A musical pilgrimage began with a pint in Dublin’s southside at the famous O’Donoghue’s where The Dubliners began playing in 1962. A pint of Guinness lands on the bar as I look around at the many artefacts which celebrate the band’s much-loved members including Luke Kelly.
The gravel-voiced folk-hero who sang The Black Velvet Band is honoured with two statues in the city that feature his red curly hair and beard. Kelly’s Scottish granny had a profound influence on the singer inspiring a love of Scots poetry and folk songs such as A Parcel of Rogues and Freedom Come-All-Ye by Hamish Henderson.
A timeline on the wall informs that The Dubliners “appear at the Edinburgh Festival to huge critical acclaim” a year after performing here for the first time, as the house-band deliver a fast and furious Streams of Whisky by The Pogues.
Close to St Stephen’s Green and a short walk from O’Donoghue’s is The Little Museum of Dublin with its U2 exhibition. It’s an evocative pop-culture journey going back to the band’s formation in 1976.
Among the many artefacts curated by fans are magazine covers, collectables and event posters which capture the spirit of U2. The highlights include their show-stealing performance at Live-Aid, cracking America with The Joshua Tree and their re-invention in Berlin while recording Achtung Baby. The city honours many of Ireland’s rock and folk luminaries as well as a corner dedicated to the late blues guitar hero Rory Gallagher, once a first choice replacement for Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones.
Another popular attraction remains Phil Lynott’s life-size statue outside Bruxelles pub, one of the Thin Lizzy frontman’s favourite bars where he was said to have shared a pint with Lemmy from Motörhead and Belfast boy George Best. Lynott’s statue is between Grafton Street and The Westbury Hotel, where I am welcomed by guest relations manager Joseph Downing who shares his knowledge of Dublin. He escorts me to the elegant Sidecar cocktail bar which has a 1930s art deco spirit.
On the wall are portraits by photographer Jane Brown, famous for her black and white shots, among them is a glamorous picture of Ireland’s greatest living writer Edna O’Brien alongside the likes of Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett and Bono.
Downing tells of attending his grandmother’s birthday party at a restaurant in the late 1980s where a stranger stood up and sang Happy Birthday.
“Sure he’s not got a bad voice but he needs a haircut”, suggested the grandmother. It was Bono. Downing lights a roaring fire and serves a Penicillin, a smoky modern classic that suits the atmospheric surroundings. While the rain stotting off the ground might encourage most to stay in the hotel bar, the WILDE restaurant manages to attract unpretentious Saturday night locals who create a friendly atmosphere. Once again Downing regaled me with tales, of Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland who opened the restaurant.
I opted for fillet steak with king oyster mushrooms, bone marrow butter and hand-cut chips. Keen to make the most of the city before moving on, I visited the Dublin Bowie Festival at the beautiful Olympian Theatre which celebrated 50 years of The Man Who Sold The World. Among the acts were Holy Holy featuring Spider From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey and bass player/producer Tony Visconti. Bowie himself appeared at the atmospheric Victorian venue in 1997 and the theatre has lost none of its charms. Various films and documentaries, as well as record fairs, stalls and art exhibitions, run during this unique five-day event. Next year’s festival will mark 50 years since The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
While travelling from Dublin to Cork, I began a long discussion with the ticket inspector. He spoke of tracing his Scottish ancestry and a passion for the Irish language saying: “You never really know yourself unless you know your language.”
All over Ireland, there is a strong cultural awareness and celebration of the mother tongue which bleeds into the culture.
My next connection from Cork to Galway didn’t have the same exuberance, in the darkness of night with rain battering off the windows it was more like a ghost-train that rattled on for hours without another soul in sight, not even a ticket inspector.
After three changes in stormy conditions and more than four hours, I arrived for a much-needed bite to eat at Ard Bia. After that there was just time for a nightcap in O’Connors, the tavern featured in Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl promo video. It’s now one of the most viewed hostelries on the planet. The promo featured Irish actress Saoirse Ronan enjoying a boozy night in the pub with its ancient tobacco signage and antique furnishings. It has attracted Sheeran fans from around the globe keen to sample the traditional music and home-brew; 1862.
The west of Ireland has become a strong part of The Waterboys’ folklore since Mike Scott retreated there to record Fisherman’s Blues in 1986, trading the pressures of the music industry for the elements of Inis Mór.
With all sailing suspended the day before it was a relief that my journey was going ahead at all. The storm returned while sailing to the Aran Islands. As the ship motioned up and down among the crashing waves I regretted leaving the comfort of the hotel. Those feelings soon dissolved after docking at Inis Mór where I was greeted by tour guide Cyril O’ Flaherty. He suggests the title track of Fishermans Blues was inspired by a similar dose of mal de mer.
We pass Joe Watty’s pub where Mike Scott once took part in an “unforgettable session”. O’Flaherty leads me to a spot known as the Wormhole where the North Atlantic swells up in front of us to thrash against the endless miles of cliff-face, a few moments later the haunting grey skies turn blue as the sun appears over the vast ocean.
There’s an uncommon feeling here from which Scott drew deeply. In 2015 the potency of the waves knocked a woman deep into the water, astonishingly she lived to tell the tale, perhaps adding to the legend of this uncanny place.
We ramble on to a monastery dating back to the 5th century where O’Flaherty speaks of ancient Irish history and saints, among them a contemporary of St Patrick. His passion for this land is tangible, in his other role as an artist he suggests the work reflects a life-long exploration of these islands which own “part of your soul”.
Before I return to the Galway ferry we stop at Joe Mac’s bar overlooking the bay for a pint of Guinness and a cheese toasty. This time the boat journey is serene and as the vessel glides along the water I watch the fishermen head out into the ocean with the aforementioned song written by Scott and Waterboys’ fiddle player Steve Wickham echoing around my head.
For more information visit www.ireland.com
For bookings at The Westbury please visit doylecollection.com