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The Horizon

The Student News Site of Westmont College

The Horizon

The Student News Site of Westmont College

The Horizon

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Tradition and community: Collective expression in the Irish Céilí house


I step into a small cottage. There is a dusty piano in the corner, and encircling the main space, a collection of tables, chairs and couches. There is an open loft with a staircase for extra seating. By the piano, surrounded by instruments I can’t recognize, a man named Oisín (pronounced Oh-sheen) sits and smiles. 

This is my first introduction to an Irish céilí, a traditional gathering where people share music, poetry, jokes and stories. I’m with a group of old friends and new ones made on this study abroad trip to Europe. This sort of gathering is a first for all of us. Oisín, on the other hand, is a true expert. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, a master of Irish music and has just graduated from a traditional music conservatory in St. Andrews, Scotland. He’s also incredibly hilarious. 

The first thing he demonstrates is a set of Irish bagpipes, and as he tunes the instrument, it’s so beautiful we assume he’s already begun the performance. He has other things, too: an Irish flute he’s mastered in three years and a rather simple looking drum. This drum, called a bodhrán, turns out to be the most extraordinary percussion instrument I’ve ever heard. It’s played with a single drumstick called a beater and emulates the sounds of a kick, snare and tom. The pitch is modulated by the player’s free hand manipulating the goatskin head.

After he’s amazed everyone in the room, Oisín pulls out his phone and AirDrops the lyrics to a few Irish folk songs. We sing these rich and often ancient melodies guided by Oisín’s smooth guitar and voice. We sing of love and loss or nature and violence. We recognize a favorite hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” and learn it was composed just down the road from us!

After a while, the floor is opened to other performers, and I’m pressured into joining in. I grab a guitar, joining Oisín and a man named Liam onstage. “I don’t really perform my songs, and I’m also not a singer,” I warn the crowd. I begin to strum, shaky at first, but soon find my ground as Oisín joins me. I sort of just go for it, rattling off the lyrics to a song I wrote over the summer. It turned out better than I expected, and I’ll attribute that to an incredibly encouraging audience and Oisín and Liam’s assistance. I felt truly happy up there, singing my heart out and sharing my lyrics with others. Even better was hearing the contributions of others, such as my friend Rory, who shared a beautiful song she had written just two weeks prior.

In less than two hours, the céilí had transformed from a totally foreign environment to one I felt I belonged to. Music, for me, often involves the solitary experience of listening and creating. Perhaps there’s something even more intimate in sharing those creations with others. Perhaps sharing is even the final step in the creative process, a completion of artistry that involves humbling oneself to the opinion of others. It seems the people of Ireland have known this for centuries.

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