We drove into Doolin from the north, not knowing quite what to expect. A wild west town, stuck on the very edge of Europe, it fell about on either side of the road for half-a-mile, a scattering of dwellings with no definable focus. To the east and north lay the rocky, limestone wilderness of the Burren of County Clare; to the south, the Cliffs of Moher towered abruptly out of the sea. The only open aspect lay to the west, where the headland sloped away to the Atlantic.
The town seemed to belong nowhere, to exist, rather, in its own sealed-off little dream world, detached from reality. Yet paradoxically, the rest of the world appeared to have found its way here, for no reason that was immediately apparent.
With some little difficulty we found the only guest house which had beds to spare, and booked a room for the night. A minute later, three French girls arrived on the same quest. After some juggling of rooms and beds they were given accommodation which, though far from ideal, they accepted.
Our next requirement was a meal. We found a restaurant that served seafood. The waiter spoke with a strong American accent, but conversed easily with the large family of large Italians who were enjoying platefuls of mussels. In fact, as we looked around us, we realised that we were the only customers speaking English.
Our hunger satisfied we strolled past the youth hostel that stood on a slight rise above the village. Sprawled on the grass and the steps, and hanging out of the windows was a representative selection of young people from almost every country in Europe, and possibly a few more beyond.
Why had such a cosmopolitan crowd journeyed to this tiny, isolated, run-down outpost, almost at the limit of the continental shelf? The answer is that Doolin bears much the same relationship to Irish folk music as New Orleans does to jazz, or perhaps as Liverpool did to British pop music in the 1960’s.
At the guest house we had asked where to go to hear the music and had been told: “Any of the bars, but you’d better get there early.” That proved to be good advice. We chose our bar because we happened to find ourselves standing outside it. Already it was filling up. We chose a table close, but not too close to where the musicians would be playing.
The other occupants of our alcove turned out to be an Australian couple making their first visit to The British Isles. Armed with guitar and accordion, they had planned their itinerary so as to visit as many centres of folk music as possible. Inevitably, the trails had led them to Doolin.
Musicians drifted in with the crowds and began playing whatever instrument they carried: guitar, flute, tin whistle. The entertainment was completely unstructured and wholly improvised. Yet the result could not have been better had it been meticulously rehearsed. The lack of an instrument was no impediment to anyone who wished to be involved.
By now, reaching the bar was becoming difficult, and the quickest way to this fount of refreshment was to go out through the back door and in by the front. During a lull in the music, two elderly couples joined us after what must have been quite a struggle through the throng. Their ages alone would have made them conspicuous. The elegance and quality of their attire made then doubly so.
The two women sat down, parked their handbags on the table and spent the remainder of the evening silently drinking whiskey and chain-smoking. Their husbands, on the other hand, armed with pints of Guinness, proceeded to engage us and the Australians in animated conversation.
The short, stout gentleman, a retired farmer, was intrigued by the low price of antipodean sheep, and wanted to know everything about sheep farming in Australia. His companion, a retired doctor, told us that he had given over his practice to his eldest son. No cheap guest house for them. They had driven over from a high-class hotel in Lahinch.
The musicians renewed their playing. The crush became even more sardine-like. Then a way was cleared for a small girl to demonstrate her high-kicking skills in a traditional Irish dance. The Australians were a little reticent about their own musical talents. The farmer, however, would not let them away with excuses, and bulldozed a way through for them to join the other instrumentalists. He and the doctor, their view completely blocked, stood on their seats and yelled encouragement like teenage hooligans. Their wives sat like zombies.
Not only was the bar packed with people but so was the street outside. Faces peered in through the windows. There must have been as many outside as in.
The music continued without a break, getting wilder as the night wore on until, long after the legal closing time, it just seemed to peter out and the crowds dispersed almost without our noticing.
By the time we reached our guest house we felt as though we had the village to ourselves. Only the breakers on the shore disturbed the silence. The landlady told us that every summer night was like that in Doolin.