It was the early seventies, and the MacNamara family was on the road to Feakle from their home in Tulla, two small towns in County Clare, Ireland. The father drove while his two teenagers chatted in the back seat. The van rattled as it climbed a steep hill while making a detour to pick up two good friends waiting at the gateway with their instruments, Bill O’Malley and Joe Bane. After a little conversation, Joe pulled out a tin whistle from his pocket and played a tune that had just come to him. In the pub in Feakle, Bill took out his fiddle and launched into a set of tunes as other musicians joined in. Liquid refreshments sat by their chair while the kids drank sodas and soaked in the magic of the playing.
This is how Mary McNamara, one of those two teenagers, later described a memory of nights of music that would last for hours. Mary, now a well-known concertina player herself, recently gave a concertina workshop that my wife attended. Jean related something Mary said at that workshop that has stuck in my mind. Mary said that before she plays at a concert, she pictures these old players she learned from in those long nights in Feakle and tries to capture again the rhythm and feel of those moments and then transfer it to her own playing in the present.
If I understand her correctly, I think she was describing a moment of centering. Now, before I practice the flute or whistle in our kitchen in Walton, I stop, breathe, and remember musical mentors I’ve had and try to capture some of the musical gifts these people gave me. Then, when I practice, I am more relaxed and feel centered in something beyond me.
Isn’t this similar to the practice we have been taught about prayer? To first recall the presence of God in ourselves, others and all creation, and then to ask to find a piece of that moment in our daily prayer? Isn’t this really the point of rituals such as grace before meals, where we stop and try to really understand the gift of sharing a meal together? Isn’t this what was behind the old Irish custom of having countless prayers for all sorts of daily activities, such a lighting the turf fire or sweeping the floor or digging in the garden? Isn’t this what St. Ignatius meant by finding God in all things? In a secular, frenetic culture, it’s hard to incorporate even a little of this intentional activity. But if we do, perhaps, just perhaps, we might discover moments of amazement.
I can recall one such moment that happened a few years ago. It was a hot July day and Jean and I were taking part in a week of Irish Traditional music at East Durham in the Catskills. We were sitting under a huge tent outside a pub. It was time for a break, and our friend, Louisa, was selling coffee you would die for. A music session was going strong under the tent. We sat savoring the coffee, chatting with Louisa and other friends who passed by. Suddenly we realized that we were at the hub, the peaceful center, not only of the town, but also of the very week itself.
Today I intend to practice a new tune. It’s called “Joe Bane’s.” I’ll picture a van on its way to Feakle with two teenagers in the back seat.