It always warms me at how easily I slip into Irish mode, a jigsaw piece slotting back into the puzzle, just like I never had left. A day or two back home and my friends begin to drop by. Some call during the day, others at all hours of the night. Some text beforehand: ‘welcome back. R u up 4 a visit?’; ‘passing Fitz’s cross. Put on the kettle’; ‘heard you home. Will drop in for quick chat’. Others just arrive at the door, bearing smiles and gifts. Artists, sound engineers, boatmen, relatives, ladies in waiting. All good friends, the fabric of my life.
Our cottage was built in 1798, The Year of the French. It has been re-roofed and revamped a few times since, and there’s a lot of history and a feeling of good vibes between its 3-foot thick walls. Antoine Ó Raifteiri the poet spent many nights here on his rambles around Kiltartan. A century later, Yeats cast his eyes on the ground as he passed the door on his daily walk from Toor Ballylee. The first ever outside broadcast of Irish traditional music was made here, when Ciarán MacMathúna recorded Joe Cooley, Joe Leary, Milo Mullins, Mike Fada Fahy, Dolly Furey (his future wife), and others. The ‘new’ flagstone floor in the living room came from Russell’s quarry in Doolin and was quarried out by my sons Aindrias and Éamon, under Gussie Russell’s tutelage. When I had very little going for me in America and other parts of the world, thoughts of my little flag-floored cottage kept me keeping on.
Inside the décor is boho San Francisco cum traditional Irish. An adventurous son painted one of the doors in Rasta colours. Another door came from an old Protestant church and has two stained glass panels. The pews in the kitchen came from the same church. The living room is cluttered with books, shelves of cds and bric-a-brac from thrift stores in San Francisco’s Mission. From the stairway hang laminates from festivals and memorable gigs, a fiddle bow and a fishing rod. We have a stove in the stone hearth and the tiled wall behind it was inspired by a cafe wall in Barcelona. On the walls there’s art by Phillip Morrison, Ted Turton, Mick O’Dea and my son Jamie. There’s a 1950’s kitsch couch and armchair that I bought from a farmer in Tulla, and an old sugán chair that came from Doolin. When there’s a half-set being danced, most of the furniture is put outside in a hurry.
Here, the light wakes me early in the morning. There are no human sounds, just birdsong. Finches, blackbirds, thrushes and more I can’t identify. There’s the cooing of wood pigeons, chattering magpies and caws from the rookery down the road. After breakfast I go for a walk. This is the land of lush meadows, verdant trees of every variety, rabbits, hares and foxes. I’m the only human about and stroll the boreens, halting now and then to look at the dew on the fields, the bees and the blackberry blossoms, the swallows and swifts dancing overhead. Nature in its element, timeless and perfect.
At a certain part of my walk, I can see the Burren in the distance. The grey sleeping mountains are worth their weight in gold. The Burren is calming, an anchor to the long ago. It gives out protection and a feeling of connection. When the weather is warm and water is scarce, the wild goats come down from there and head this way. There are little streams and small ponds around here, and the herds drink from them in the early morning. When I meet them they stare at me as if to say ‘WTF are you doing here?’We have an old half-door— the bottom half used be closed to keep the hens out, and the top left open to let in light and fresh air. From the door we can see the hills of East Clare and Mahera Mountain: Martin Hayes country. We probably can see each other’s houses with binoculars. East Clare music flows all the way over to here. In the meadow beside the cottage, Seán Reid of the Tulla Ceili Band once asked Joe Cooley if he’d play with the team that night. Cooley was making hay with Mike Fada Fahy and had a pitchfork in his hand.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Joe said and plunged the fork into the ground. He walked away from the meadow with Reid and went home to get his accordion.
“That was the end of Joe and the farmin,” Mike Fada used say.
A turning point in a man’s journey that breathed new life and vibrancy into Irish traditional music. In this place, tunes and stories, poems and songs surround me. This is home, back to the roots, ar ais don draíocht.
Joe Cooley photo courtesy of Cooley-Keegan CCE, San Francisco