In September of 2015 I was in Doolin, a small village in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast. I had spent the day walking along the rough, weather beaten cliffs. I stopped for a moment to take in one last unobstructed view of Inis Oírr, glowing green in the sunshine, defiant amidst the sparkling, roiling tumult of the grey Atlantic. It had been a fantastic day but now it was time to go.
I was hungry, the type of hunger that only long walks in the sea air can bring into being. I stopped into McGann’s pub for something to eat. There were a few other people there but it was more than half empty.
I took a seat in the corner and tried to catch the attention of an older woman who was taking orders. I watched her hurry around, going erratically from table to table in a fluster. She seemed like she would have forgotten her head where it not attached to her body.
Finally she realised I was there and came over with a solemn, apologetic look on her face. She told me that later on there would be music and I was sitting where the band had to set up. Of course I agreed to move, there were plenty of other tables. It was really no trouble but she continued to apologise nervously
I gave her my order and she brought me my food. As I ate I watched the bar slowly fill up. It was Saturday, both locals and tourists had come to listen to the music and experience ‘the craic’. In the interim the band had arrived and were setting up.
The server helped, in her own particular way. She bashed tables around, stumbled on wires and indelicately planted and raised microphone stands. Finally everything was ready and the band began.
They played a couple of songs to get both themselves and the crowd warmed up. A song ended and the band leader motioned for silence. The raucous cacophony of a crowded bar dwindled to a murmur and the band leader called out a name, asking them to come up and sing.
The server began to make her way through the crowd with her hands by her sides, fist clenched and shoulders hunched. She appeared to be wound up so tightly that if someone had said “boo” she might have jumped through the ceiling.
When she reached the band she smiled quickly at them and sat down gingerly beside them. She sat upright and prim with her hands clasped firmly on her lap. She took a moment to fix her clothing and by this point the room has fallen silent in polite anticipation.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes tight. A wonderfully serene smile spread across her face as she began to sing “A Rainy Night in Soho” by The Pogues. The band stood by respectfully, she was singing unaccompanied.
I have been to music festivals with tens of thousands of people, I have been to small, intimate gigs with just a few but never in my life have I experienced a performance that came close to comparing with the sheer beauty of this moment. It was magic.
The entire room was enraptured. Locals and tourists alike drifted away on her voice. No one dared to speak. There was not the clink of a glass or the sound of a footstep to disturb her. The pub was spellbound, held in stasis like Pompeii after the eruption. It was as if she had stolen the air from the room.
She finished singing and there was a very distinct silence, a brief pause before applause slowly began to ripple through the crowd. People needed a moment to return from where she had sent them. She stood up, blushed and hurried back to work.
Written by Declan Brennan