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Letter from Rhodell

The rain blew in over the ridge before dawn and settled heavily in
Tommy Creek holler.When the watchman’s shift was over, he set out in
the steady downpour to walk the three miles into town. It was the first
rain in a long while, and it spattered on the rocks of the dry creekbed
parallel the road. On the far bank, the beltline ran with a constant rustle,
as if mimicking the creek’s sound in a wet season. The watchman
walked on, past heaps of shale half covered with grass, past a huge steel
tank upended in a ditch, past the sludge pond and the yellow shotgun
shack where no one was stirring. In the whole of the holler, the only
things in motion were the rain, the walking man, and the beltline’s
moving stream of coal.
The watchman walked the three miles out of the holler, to the orange
bench in front of the shuttered tavern, and sat down. He was wearing an
aged acrylic jacket the color of new rust, frayed blue jeans, and cheap running
shoes grey with coal dirt. The rain had beaded on the fabric of his
jacket and his shoulder length red hair, lank with the damp, had the color
and solidity of the brick wall behind him. Above his head, a sign in the
tavern window read “Going out of business—Sorry, no further credit.”
The rain drummed on the tin awning above him, but where he sat it
was dry. The watchman dug out a blue packet of Bugler tobacco and
with infinite care, as if it was gold dust he was handling, rolled himself a
cigarette in one slow move. He cupped the match in the shell of his
hand, and the flame threw into relief the hungry contours of his face.
When he inhaled, the skin stretched almost transparent over the framework
of his bones. Then the smoke drifted, grey across his lifeless skin.
In the washed out expanse of his face, the eyes alone stood out, a sudden
and glacial blue. The watchman glanced briefly at the ascending cigarette
smoke, then turned his frozen gaze on the main street, now empty
and devoid of motion in the steady rain.
From where he sat the watchman had an unobstructed view of the
whole downtown. There was so little left, he could close his eyes and see
it in his head. The post office, the abandoned game room, the playground,
the store that sold second hand clothes, the burnt out grocery.
Six trailers cheek to jowl in narrow yards, City Hall, two empty storefronts,
Kelly’s grocery. A two story house with peeling chocolate paint, a
sign in the ground floor window— “For Sale—$100 Down, $100 a
Month—See Kelly.” Two trailers beneath gnarled apple trees, then
Della’s Tavern, in front of which he sat. The department store, the pay
phone, Gulf Market. Then the empty filling station, with the painting of
Elvis in the window, next to the sign that said “Closed.”
The watchman sighed. Like most people in town he wasn’t used to the
filling station being gone yet. He sighed and smoked and looked out at
the rain. After a long time, a car came slowly up the road.When it was
opposite his bench, the watchman gravely raised a slow hand and waved.
We start with the watchman, because he embodies so much common
to life in the town. A minimum wage job, stoic acceptance of physical
hardship, an ability to elevate small pleasures to ritual status and so
make enough from very little—all are psychic coordinates for this time
and place.We start with the watchman because of his honest endeavor
and shabby clothes, and because by embodying the town he embodies
the region, not in it’s fabled, roistering past—about which it is easy to
hear much—but in the disowned decay of the current moment.
The name of the town is Rhodell and it sits in the heart of the southern
West Virginia coal field, a handful of buildings exuding a timeless
quality, as if separate and discrete from the mainstream American now.
I had arrived there by a circuitous route, undefined by geographical
objective, my travels directed only by the need to answer a question. I
wanted to see what transformation the Post Industrial Age—of which
I’d heard much, but experienced little—had brought to the coal counties,
long a bastion of an archetypal industrialism.
For several years I’d been hearing noises in the media, suggesting the
Industrial Age was over, and the nation now in transition to a Post
Industrial era, whose main product would be information. I found this
difficult to believe, because from my office window I could see the 200
car coal drags creaking daily up the C&O tracks, and they didn’t look
like information at all. They looked like somebody had been digging a
lot of coal, and I doubted it was done with a laptop and a cup of coffee.
But maybe it was—maybe high tech miracles were unfolding amid century
old industrial grime. To find answers to these questions, I decided
to go in search of the Post Industrial Age.
I knew no better place to look than the coalfield, where automation
in the mines had been increasing steadily since the middle 50s. In fact, I
figured the coalfield communities had now completed the transition
the rest of the nation was just starting. As other industries clanked and
banged through the last decades of their swan song, the coalfield
seemed blanketed by an ominous silence, no less profound for it’s
recent origin. For while decline in industrial employment in the mines
has been ongoing for forty years, it is only in the last decade that a long
standing order—once so monolithic it seemed divinely sanctioned—
has met it’s final demise. And only within the last year or so has it
become possible to glimpse some of the lineaments of the new
Appalachian dispensation.
Typically the media trots out the Appalachian exhibit to bemoan a
region lagging behind the times, but in this instance, I thought I’d found
a case where the area could claim to be on the cutting edge. I felt life in
the coalfield might offer a forecast for the nation’s future, since communities
there are 40 years ahead of the rest of the country in dealing with
structural and psychic changes induced by a shift away from an industrial
base. Determined to see life in the Post Industrial Era, I prepared for
a pilgrimage to a region in which few people travel for pleasure.
It was ten years since I’d been there, and the changes were obvious.
Restaurants I had eaten in, places I’d stayed were all boarded up. The
huge tipple at Itmann, where 1200 men once worked, was rusting in
silence, the cluster of mines that fed it, closed. And I found it difficult to
recognize the coal camps themselves, once the salient and inescapable
feature of the region. The oppressive uniformity of company towns—
with their identical houses in precise rows—had been submerged in a
featureless jumble of mobile homes, junk cars, heavy machinery, split
level ranches, and plywood shacks, interspersed at random among the
vestiges of the older settlements. The visual structure of the coal field
had vanished—where there was once too much order, there now
seemed to be none.
Nor could I find any evidence of active mining, other than the huge
coal trucks which lumbered up the roads. It seemed the coalfield had
moved towards nothing except disintegration and chaos. But the rail
sidings full of coal cars suggested enough order still existed to drive the
complex effort of mining.
I had expected dying towns, but I couldn’t reconcile the continued
production of coal with the moribund communities I drove through.
Then, in a Logan county coal camp, I met a retired miner named Willie
Andersen, who confirmed what I had seen and sensed—the traditional
coal field structure had broken down. He explained the cause of that
disintegration and some of it’s social and economic implications.
“The coal companies done away with the community concept”,
Andersen told me “In these camps, everybody used to know everybody’s
son’s name, everybody’s daughter, everybody’s cousin, and if I
had a dog, they knew what my dog’s name was.Used to be the miners in
this camp would fill up the ballpark on a Sunday.And the store porches,
they’d always be full of clusters of miners. It’s no more of that and it’ll
never be no more of that. The companies broke that up by selectively
spacing who worked where and how.”
“The companies have scattered out the miners. Few miners live in the
camps anymore. There used to be ten mines in walking distance of this
house. The men didn’t ride to work, he walked across the creek to work,
to #7 Holden. But they broke up the community concept. They don’t
have no two men from the same camp in any mine. They look at who
you are and where you are as to how they place you.Now you can’t document
that, but you can see it. You don’t have concentrations of people
living and working in the same area.”
Andersen went on to explain that the mines I’d been looking for,
which I remembered in or near the camps, are now located deep in the
mountains, often behind barbed wire fences patrolled by shotgun toting
guards. “There are kids in the coal field today,” he said, “that unless
they see a lump of coal go down the road on one of these trucks, he
don’t see a lump of coal. Because everything that was once centered in
the community is now tucked away where you don’t see it. The traditional
image of a coal camp—the tipple, the mine, the company store—
they eliminated that”. In the last decade, Andersen added, Island Creek
Coal Company has closed all of it’s 525 company stores, each one the
nucleus of a small community. As a result, coal camps which were once
discrete entities are losing their identity, as if, devoid of function, they
somehow lose their clarity of form as well.
Willie Andersen left me enlightened, but somewhat perturbed. I wondered
if it was possible to encounter a new order whose first attribute
seemed to be the promotion of diffuseness. I’d come to see what high tech
endeavor would replace mining, yet it seemed coal was still being mined.
The new order possessed an elusive quality, as nondescript and formless....

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My Little Story About Annie Monahan

    This is how it begins. There’s a bridge over the Liffey called the
Halfpenny Bridge. If you’ve been to Dublin you know it—a gray arch of
old iron across some dingy urban water. The year is 1979, and one
morning, feeling quite crazy, I quit my job in New York and fly to Ireland
with the woman I love. A day later, we’re crossing the Halfpenny Bridge,
fighting about something I can no longer remember.What I can remember—
the light, muffled and layered in shades of gray, her red hair, her
red mouth, her sharp words, the black water. And I remember the
child—that I can’t forget—the first tinker I had ever seen. I was never to
know her name or story, never to own more than a scant moment’s
glimpse of her.Yet she was the first signpost on a long journey, which led
me westward to Annie Monahan.
   They beg on that bridge—they do still, twenty years later—I went
and looked yesterday to make sure. I walked down through the Liberties
and along the quays and there was nothing I could recognize in all
Dublin except the tinker begging on the Halfpenny Bridge. Then and
now she had the certain look of the Dublin tribes, a Maughan or a
Ward, the rainbow colored hair which is no color at all, and that face
made up of too many angles, the cheekbones pressed high and sharp
against the skin. With all that sharpness you’d be tempted to call their
faces pinched. Which describes them well enough, except for what
shines behind the eyes—a watchful knowledge, quick and fluid, that
ransoms the poverty stricken look of them into something higher.
I’d known none of that the first time. That first time on the bridge I’d
just looked down—because they beg at your feet—saw her, and thought
at once, “This is what I’ve been missing.” She was singing some old ballad
in a quavering voice that made you feel the whole vast stretch of
time behind us. She had a battered acrylic blanket coat, a flimsy pasteboard
box with a scatter of change, silver and coppers I could see quite
clearly. But her pasty skin was so edged with light I couldn’t bring her
face into focus at all.
   I’d never seen a face like hers, and I’d seen plenty of faces. All I did
was faces, for catalogs and portfolios, I was always reaching up, adjusting
the soft light, trying to match the features in front of me to the current
prescription for beauty. I was used to looking, studying light and
shadow, but none of that prepared me for what I saw now—the ravaged
face of a magic I’d never suspected.
   I must have been staring because the woman I was with pulled me
away, whispering, “It’s just a tinker.” I started down the Halfpenny
Bridge with her, but kept looking back. The child was still there, so she
must have been real. I didn’t have cameras with me then, nothing but
my clothes, so I had to come back, I knew I had to come back.
I did, late that summer, alone, and from Dublin moved west, looking
for tinkers. I learned to find their camps on the edge of towns, ringed in
a witch’s circle of wood smoke, scrap metal and barking dogs. I learned
to expect it—some powerful man in his 40s, with the air of a Mafia don,
his shirt half buttoned in the moist chill. He was the guardian, he met
you first. I’d tell him what it was about, the way I understood it, give
him a smoke, a quid or two if he asked, the long chat, quiet like. He’d
nod, and at once the children would appear, a sudden wild crowd, like
they’d sprung up from out the earth at his assent.
   That’s how I got to know them. Some still traveling in horse caravans
then. Cooking stew in great pots in a roadside camp. The ocean
sparkling at the lane’s end, clothes thrown bright on the thorn hedges to
dry. After I brought their photos back for them, they started to feed me.
Good greasy meat on a tin plate. Slept one night beside the caravans in
a humpy tent with a couple of boys, the smell of piss and woodsmoke
and at first light the morning star, clear as God in the purple sky.
   I was studying the different lights that fell from that sky—the cool
chill light, the chill light that warmed, the liquid silver hazy light, the
light that told all—these were lights I’d never seen before, the lights that
followed the tinkers in their traveling.
   Look who commanded that light—the women themselves not much
to look at, they went fat or stringy once they’d had a couple of kids,
good features that roughened and no spark left in their eye except if
they chanced on a laugh or a fight. Somehow they contrived to live
between the two, spending a vast surplus of time unmoving beside cold
fires. They had saints medals pinned to their old sweaters, maybe a kerchief
over their long heads, and never at a loss for a word or a quip, not
a fool among them, canny women, close mouthed, with a sharp wisdom,
that made you listen when they’d speak.
   And the men—handsome enough in a sly sort of way, good strong
features but the use of them ruined with too much sitting around
drinking hard cider alongside a heap of old scrap. They had their own
ways—flogging stuff over the border from the North, drawing the dole
two different places. I wasn’t sure if the scrap made money for the new
vans and caravans I’d see or if it was just to keep the police happy. But
this was none of my business, my business was with their faces, and the
faces of their children.
   It was difficult to understand the children’s beauty, which had the
impersonal quality of a natural force, best used for some great aim—
like ending warfare or enumerating the names of God. Instead it went
begging with a pasteboard box and a couple of old ballads, or ran about
camp careless of the weather, shivering in clothes gone thin with washing.
But they’d lift their chins to the camera as if proclaiming their
rights, as if in innate knowledge of their ancient nobility, as if the light
itself required permission to shine on them in all it’s eloquence. They
had the beauty of adults about them, the beauty their parents were
somehow cheated of, they’d start beautiful children, and cross a certain
line where beauty must be laid down, no matter what perfect song they
howled in protest.
   I wasn’t thinking any of this, but it moved in me, I had no word for it,
I was consumed by what was in front of my eyes, and the task of doing it
justice with the camera. The kids would push and fight and curse, and
after I’d finished taking all their photos the way they asked, there’d
always be one or two that would tag after me quiet, as I was walking away
pretending to be finished, they’d follow after saying, “Mister,Mister” in a
half whisper, quiet, like they had a secret, and after awhile I got to where
I knew these were the ones with whom I had some real gesture.
   They’d take me off somewhere, to some old caravan, some quiet spot
apart, and I’d take their photos. They were different from the others, for
they had some special need, they needed to be seen, and it showed in
their faces. I held the mirror for them and the light conspired with us to
show it clearer.
   That was what was happening, what I understood of it, the day I first
met Annie Monahan. It was a place on the outskirts of Galway City, a
waste lot by the road’s edge called Merlin Park, just above the tracks
where the train rackets through to Dublin, and in the distance you
could see Galway Bay and blue mountains stretching west into
Connemara. But what you saw up close, what you saw every day if you
lived there, was a guy in big boots sitting on a scrap heap with a bottle of
cider and an eight pound sledge.He was watching a pile of electric cable
smolder, waiting for the moment the insulation burnt off so he could
sell the copper. It’s no metaphor to say his face was ruined—you coul
see what it had been and what it was and ruin was the precise word to
describe the difference.
   I was inside one of the new trailers parked there, where a picture
window poured down a new light I’d never noted, infinitely precise and
gentle in it’s precision, revealing both the inner and outer lay of things.
Into this light stepped as if dancing a 14 year old girl with a triangular
cats face and the swell of new breasts rising in her cheap sweater, a wash
of freckles across her nose, and eyes that went from laughing to a slow
and steady wonder while we looked together at something neither of us
could see. I caught her gaze through the lens and pulled her closer with
my heart. I took her picture, then her grandmother’s, who possessed
that same ready wonder, only slightly shopworn with too much living.
   I was taking this out under the sky with me, their two faces and the
lucidity of the light that shone on them, out into the gray afternoon
with it’s curious dullness, in which something was about to happen, but
not much, just a shower of rain, but it would seem like a crisis, I was
wondering how the muffled shadow of day outside managed to produce
a light so filled with revelation simply by passing through the window
glass of a trailer.   
   That’s how it was, that moment defined by the clutter
of old caravans strewn about like they’d been dropped there from
above, the thick horses picketed on the camp’s edge, the pony carts, the
scrap heaps, the ashes of old fires, cooking pots, the gray sky, a goat. A
girl went by, flat footed on the uneven ground, turned on her heel at the
sight of the cameras, plucked at my sleeve with a quiet whisper, “mister,
mister,”—I took her photo. “Wait until I get my sister,” she said, she ran
off, turned a dozen feet away, “Wait” she commanded and ran on.
I waited. There was nothing remarkable about her except a certain
brashness which gave her authority and the defiance in her stance, as if
the camera was challenging her to live down every taunt ever thrown at
an outsider, a mirror in which she could see if she was really proud
enough to live the gypsy life she already knew stretched before her. She
came running back with her sister, I saw them, small figures running as.....
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A Musician’s Tour

   Long time admirers know Ireland confronts a traveler with only three
pleasant dangers—love, drink and traditional music. The pitfalls of
Eros and the flowing bowl are universally recorded, but the dangers of
the music have somehow gone unnoticed. It masquerades as an innocent
character—cupbearer to drunkenness, a sometimes associate of
rowdiness, yet devoid in itself of any hazard beyond the company it
sometimes keeps.
   Nothing could be further from the truth, for Irish music is imbued
with a fatal power all it’s own. Beneath the surface of the ubiquitous
jigs, reels and hornpipes lays a liquid flowing force that can strike the
unsuspecting like lightning from a cloudless sky.
   I could fill a book with tales of those swept up by the rich complexity
of Irish music. Consider Anya, doctoral candidate in linguistics.
Arriving in Ireland to pursue some obscure quirk of the Gaelic tongue,
one grey afternoon she chanced to hear the great Galway fiddler Mickey
Finn weave his careless offhand spell. Passing days see Anya fixed listening
in the pub, weeks notice she’s traded her possessions for a disreputable
old fiddle and a fierce thirst for the next tune. Thesis forgotten,
Anya sets off on an unsuspected road, busking across Ireland, her fiddle
wrapped in a ragged sheepskin.
   The story’s true and Anya is not alone. Picture two men met on the
strand, in that hour when the waves, released from the sun’s dominance,
betray a first suggestion of their own innate light.Walking in the surf to
the cave that was their lodging, they were quick to tell their tale: on
impulse, they had left their lucrative Dublin banking jobs, to wander
across Ireland, singing for soup. I saw them that evening at a pub, still
clad in the tattered remnants of their three piece suits, roaring out ballads,
deep in song. And if you had been there, they would have told you,
that while it may not lead everyone in such extreme paths, this is music
that changes lives.
   Certainly it changed mine. Like Anya, I chanced unsuspecting on a
great fiddler and have never been the same since. One day in the 1970s,
I heard Andy McGann play in a New York bar and at once fell violently
in love with the music. It’s destined to be a lifelong affair, for while 20
years of playing and numerous pilgrimages to Ireland haven’t made me
much of a fiddler,my love for the music continues to deepen.
   In a facile world, full of the transient and the novel, Irish music is one of
the few abiding things to which I can return, secure in the knowledge that
each new encounter will uncover new riches. Like the magic cauldron of
Celtic legend, the music of Erin is inexhaustible and responsive, bending
to fit the listeners understanding at the same time it nudges it forward.
   Of late my interest has focused on this interplay between music and
listener, and how it works on body and spirit. It’s a question that would
not let me alone. I knew the best place to answer it was Ireland, where
many share my mystic bent. And I knew I could not answer this question
myself, for Irish music is above all a communal experience, and the
questions it engenders are by nature shared ones. Intimacy marks the
best seisuns—the Gaelic term for any gathering where music is
played—making all present feel equally participant. Such epiphanies
can happen anywhere. But they flower best in the undisturbed soil of
little visited places. To such places I went, and my question with me.
   The road climbs through increasingly empty mountains, beneath a
great sweep of dusk laden sky. In the heathery fields, sheep glow white
the land unpeopled, with few houses, partaking of silence. Beneath the
mountain, on Ballydesmond’s lone street, chimney smoke ascends in
the silent air, the hedges alight with scarlet flowers, then the straight
road to Rathmore and the sudden moon rising full behind silver clouds.
   A votive lamp the color of old blood flickers in a wayside shrine
before the lunar whiteness of the Virgin. The road unfolds a last bend,
and shakes out space for a crossroads town, drowning in the silver
night. The dusty taste of desertion thickens the darkness, the silence of
empty rooms, shuttered houses, of people gone away who will not
return. The September night has gone chill and this unlit road is the
main street of Knocnagree—the hill of the horse stud.
   It’s a place well named, for this was a fair town until the 1970s. Once
a month, drovers brought stock in from outlying farms and the buyers
came with great wads of money. That one day’s trade sustained the
town through the rest of each month, gave reason for the fifteen pubs
facing the broad, grassy common where the cattle were penned. The
pubs are still there, some padlocked and going to ruin, some yet solvent.
And a few steps from the common, at the road’s cross, is the pub called
Dan O’ Connell’s, famous throughout Ireland as the place Johnny O’
Leary has played accordion these past thirty years.
   Tonight the back room that holds the set dances is empty, the barroom
quiet. There’s plenty of time to drink with the proprietor, a barrel
chested man, powerful not just in frame, but in remembrance and
   “Slieve Luachra,” he says, the Gaelic rolling easy from his tongue, “the
great rushy mountain.” For so this district, renowned for it’s musicians,
is called. The legendary fiddler Padraig O’ Keefe, his students, Dennis
Murphy, Julia Clifford, Johnny Cronin—a stone thrown from this pub
would hit all their native places. O’ Connell knows them all, in that special
way you know someone whose music you’ve danced to. And he
knows more—with the incantatory rhythms of one reciting a book of
origins, he places these musicians in the complex storied interplay of
Irish history.
   “No one lived in this place until the Ulster plantations,” he says.“Then
refugees displaced by English invaders found sanctuary in these mountains.”
For three hundred years they lived apart, made secure by their
lack of roads. In splendid isolation, Slieve Luachra evolved a homespun
Gaelic culture, centered around music, storytelling and stepdance.
   O’ Connell speaks of the music like a man in love. But when he
recalls old battles and invasions, another tone enters his voice making
events long past seem as if suffered yesterday. Then he appears suffused
with the pain of old wounds, lamenting with the selfsame anguish lands
lost to the English three centuries past and the recent death of Padraig
O’ Keefe. History can be all too real in Ireland, and O’ Connell’s words
raise chill flurries in the air, as is said to happen when a ghost is passing.
It makes clear another role of the music: a fierce emblem of remembrance,
an icon of survival, a flag of secret defiance.
   Yet none could be milder or of a sweeter nature than Johnny O’ Leary,
the great accordion player, who’s lived with this music for seven decades.
On a brilliant Sunday afternoon, he sat in the front parlor of his modest
home, his two grandchildren playing nearby. He’d played at the Cork
Festival until 5AM the night before and still attended morning mass. He
will play tonight at Dan O’ Connell’s, keeping the marathon hours that
require of Irish musicians robust and enduring constitutions.
   I ask Johnny what Padraig O’Keefe, whom he reveres, would think of
today’s music.“He’d like it”, he says without hesitation. “The tradition is
stronger now than ever and the music better played.” When I ask if
Irish-American players sound authentic to him, he smiles. “They do.
We’re all one in the music.”
   He will prove the reality of these words that very evening at O’
Connell’s pub. By 10 o’clock the back room is crowded with expectant
people. At the first note of the accordion, men shed their jackets as fervently
as if they were stripping to go to a beloved woman. The narrow
shelves along the room’s length are crowded with pints as everyone rushes
for the dance floor. The crowd begins to move, whirling through the
intricate dance, unfolding a miraculous unity, the whole held together by
the strength of O’Leary’s playing— “We’re all one in the music.”
   O’ Leary plays with a subtle lilt, a minute delay to pickup phrases
which gives his music an airy touch. It makes space enough in one room
to receive nations.
   And a good thing, too. For tonight the whole of Kerryis here in all it’s ages,               moving in rhythmic processional to O’Leary’s tune.
Two old ladies float delicately by, followed by a rosy young couple, then a
middleaged man with a teenage girl. And then the Old Men pass—in
suits and ties, with radiant boyish faces, with the faces of old dreamers,
with the antique sadness of hearts long broken now grown old. For
Slieve Luachra’s people are famed for longevity—three dancers on
tonight’s floor are well over 90. They, too, are one with the music, birdlike
bones treading the same measure as young couples in first bloom.
   While the dance rocks on, a single fiddler holds forth in a corner of
the front barroom.He’s surrounded by a circle of men wearing the uniform
of the Irish countryside—suit coat and pants, sweater and tweed
cap—and older women whose careworn faces still maintain reserves of
joy. They play cards, joke, drop the occasional word of praise to the fiddler,
who works through a garland of jigs in the rhythmic, almost percussive
local style.When he has finished, the fiddle passes to a man with
the butterfat look of a rich farmer.
  It will change hands often—in the course of the evening, everyone in the barroom
 plays a few tunes in ashared style, marking them products of the same school.
   Scenes like this occur in pub seisuns throughout Ireland, evoking an
illusory nation where born virtuosos spring up prolifically as the blackberries
in fall hedgerows. I mused on this as the seisun ended. On the
dark and rainy street, by a shop window displaying 5 pint bottles of
whiskey beneath a bare light bulb, I recalled Seamus Ennis’ formula:
“Seven years learning, seven years practice, seven years playing, to make
a piper.”Not only pipes require this dedication to master. All traditional...

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