Music to our ears

We scanned leaflets, looking for traditional instruments such as the Irish harp. The reward was worth the effort.

Twilight gathers outside the church window, turning the sky sapphire and transforming green hills into black silhouettes. Inside on stage, Steve Coulter plays a simple Irish flute tune, the pure tones echoing from the two-foot-thick walls. Shadows dance on the wall behind him.

Down the street, group music sessions start at the pubs, but in Dingle's St. James Churchin western County Kerry, the musicians follow older traditions handed down across generations.

The music drew us to Ireland - a favorite Chieftains album and Riverdance's fiery beats - music that kindled worldwide interest in Ireland's music. We spent days lost in Ireland's history and nights absorbed in its laments, jigs, and reels, tunes recalling sea and wind, love lost and won, victory and defeat.

Irish speaking voices are so musical that it often seems as if the whole country were singing, and adding words to sentences: "It's you we'd be talking about, so," as if to finish the cadence. It's no wonder that music performances are as plentiful as shamrocks in the gift shops.

To find older music forms, we looked beyond the ubiquitous pub session, an ensemble music form that arose in the 1950s. The session did descend from Irish musical tradition, but for centuries before it started, musicians played unaccompanied, and we were searching for the modern-day equivalent of siamsa (shee-am-sah), an evening's entertainment at a neighbor's home.

A flier promised a folk concert at St. James Church, and so we found ourselves listening to Mr. Coulter's flute and tapping our toes to a fiddler's jig. At intermission, our fellow Irish music lovers' accents revealed their origins: American, English, German, Irish.

So many musical styles bill themselves as "traditional Irish" that finding authentic music, even in its mother country, requires Sherlock Holmes's sleuthing skills. We scanned leaflets for clues: traditional instruments such as the Irish harp and uillean (ILL-in) pipes, solo performers, or well-known musicians.

The reward was worth the effort. Ornamentation, the artist's decorative touch that typifies a regional or personal style, shone in the solos. In the quiet places, the instruments spoke: the harp's strum, the concertina's soft wheeze, and the flute's whistle. No buzzing conversation obscured the music. No smoke filled the air.

Ivory-cheeked children, black-haired, eyes shining, fill Ireland's strollers. Eilís Kennedy, who sang at St. James when we were there, must have been one of them. Wearing a red sweater and black slacks, she sang a song by Colum Sands: "Ah but never count your chickens... when you're dealing with the women... For many's a wise man fell asleep and wakened up a fool." Her clear voice filled the darkening church.

Traditional musicians honor their teachers in their introductions: "I got this song from so-and-so, who's a banjo player/fiddler/piper from over in such-and-such (town or county)."

As Coulter and Ms. Kennedy filled the church with their songs, the audience could almost imagine their teachers and the many travelers and musicians who'd come before them across the centuries. We listened, appreciated, and as the concert ended, we applauded the result.

Where to find traditional music in Ireland

Irish music lovers worldwide helped compile the list of venues below. Many are located in western Ireland (Galway, County Clare) - the artists' and musicians' refuge from English attempts to suppress native culture - and the center of its revival.

To find music anywhere in Ireland, look for music schools and churches, check fliers in towns you're visiting, ask your B&B host, or inquire at the local music shop.

A word of caution if you're a purist looking for the traditional: While people still flock to the places mentioned in many guidebooks, such as Doolin and Lisdoonvarna, Irish music aficionados avoid them, saying they are too commercialized.

To call any of the telephone numbers listed below from the United States, dial 011-353 and the number. To call within Ireland, omit the (0).

• Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann (CCE), an organization founded to preserve Irish music, organizes regional festivals called fleadhs (flahs), which culminate in a national festival held in a different city each year. www.comhaltas.com; telephone: (0)1 280 0295 To find branches across Ireland, see: www.comhaltas.com/culturlann/tithe.htm.

• County Clare - Ennis: Glór Irish Music Centre, www.glor.ie; telephone (0)65-6843103

• County Clare - Tralee: Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland presents a musical program that dramatizes a year's cycle of living and working on the land. www.siamsatire.com; telephone (0)66-712-3055

• County Kerry - Dingle: St. James Church, Main Street. telephone (0)66-7122245

• County Dublin - Dublin: Ceol, The Irish Traditional Music Centre at Smithfield Village. www.ceol.ie; telephone (0)1-817-3820

• County Dublin - Monkstown: Cultúrlann na hÉireann (Irish Cultural Institute), home of CCE. Summer stage shows showcase traditional music, song, and dance. www.comhaltas.com/culturlann/fonntrai.htm; telephone (0)1-280-0295

• County Galway - Galway: Siamsa Folk Theatre. http://homepage.tinet.ie/~siamsa; telephone (0)91-755479

• County Limerick - Limerick: Irish World Music Center, telephone (0)61-202065

• County Tipperary - Cashel: Brú Ború (broo-boar-oo) Cultural Centre, www.comhaltas.com/bru/index.htm; telephone (0)62-61122

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