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Monroe's on a Tuesday night

Craic (pronounced crack) is an Irish word that basically translates to “fun,” “chatter,” and general enjoyment. A common greeting here is “What’s the craic?” and people often say that they are going out for a bit of craic. Galway is full of places to experience some good craic, and we have become fans of one place in particular: Monroe’s Tavern.

Every Tuesday at Monroe’s, a diverse group of people assemble, greet each other, and put on their dancing shoes. A band, consisting of different instrument combinations every week, warms up. Once enough people are present, the music starts and the dancing begins. The type of dancing is called set dancing, a traditional Irish folk dance, which reminds me somewhat of American square dancing. Pairs dance together, spinning, switching dance partners, and stomping feet. The songs are short, but the band plays one right after another, with little to no break. The dancers continue, and over the next two hours, the group grows larger and larger.

After a couple of weeks watching the dancing, we began to recognize faces and pick out some of the regulars. One older gentleman, who must be in his 70s, is the first to arrive and the last to leave every week. He comes prepared with a towel to wipe the sweat from his brow. It appears that he never needs a break – he is constantly in motion. You can tell that he lives for Tuesday night dancing. Another graying gentleman, tall and graceful, has impressed us with his skill. He knows all the correct footwork and his special dancing shoes click and clack along with his enthusiastic steps.

We were lucky to strike up a conversation with one of the regulars a couple of weeks back. Terri, a Galway local and avid dancer, was sitting for a break and a drink of water at the table next to us, when we started to chat. She told us about the step dancing festivals that happen all over the island, about the community of dancers in Galway, and explained to us the different dances as they were happening. Terri now greets us whenever we come through the doors of Monroe’s on Tuesday, and when she takes a break, she comes to chat. Last week, we inquired about some of the regulars on the dance floor, and learned that one was from France, and another from Germany. But on the dance floor, you’d never know it – everybody looks like they’ve been doing Irish step dancing their entire life.

One day maybe we will get up the nerve to join the group and learn a couple moves.  Terri would be thrilled.  If the French and German members can learn, why not a couple of Americans?

Just got back from a walk through town to get some basic groceries. On the way back a three piece band (fiddle, guitar, drum) was playing American bluegrass music on Shop Street. Most people kept walking by, since this type of thing happens everyday. But the lyrics of the music caused me to stop for a minute.

“Lord I’ll keep traveling until I reach the place from where I came…And as I go I know that underneath were all the same…”

It felt like they were singing just to me.

Turns out the group was from Pennsylvania…just passing through Galway on a tour through Ireland playing wherever they can.

I can walk down the block for groceries and hear amazing live bluegrass music echoing through the streets. Chicago is my kind of town, but Galway takes my breath away…

This weekend, while Lauren was in Belfast with her Mitchell gang, I travelled into the Burren with my fellow philosophers.

The Burren-which means the rocky place- is a rugged, rural part of western Ireland known for its natural limestone formations and the unique plant life that find a way to live there. Our university, NUI Galway, owns a beautiful small retreat center and research facility in the Burren that is predominantly used by natural scientists conducting field research.

On Friday afternoon the 12 students in my program and one of our professors, Heike Schmidt-Felzmann, drove caravan style for an hour from Galway to the Burren site. The primary purpose of the retreat was to work on the service-learning component of our master’s program. Basically, we will each be doing at least 100 hours of work with a community organization around Galway. The work will in some way be tied to the philosophical and ethical issues explored in our courses and dissertation work. Service-learning is a particular type of pedagogy that is very new for NUIG and the students here haven’t had much experience with it. So, the retreat was designed to introduce the idea and give us a chance to brainstorm potential project and placement ideas. Having worked on the coordination side of service-learning for two years in Chicago, returning to the receiving end as a student is fun. And, combining deep discussions about the role of service and ideas about democracy with a weekend in a beautiful remote place was particularly enjoyable.

On Saturday evening a handful of us ventured out into the wilderness for a walk and ended up in a pub named Cassidy’s that literally felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Somehow, however, the parking lot was full. Inside we found something special and quickly learned why so many people had flocked to this remote rural pub. A 13-piece traditional music group that included 2 fiddles, 1 banjo, 3 Irish button accordians, 2 guitars, a tin whistle, a flute, two bodhrans (Irish drumb), and a beautiful Irish harp was playing. We learned that a local resident was hosting some friends from Germany and had organized a special group to play for the night to show his visitors the best example of traditional Irish music.

I wish so much that I could bottle up the hour or so we spent in that pub and share it with everyone I know. The experience of basic, authentic community felt among the people there was inexplicable. Every person knew all the words to every song played. Most people–except us and the Germans–seemed to know each other. The owner handed out free snacks a few times, as if we were guests in his house. Several times older men sitting at the bar would just start singing a known standard, and the band would start playing the melody along with him. When the harpist played a solo ballad, people started off in to the distance with smiles. Some closed their eyes. A few teared up.

In this global world of ours where technology and complexity rule, the basic coming-together of neighbors seems to happen less and less. But the Irish surely haven’t forgotten the value of the local community and the meaning of tradition.

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