County Community College. This isn’t a band and it doesn’t have a name. It’s a session, he explained. A jam session, to be precise, but the Irish prefer the short title.
But I don’t even know how to hold the damn bodhran, said I. The last thing you want is someone throwing you guys off the beat. Don’t know from jigs or reels or hornpipes. With that, Jay kindly showed me bodhran basics and advised that when in doubt, just keep a steady beat minus the flourishes.
I can do that.
So I did, tapping into memories of my eighth-grade garage band and those long-ago days of pounding out a somewhat steady beat on such timeless ’60s classics as “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” and “Take the Last Train to Clarksville.”
After a few weeks it all seemed to be working. I mean I’ve yet to be pelted with rotting fruit or cabbage.
Ah, but then one o’ the lads said, how about a song? Well, now, I’ve made a bit of a study of old tunes from the ould sod, but I’ve always sung in the solitary safety of the shower or car. High school glee club was a loooooooooong time ago.
Timidly, I quietly asked, what do you wanna hear?
It seems George knows a bunch as well, so we’ve become the de facto lead singers. Dave Berson can belt with the best of them, especially maritime tunes, and Dave Nyce has written quite a few original songs. But they don’t know as much Irish stuff as me buddy George and meself.
And so we have a grand time altogether giving voice to “Nell Flaherty’s Drake,” “Whiskey in the Jar” and “Mountain Dew,” to name a few. There’s even been a smattering of applause, wouldn’t you know.
Then one night I asked if anyone knew “Off to Philadelphia in the Morning.” Silence.
Do you? someone asked in return. Silence, then, well, uh, yeah, I do. Well, OK then, go ahead.
When will I learn to keep me mouth shut? Oh, what the heck. I’m in a pub, for crying out loud. And I see neither rotting fruit nor cabbage. Still …
Quit stalling Timmy-boy, I said to meself. OK, here goes:
Oh, me name is Paddy Leary from a spot called Tipperary
The hearts of the all the girls I’m a thorn in
But before the break of morn faith ’tis they’ll be all forlorn
For I’m off to Philadelphia in the morrrrr-ning.
Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? No, actually, it’s a lot of fun. I think I’ll keep coming down.
So I did.
We won’t be there tonight (St. Patrick’s Day) but will continue after the holiday.
Now, if we only had a fiddler or someone to play the button accordion.