Traditional music: the very soul of Ireland.

My first trip to Ireland was for only a few days at the end of an English tour several years ago. I made the usual tourist rounds - Waterford, Blarney, the Ring of Kerry. The weather was warm and dry, the scenery as lovely as you would expect, the people friendly. But I didn't feel I was seeing the ''real'' Ireland. Something was missing.

I hadn't heard any music.

When I got to Limerick, I checked into a lovely, Edwardian-style town-house B&B called Cloneen, on the Ennis Road, and in desperation asked the proprietor if she knew of any place where I could hear some authentic, traditional Irish music. I didn't want a cabaret-style show, I explained, where the comedian dresses like a leprechaun, the step dancers smile, and a blond violinist in a slinky red dress stands in front of a thatched cottage playing ''Fiddler on the Roof.'' Nor was I looking for ''O Danny Boy'' or ''When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'' played on a baseball park organ.

I wanted the jigs and reels, the penny whistles and bodhran drums (pronounced bow-rahn), the dancers who had to concentrate too hard on their step patterns to bother with smiling, the haunting Gaelic melodies sung a cappella.

As it turned out, the proprietor's husband was the manager of a program put on by local people in King John's Castle, only a short walk away, and if I left right then I would just make it.

This was what I had been missing. The 13th-century castle was tiny, so the show had a wonderful intimacy about it. The performers were all from the local area, not ''professionals,'' but of professional caliber, who sang; danced; played whistles, bodhrans, and fiddles; told old Irish stories, rather than jokes; and seemed to be having a genuinely good time themselves. We in the audience were free to join in on any of the songs, or to give a song or two of our own at the end. Just such an evening might have been spent in the olden days in Ireland, when neighbors gathered on a frosty winter night to share a turf fire.

Over tea and brown bread served after the performance, I learned that this event was sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (pronounced something like Kol-tus Kiol-tori Erin), an organization formed in 1951 to promote and preserve traditional Irish culture - music, song, dance, and language. Comhaltas has branches all over Ireland, as well as in Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Australia. Programs like this one, seisiuns, they're called, are given in July and August in a number of communities throughout Ireland.

Most cultures have two traditions in music - art or classical music (that of the court and church, composed and performed by professionals), and folk or traditional (that of the common people, more often than not anonymous work songs , ballads, dance tunes, marching songs). For the early Europeans, classical musicians played such instruments as the viola da gamba and the harpsichord. In pre-English Gaelic society, they played the harp. These poet-harpists enjoyed a special status and received patronage from the aristocracy. The most famous was Turlough Carolan (1670-1738), who was renowned as a composer throughout Europe in his time.

The harpists were already losing ground by Carolan's time, however. When the Irish lost the Battle of Kinsale to the British in 1601, the cultural tide had started turning in the country. The new Anglo-Irish aristocracy preferred its own music, and the harpers became itinerants, traveling throughout the countryside and playing for anyone who could afford to put them up. They played their music for and with the common people. Their tunes were picked up by the pipes and whistle and fiddle, and they in turn blended the folk music of their new companions into their own compositions. The new music was sung to and danced to in neighborhood gatherings such as the Comhaltas programs emulate today.

By the mid-19th century, however, poverty, famine, and emigration had taken their toll of the harpists. Even as early as 1792, a festival in Belfast drew only 10 harpists. Because harp playing was strictly an orally maintained tradition, it might have been lost completely, except for the presence at that festival of Edward Bunting, a young musicologist.

Bunting began to write down the music and techniques of traditional Irish musicians. His collection, compiled over a 50-year period, saved a musical heritage that forms the basis of Irish traditional music today. Irish music still echoes the rhythms and meters of Gaelic poetry, and is played in the scales of the harp. This blending of classical and folk music gives a special richness and complexity that distinguishes the Irish tunes.

It's hard to imagine traditional or ''folk'' music without the Irish contribution. Just think of the Irish jig, Irish harp, Irish ballad, or, for that matter, the Irish tenor. Yet for many travelers to the Emerald Isle, the truly traditional Irish music can be as elusive as, well, the fabled leprechaun.

Real Irish music is found by the turf fires of country inns, at the local dances (ceilis, pronounced kay-lee), in the ''singing pubs,'' in community music centers (Teach an Cheoils - ''music houses'' - pronounced Tak Kio-il), and in the festivals and competitions held by Comhaltas throughout the summer and fall. The music is there for every traveler to enjoy, but like the leprechaun's pot of gold, finding it takes a combination of knowing where to look and being in the right place at the right time.

Comhaltas is perhaps the best place to start. Events are listed in a pamphlet available through its headquarters near Dublin or from the Irish Tourist Board. Besides the seisiuns, there are ceilis - where visitors are welcome to join in the dance and learn the steps - and festivals. The Fleadh Nua (pronounced Flah, meaning ''feast'') is one of the big ones, held in Ennis the last weekend of May. Members of some of the most popular groups, such as Stockton's Wing or Planxty, will often be found at the Fleadh, sitting in on jam sessions with musicians of all ages and from all over the world.

The Fleadh Cheoil (Flah Kioh-il), the All-Ireland festival and competition, is held the fourth weekend in August, but not always in the same locale. The week before the Fleadh, a special school is conducted for singers, dancers, and musicians who already have some competence. This year's Fleadh Cheoil will be Aug. 24-26 in Kilkenny. Try to include a festival in your itinerary, but be sure to book your hotel or B&B in advance. The headquarters of Comhaltas is in a restored Georgian mansion in Monkstown, a suburb just south of Dublin near Dun Laoghaire. From June to early September, some sort of event - such as a ceili, seisiun, or folk theater - is held each night. Similar events are held in the local Teach an Cheoils. These were established as alternatives to pubs as places for families to share music together where no alcoholic beverages are served.

In Dublin proper is Ni Piobiari Uillean (pronounced something like Nee Peebura Ill-ian), the ''Pipers Club,'' on Henrietta Street. The Uillean pipes, or Irish bagpipes, gained in popularity as the harp waned. But by the early 20th century, there were only a handful of prominent pipers left. Ni Piobiari was formed in 1949 to keep interest in the instrument alive. The club has recently moved to new quarters near the head of Capel Street, where many of the most popular music pubs are. Their Georgian mansion is being restored this year, but the club hopes to resume regular music sessions by next summer. (This area is certainly a good candidate for gentrification; if you visit any of the spots here, it's best to take a cab and have the driver pick you up at closing time.)

I met Sean Potts at Ni Piobiari on a recent trip to Dublin. Sean was one of the original members of The Chieftains, perhaps the best-known worldwide of the traditional Irish musical groups. He left the group only a few years ago to spend more time at home with his family. He still plays his tin whistle, and when I met with him had been practicing with four other musicians for a ceili. Sean was telling me about the course of traditional music in Ireland in recent decades.

The revival gained momentum in the early '60s, he said. Composer Sean O'Raida wrote a score using old Irish airs for a film about the 1916 Rising. ''O'Raida resurrected old music that was just buried,'' Sean Potts told me, ''and the whole country began to hear the music through that. People began to want more and more.''

O'Raida formed a folk orchestra that put traditional Irish music on the concert stage for the first time. Then, Sean Potts and Paddy Maloney, both members of O'Raida's orchestra, were asked by Claddagh Records to form a group and make a recording. This was the genesis of The Chieftains.

Meanwhile, four Irishmen in New York, influenced by an American folk music revival, began singing as a group. The popularity of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem led to imitators by the score back home in Ireland. Pubs would invite ballad singers and traditional musicians to perform. ''We ceased to be artists,'' Sean said, ''and started taking money!''

Many pubs still have special music nights, and some have upstairs rooms for it, away from the main bar. John Kelly, a friend of Sean's and one of the best-known of the traditional fiddlers, plays at the Four Seasons on weekends. In comparing today with the decades before the revival, John said, ''It's gotten more dignified. There's more appreciation of it now than in the old days. Since Comhaltas formed, the music has taken on a different status. People used to think of it as Tinker music (Irish itinerants), but those who had the music in their marrow bones knew that it was the best music around.''

John's two sons are both noted fiddle players. He started teaching them when they were three or four years old. ''I put them sitting on my knee, put their fingers down and mine on top, made a fist, and put the bow in their other hand. After a week or so, they'd catch on.'' Children learn by playing the tunes by ear, he said. ''Some of them were slow enough for a while, but then one brought on the other.''

John Kelly, like many of the finest musicians, is from County Clare. As a very general rule, you're most likely to find music in the west of Ireland - Clare, Galway, and Donegal - and dancing in the south. The town of Doolin on the coast of Clare, facing the Aran Islands, is often cited as a mecca for musicians.

This summer, the right place is also the city of Galway. Celebrating the 500 th anniversary of its charter as a mayoral city, Galway has been spruced up with fresh paint, flowers, colorful banners, and flags. Each street or area of the city takes turns at holding a festival, and overseas visitors with surnames of the 14 Galway ''tribes'' are particularly welcome.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I chatted with Brendon O'Regan, a guitar and bazooki player who toured with De Danann and performed on its recent hit album, ''A Song for Ireland.'' We sat in the lunchroom of the Quays, a favorite spot for spontaneous sessions among visiting and local musicians. On Wednesday nights , ceilis are held there, with visitors welcome to come learn the steps. We were joined by Sean Ryan, a fine tin whistle player from County Tipperary. The two musicians agreed that Galway is becoming a mecca for musicians.

The Galway area is also attracting instrument-makers. Malachy Kearns has set up shop as possibly the country's only full-time bodhran-maker. Anne Kearns, Malachy's wife, paints Celtic designs on the bodhrans. The couple welcomes visitors to their shop in Roundstone, out in County Galway's western region of Connemara. Anne's brother, Tony Osborne, is starting up in business for himself in Galway making harps.

If the land is Ireland's heart and literature her mind, surely music is her soul. It may take a little digging and some planning to find that soul, but it's the best way I've discovered of getting to know the ''real'' Ireland.

Practical information:

For information on events, write to C. C. E. (Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann), Belgrave Square, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Ireland (phone 01-800295).

Further tips on finding music:

* Check country inns and the smaller hotels for their ''music nights.''

* Check local newspapers, particularly for ceilis.

* Call a local branch of Comhaltas and ask about events other than those it is sponsoring.

* Ask everyone you meet, everywhere!

A portion of Deborah Hand's recent tour was sponsored by Aer Lingus and the Irish Tourist Board.

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