You wouldn’t expect an American to suffer much culture shock in Ireland; so similar are the two nations’ customs and values. But after a month living in a remote area of northwest Ireland I felt disconnected and discouraged. The people there were friendly and kind, but their Irish accents were so thick I often had no idea what they were talking about. The effort it took to listen hard for even a fragment of understanding was wearing me out.
Fortunately, Irish radio programs came to my rescue: news, interviews, music and sports broadcasts. The radio voices were still accented, but they were clear and winsome, and they eased my isolation like a conversation with a friend. Journalists were a pleasure to listen to: well-informed, direct and sincere. The melodious Irish voice made even the Farm Report interesting.
Interviews with Irish athletes were great fun, with their quirky, honest comments such as explaining how a player was absent because he was still “on the piss,” or the how certain referees were “wankers.” There were personalities with great names like Mossy Quinn being asked, “So, can the Dubliners hold on to the lead, Mossy?” I loved hearing all their opinions. One sports commentator insisted Muhammad Ali was Irish.
I recall my bafflement listening to a story about the history of whoring. It was about how in the past only men were allowed to participate in whoring. If women tried to get involved with whoring, they were beaten and imprisoned. How could that be? It took me a while, but I finally figured out the announcer was saying hurling not whoring. Hurling is a beloved sport in Ireland, similar to field hockey. That made the story only slightly less weird.
From the radio talk shows I learned the Irish people were generous and open to receiving Syrian refugees. The music programs were consistently interesting, assuming one didn’t mind half of them being about Van Morrison. I happen to like his music, and so one day an advertisement for a band that played only Van Morrison music caught my eye. The band’s unique approach was that all songs were to be sung, not in English, but in Irish.
This was intriguing, but I still hesitated because over the years I’d grown weary of live music shows. I frequently felt an awkward, self-conscious irritation with musicians for excessive “performing” – the contrived mugging and bizarre facial contortions they seem to think is required. “Just play the music!” – I want to say. I usually prefer hearing music in a disembodied way; melodies wafting through the ether in the dark, sort of like one gets from the radio. I bought a ticket for the concert anyway.
At the theater I snagged a front row seat. The crowd was middle-aged and mellow. Suddenly ten musicians pounced onto the stage and started rocking out, catching the audience off-guard.
This was good. There was something about this band that was straightforward and free of the performer’s guile that usually bothered me. I knew many of the songs with the English lyrics, but there were several songs I’d never heard before. The Irish words were mesmerizing.
For a change I felt very unself-conscious, which mirrored my perception that the musicians were sincerely into each song, and not just “performing” in an affected way. I got into the songs too and was so enthused, I ceased paying attention to the crowd around me. It was just the band and me, jumping up, whooping it up, whatever I felt. The musicians on my side of the stage seemed to notice my antics and I think they liked it, smiling at me and nodding.
One of the songs I’d never heard before was Ballerina. That title suggests something pretty and delicate, but they played the song with a hard edge. At one point the lead singer let loose a soulful howl, more like a scream. My eyes were locked on him and when he screamed, not only did he really mean it, but I felt like I was screaming as well, somehow inhabiting his scream, strange as that may sound. I’d never had that feeling before; it was connecting and transcending as if I had received the music into my body. My chest was full of emotion; the scream located dead center. In that moment an astonishing new thought exploded in my head: I don’t ever want to feel ashamed of myself again.
What in the world was that, I wondered, feeling stunned and relieved and delighted all at once. After the last song, the band ran off, but I clamored for an encore. When they came back, the musicians near me also looked delighted; laughing and giving me a thumbs up.
I left the theater feeling so light and airy, like I could fly home, but I just couldn’t go home yet. I sat down on some steps and looked around. This was Main Street Letterkenny. The Autumn air was chill, I could smell pizza nearby, and there were lively people all around. I could hear a guitar player strumming somewhere; it was Saturday night. The eyes of my soul seemed to be directed outward in all directions, even as my senses took everything in. There was no self-concern; I was accepting of everything I saw and felt without judgment.
This was a state of super-receptivity, birthed by the music and the musicians, and consecrated by a scream. I don’t recall ever having screamed in my entire life. But this vicarious scream, from a song I didn’t know in a language I couldn’t understand, overshadowed my usual way of thinking things out. The scream was like a new language, received like a radio transmission, with gifts to offer.
I looked again with affection at the people streaming this way and that. This was sweet and clear and distinctly sober. And I’m thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time?