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Cows stand behind a fence, but in front of a picturesque view of County Mayo in Ireland.
Unrelated photo by the author, although it was taken in County Mayo

I just got back from nine days in Ireland. I’m not the first guy to find the place wondrous, but I went there alone and there were moments I’m helpless to keep to myself. Here’s just one.

After an all-night flight from Washington, D.C. to Dublin, I drove west across the country to County Mayo, solo like Charles Lindbergh but sleepless and on the wrong side of the road. On my first night, still foggy and frazzled from the wild drive but with a traveler’s I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead mindset, I wandered for hours around Castlebar, where I would be staying throughout my trip. Around 11 p.m., I walked into a small pub that a guy on the street told me should have music.

The inside of the pub was dark and almost noiseless. I saw eight or nine men, most of whom looked over 65 and all of whom seemed local, sitting at the bar with pints of Guinness. Every movie I've seen set in Ireland could have shot scenes here. (Yes, Banshees of Inisherin was filmed in County Mayo.) Then one of the old dudes at the end of the bar broke the quiet by breaking into a song, unaccompanied until each chorus, when the other dudes joined in. 

The ensemble performance gave me chills. The soloist’s buddies all clapped when he was done. After a few seconds of dead air, a guy a few seats over began to croon, just as heartfelt and beautiful. And the goosebumps returned. Then another patron took a turn.

All my grandparents were Irish immigrants, and I grew up on all the rebel songs that grew out of the fight against British oppression. But this group favored tunes of lost love and longing for home over the angry war waltzes I knew best, and I had to search online to recognize most of the songs that made up their setlist. Among them: “Red Is the Rose,” “Curragh of Kildare,” “Boys from the County Mayo.”

Again, word about the musicality of the Gaels had gotten out several centuries before I landed in Dublin. But I don’t get out much, and the a capella session these pubfly Pavarottis were putting on before me was a complete revelation. As an interloper would, I got out my phone and recorded a partial performance, just to have some evidence of what I would surely be babbling about as soon as I left. You really had to be there, but this clip of a Castlebar crooner’s take on Dougie MacLean’s Scottish ballad “Caledonia” is worth more than all my words about the concert I was treated to, and why on my walk back to the hotel, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world to have stumbled onto it.

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