I first visited Ireland in 1976. It was a poor country, and I didn’t see anything which looked at all like the town of Dingle looks now.
That may be a pity for visitors who come looking for an authentic Irish experience, but I bet it’s a relief to the people who live here that the worst of the poverty is behind them.
When I first came to this country I spent a couple of weeks in Doolin, County Clare, famous then as now for its traditional music. Every night I went to O’Connor’s pub to hear the old men play their ‘choons’.
The only food available was cabbage, bacon and potatoes. The late, great flute and tin whistle player Michael Russell invited me to visit his home.
He lived alone in a thatched cottage with whitewashed walls, an earthen floor, a fire with a black kettle, a single bed, a chair. It was cold in November. Outside there was snow on the ground.
Michael and I huddled by the fire as he made tea, then he pulled out his flute and taught me a couple of ‘choons’, and generously complimented me on my very basic fiddle playing and on the sound of my instrument. ‘Never sell that fiddle, Richard,’ he said to me, and I have it still. I played it this week in Dingle.
At the time I didn’t realise what a special experience I was getting.
The Russell brothers were a legend in Irish music circles. Doolin still holds an annual Micho Russell Festival.
Michael’s younger brother, Packie the concertina player, died the year after my time in Doolin. Sadly, Michael himself died as a result of a car accident in 1994.
Things in Ireland have changed a lot since then.
In a pub, your pint of Guinness may be pulled by a Polish hospitality student. After your bracing hillwalk, you can get a Shiatsu rub-down from a German masseuse.
Dingle is also well known for its traditional music, and you’re sure to find a traditional music session, but the fiddlers rattling out reels may be visitors from Sweden, Belgium or the USA.
The town is considerably more prosperous than Doolin in the 1970s, and around both Doolin and the Dingle Peninsula, smart holiday homes are far more common than thatched cottages.
Was the authentic old Ireland a nicer place?
The writer was the guest of South West Walks and Utracks.