Texas Tech University

Finding Home: Class Gives Students Firsthand Look into Irish Music, Culture

Heidi Toth

March 11, 2016

For Irish American Heritage Month, musicology professor Christopher Smith discussed his love for the Emerald Isle, which he’s shared with dozens of students through the years.


Off the western coast of Ireland is a small island chain where the Irish language is still spoken and the people still make their living from the land and the water. The Aran Islands are rocky and green and inhabited by only a few hundred people. They sit at the edge of the Galway Bay, but the closest land is the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher on the coast of Clare that rise above the breakers of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Inishmoor, the island farthest from the mainland, is the largest of the Arans. In the town of Kilronan there is a pub, Joe Watty's. Joe Watty's had a regular, an old fisherman named Paddy who played the accordion.

Christopher Smith met Paddy in 2004, the first year the musicology professor at Texas Tech University took a class to Ireland to experience the music, culture and folklore of that country. Smith and fellow musicology professor Angela Mariani shepherded 22 students through mostly western Ireland, trying food, meeting the locals, staying in quiet inns in remote areas and singing and dancing to Irish folk music.

That was the first of many nights Smith and his students spent with Paddy over the years. Paddy played his accordion – only the slow “airs,” he said; because of a heart attack he couldn't play the jigs – and the Americans joined the Irish in dancing, singing, clapping and playing music. It was one of the best classrooms.


Since 2004, Smith has taken dozens of students to Ireland for two weeks as the culmination of his Music, Folklore and Tradition in Irish Cultural History course. It started out as an Honors College course, but now is a music history course that meets the university's core curriculum requirement for fine arts or multiculturalism.

Many of those students share in Smith's Irish heritage. Others go for the first time and discover a love for the misty green island that in the last two centuries has experienced widespread famine and several violent rebellions. For March, which is Irish-American Heritage Month, he talked about this course and its significance to university students half a world away from Ireland.

“It's not just about the music on the page or the dancing or the folklore,” Smith said. “What can we learn about ourselves from this Irish folk culture?”

The course

Smith teaches this course every spring. Through the semester the class of 10 meets around a table in his office. They discuss Irish culture, learn songs and dance steps, examine the maps and study the history of the places they'll go and perform together. The day after graduation, they leave for Ireland, returning the day before the first summer session starts.

2011 seminar group en route by ferry from the Aran Islands to Galway:
1st row (L-R): Angela Keebaugh, Hannah Lilly, Lauren Neely, (standing) Ben McWilliams;
2nd row (L-R): Amy Jenkins, Casey Keenan Joiner, Kristen Dillon;
back row (standing, L-R): Rex Novak, Rachel Boyd.    Photo by Chris Smith

The time spent in Ireland is less about learning and more about experiencing what they've been learning all summer. The history, music and culture come to life as they visit with the native Irish people, hear the language, eat the food and understand the effects of famine, illness and British colonialism.

Often, Smith said, students comment that they understand why the Irish immigrants to America were so sorry to leave, even in the midst of devastating wars or famines. So many left their homes and were never able to return. That, he said, is why Irish heritage remains a part of the lives of many descendants of the native Irish.

“Culture and heritage is how you connect yourself to your history when you've left. Anybody who's immigrated here knows this experience,” Smith said. “Culture is one of the ways people do that.”

A love for the country and embracing his ancestors' homeland led musicology graduate student John Clements to sign up for the course this semester. He went to Ireland in 2010 as part of a political science class studying the Irish political upheaval that started in 1916 and continued until 2005. Political science wasn't actually his focus, but he wanted to study pub music for his undergraduate capstone project, and where better to learn pub music than Ireland?

However, he remembers seeking a connection to his Irish heritage much earlier.

2011 Trip student Casey Keenan Joiner at Downpatrick Head Mayo photo by Chris Smith

“The culture, and more specifically the music, of Ireland has always been a big part of my life because many of my ancestors were immigrants from Ireland,” Clement said. “When I was about 13 I began to really look into Irish culture, and it was as if I finally found my home.” 

Right now the class is still studying and looking ahead to final projects. Instead of a test, they can either write a research paper or express what they've learned about Ireland more creatively, like illustrating stories or writing poetry. Clements is learning to cook several traditional dishes, and he and his classmates will have a feast at the end of the semester.

Time in Ireland

The class flies into and out of Dublin, but they don't spend much time in the capital city. Instead, they set out in two vans on the left side of the road for western Ireland – the Connaught. Here, in the smaller towns further from the British colonialism of the past, the true Irish language and culture have remained the most pure.

“These are the landscapes I feel at home in,” Smith said, adding going to small towns has enabled him to build relationships with inn and restaurant owners and people in the village.

“We have friends everywhere. We'll go into a festival, and the landlady will say, ‘Oh, the Americans are back!' It's more like visiting relatives.”

2009 seminar members at the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare:
(L-R) Julie Sorensen, Madonna Honekamp, Michael Harrison, Melissa Edwards, Julie Heller;
(front row, L-R) Jayme Smith, Melissa Rooklidge.       Photo by Chris Smith

As a result, now they're treated more like family than guests. Each of the students learn what Clements called a party piece – something that can be performed at a social gathering, called a ceili (pronounced kay-lee). Clements doesn't play any traditional Irish instruments – yet – but he's learning to sing the sean-nos, a musical tradition that exists only in the Irish language.

It is traditional in Irish culture that everyone participate, Smith said. Each person should have the chance to connect with the others and be a part of the group.

“All of the students have to learn to sing or play or dance so they have something to offer when we're gathered in a back kitchen with the lights off in front so the police don't know the pub is still open,” he said. “We're trying to become a community of people. There are no innocent bystanders.”

Those performances are what stand out most for Sarai Brinker, a music graduate student who was in Smith's first class in 2004. Her most vivid memory of that trip is dancing a jig in an Irish pub, an Irish band playing alongside her.


“I will never forget the way it felt to dance a jig in Ireland,” she said. “I still remember the steps a decade later.”

She also remembers the sights, such as a monument to the victims of the Irish potato famine and the Cliffs of Moher overlooking the Aran Islands.

“I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of awe looking at the Cliffs of Moher, which is this incredibly majestic natural landscape,” Brinker said. “The cliffs jut straight out of the ocean, and you can feel the mist on your face and hear the ocean, and you definitely get a sense of the Irish spirit looking over them.”

Favorite places and moments

For Brinker, riding a bike around the Aran Islands was the best experience of the trip, followed closely by the lively, musical ceilis in Galway City.

2009 seminar members at Queen Mebh's Seat, Co. Roscommon:
(L-R): Jayme Smith, Madonna Honekamp, Anna Plagman      
Photo by Chris Smith

“Another highlight was walking through old, quiet stone churches, weaving through graveyards full of Celtic crosses,” she said. “That may seem odd, but the gray of the stone and the green of the Irish landscape was strikingly beautiful, and you really got a sense of history walking through the churches. We visited the graves of some of the poets and musicians and authors we'd studied all semester, and it meant something.”

Clements, who hasn't gone on this trip yet, is looking forward to returning. Because his previous trip focused on the Irish period known as The Troubles, he remembered meeting people who had been affected by the violence – a woman from Dublin who was very near a bomb during an attack in 1974; a man from Derry who lost his brother and a friend in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre; and two men who in the 1990s were political activists on opposite political sides, then both lost children in a bombing in Omagh in 1998. The men now run a support group for survivors of the Troubles, which ended only a decade ago.
“I remember how warmly we were received by the people of Ireland and how the whole country does things in its own time,” Clements said. “It isn't like American culture, where everyone is in a hurry to do everything and whoever has the most money is the winner. They care about each other, and they take their time and enjoy life.”

2011 seminar members dancing during Fleadh Nua at Cois na hAbhna Cultural Center, Ennis, County Clare      
Photo by Chris Smith

After all these years, Smith can't narrow himself to one favorite. He has so many that he goes back to, and takes students to, every year. First is Donmar Cottage, a little guesthouse on Sea Road in Ballycastle in the northwest. It's owned by a couple who have a dog named James, chickens and a garden in the backyard and is, as the address suggests, near the sea. The travelers can fish, go swimming or walk along the beach.

“It's like coming home to a home you didn't know you had,” Smith said.

The second – not second favorite, just second in line – is Ennis, a city along the west coast near Limerick. There's a pub just off the main square where all the musicians go. He sits on his stool, orders Guinness from the best tap and plays with the other musicians. Some he knows from previous years, some he's never met. It doesn't matter. They play the songs of Ireland together.

The third place Smith mentions is Joe Watty's Pub in Kilronan on Inishmoor, where he met Paddy. Four or five years ago the class returned to Joe Watty's for a night of Irish folk music with his old friends. Paddy wasn't there. His son, Locko, told Smith his father had a recurrence of heart trouble that winter. A helicopter transported Paddy to the Galway hospital for treatment. But Galway, for all of its culture, history and art, is not Kilronan.


“When there was nothing else for the doctors to do they put him back on a helicopter and took him home to die,” Smith said.

When Locko finished, he took out his guitar and sang “Fiddlers Green,” an old Irish ballad about an idyllic land where sailors find peace. Except for the song, the pub was quiet.

As Smith recounts this years later, he gets quiet for a moment, then starts singing “Fiddlers Green.” He is only a few lines in when he chokes up.

“I just fell apart,” Smith remembered. It wasn't all sorrow, though. “There's just this sense that that's a full life – to convey love and to have love. Any human being wants that. And it's easier in places where they live closer to the earth, to the cycle of seasons, to life and death. It's a place where pain can be shared more easily.

“There's such sanity in that life.”