A conversation today with Murph got me thinking about Doolin. Somewhere, we must have some photographs (although I think at the time we were mostly videotaping) so I’ve snagged this one from Flickr—tip of the hat to ahowes.
Even in the absence of snapshots, the images in my head are crystal clear: singing Galway Bay with my father in the front garden of the house we’d rented overlooking Doolin and the Bay; going down to the pubs and hearing the music, smoking rolled cigarettes, and drinking the best Guinness I’d ever had. One of the nights we were there, my brother Len and I had gone down to the pub on our own, leaving my Mom & Dad, Carol and Anne, and Liam, just 4 months old, at the house. It was brilliant — great fun, great music. After a night of listening, we were walking to the car when an old farmer politely asked for a ride up the hill. As we drove, he told us he was a musician. We had seen him in the pub, just listening intently; he seemed shy but friendly, and was glad for the lift. He let us drop him close, but wouldn’t allow us to go out of our way, assuring us his farm was not far beyond the turn to our rented place. We guessed that he was going the last mile at least on foot.
After Murph dug up a Russell Brothers LP he had brought from Doolin, we wondered aloud if it was one of the brothers. I realize now that the Russell Brothers are quite rightly the stuff of legend. Their music is celebrated still today, and a generation of folk musicians count them among their heroes. By all accounts, their talent was huge and their nature unassuming.
Doolin, the Burren, the Cliffs of Moher—the whole place was infused with a kind of magic. And the music from the pubs provided a soundtrack that was breathtakingly Irish. That we might have passed some time with one of the its grand old men was a myth too massive to resist. Now, after reading this biography of Gussie Russell at the Micko Russell Festival website, it became even easier to imagine that Gussie Russell was the man we met that night in Doolin:
Of the three Russell brothers, it can be said of Gussie that his was the life that was least changed by the music, though he lived and breathed it as much as Micho and Packie.
He continued to farm the small family holding. He also worked in the quarrying of the flagstone in Doonagore. He fished off the rocks near the Cliffs of Moher, and he travelled out on his Honda 50 motorcycle.
His musical instruments were the tin whistle and flute, which he played with great accomplishment. His repertoire of tunes was as extensive and varied as his brothers, though his natural shyness and self-effacement meant he was often the ‘forgotten’ brother.
Yet his talent was much admired. Where and when he felt comfortable and at ease he played but otherwise people did not intrude in his privacy. As often he preferred to simply sit in on the music sessions and listen; his upper body swaying to the music, his eyes transfixed in some concentration of the tune as if he was playing. Gussie Russell died May 18, 2004.
Read more abouth the brothers at the County Clare Library site and the Micho Russell Weekend (just passed this February, 2008) web site.