< back to writing

The Jig Is Up


From The Atlantic (May 2010)

From The Atlantic (May 2010)

By Andrew McCarthy

It’s the worst we’ve seen in our lifetime. And there’s absolutely no hope for the future,” my mother-in-law told me recently. “Everyone is frightened, we just don’t know where to turn.” She was, of course, referring to the great Irish economic meltdown, now firmly entrenched in its third year. Her tremulous voice was thick with the famous Irish doom and gloom, but there was truth in her words.

In the ’90s and early ’00s, doubledigit economic growth made Ireland the European Union’s poster child for success. Dublin exploded from a sleepy backwater to a town boasting some of the most expensive real estate in Europe. And then of course it all ended. To quote a friend, “The party’s over and the hangover is feckin’ brutal.” My own home in the city lost half its value, seemingly overnight. But Ireland is more than just Dublin, and out in the picture-postcard west, where the rising tide of the boom did not raise all boats, rural life was, and remains, dependent on the harvest and livestock. And so I decided to head out and see just how the recession was weighing on the Irish spirit far from the city lights.

I first arrived in Doolin, in County Clare, 25 years ago. A village of several hundred, strewn over a few miles on one main road, Doolin unfolds along a winding track that rises over a stone bridge, runs past two of the three pubs that anchor the town, dips into a swale, climbs over another bridge, works itself up a hill past a few shops and Gus O’Connor’s Pub, and then rolls down to the sea, where ferries ply the route to the Aran Islands. To the south, the coastline rises up into the Cliffs of Moher, 700 sheer feet of splendor above the Atlantic. Whitewashed houses with thatched roofs oversee sheep grazing across deep-green fields enclosed by crumbling stone fences that have stood for centuries. You can practically hear them singing “How are things in Glocca Morra?”—except that in Doolin, you’re more likely to catch the sounds of searing fiddles, rising flutes, and thumping bodhrán drums. The village has long been the epicenter of the traditional Irish music scene, and thanks largely to the success of Riverdance more than a decade ago, “trad” music is in the midst of a renaissance unmatched in recent memory. On most every night of the year, in any of Doolin’s three pubs, young musicians sit in, side by side with old, tearing into reels, jigs, and laments. The music may not have exempted Doolin from the recession, but it’s kept the place buzzing. “The people are still out and about, they’re just spending a lot less,” Orla McGovern tells me from behind the counter of her aptly named Traditional Music Shop on Fisher Street.

Late in the evening, I squeeze onto a stool at a packed McDermott’s Pub and recognize Geraldine MacGowan—one of Doolin’s local heroes and an international trad star—sitting in with the boys. She’s hard to miss, with a head full of thick red hair and a wicked smile. She keeps time on the bodhrán and nods greetings to countless patrons as she plays. Eventually, she takes the mic and sings a mournful ballad of loss and regret and fear. The locals nod with understanding.

At a break, Dolores Rice, a Dubliner down for the craic, explains, “Instilling fear is a Catholic tradition in Ireland. It’s something we’re very comfortable with. You can almost hear the priest say, ‘You thought you’d get away with your money grab, but the devil gets you in the end. You can’t sin without being punished.’ ” She looks around the crowded pub. “But we’re happy now, our most fatal certainty has been realized.” The Irish may have stopped going to church in large numbers, but it’s impossible to get the church out of the people.

Outside, a light rain’s begun. I make my way over the stone bridge and past McGann’s Pub. The band inside is slashing into a reel, and I stand under the glow of the lone street lamp, listening. The music burns to a crescendo and then breaks hard. There’s a moment of absolute silence in the countryside, and then it’s shattered as the crowd inside erupts. In Ireland, the day may have written checks the night can’t cash, but out here in Doolin, on this night at least, the credit’s still good.

back to top


Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Union Square In conversation with Gayle Forman 33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003 Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583 Thursday, March 30 at 7pm Books & Greetings 271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647 Saturday, April 1 Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX Sunday, April 2 Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX Monday, April 3 at 7pm Books, Inc Opera Plaza Not Your Mother’s Book Club 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107 Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm Book Passage 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925 Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm Live Talks LA In conversation with Pico Iyer Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404 Thursday, April 6 at 7pm Elliott Bay Books 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122 Friday, April 7 at 7pm Powell’s Books 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 Sunday, April 9 at 5pm Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 Monday, April 10 at 7pm Boswell Books 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211 Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm The Book Stall at Chestnut Court In conversation with Betsy Bird 811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093 Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm Talk of the Stacks Series Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central Library 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm Parnassus Books Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center 3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215 Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm Rainy Day Books At Woodneath Library 8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157 Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm St. Louis County Library With The Novel Neighbor 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131 Thursday, April 20 at 7pm Georgia Center for the Book With Little Shop of Stories Dekalb County Public Library 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030 Friday, April 21 at 7pm Books & Books 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134 Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540 Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 Monday, May 1 at 7pm Darien Library In conversation with Dani Shapiro 1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820