by Taryn Balchunas
Taryn performing with Derek O’Hara. Photo by Taryn Balchunas.
Like most of my trips throughout Europe this semester, I went to Ireland one weekend not knowing what to expect. I traveled in a group of ten people and did not plan ahead what I wanted to do each day, nor did I sufficiently research the cities and towns I visited. I wanted to meet Irish native men with authentic red hair, one of which I hoped could become my future husband. After losing count of missed opportunities to interact with these beautiful natural red heads, I realized that I had unrealistic expectations for my visit to Ireland.
One travel companion and I decided to get out of the city for a day and took a trip to see the countryside, the Ireland we always imagined, with its green pastures that outstretch for miles.
When we rode back into Dublin, our tour guide named off local bars she recommended to go to for dinner or a pint. “For God’s sake, stay the fack away from Temple Bar,” she advised.
Temple Bar is an area in central Dublin dedicated to cultivating the arts. Our tour guide said it was created by developers and that it is a tourist trap. “If you’re interested in meeting some real Irish people, then go to Merrion Row.” That night was our last night in Dublin, as well as our last opportunity to meet locals. My travel companion and I made mental notes about which pubs to check out, and decided to go to Foley’s Bar, known for its free live traditional Irish music every night.
Foley’s traditionalism is deceiving at first. A man with dark tan skin greeted us, decked out in a green blazer, a white button-down shirt, an orange tie, black slacks and shoes. He asked us if we would like to eat at the bar on the left, or at a pricier restaurant on the right that had French food. We decided to eat at the bar without hesitation. We wanted traditional Irish food at a bar occupied by locals, and we knew Foley’s would be the right place to experience Irish culture as soon as the matre’di opened the door to the bar.
The only seats available were next to the musician for the night, Derek O’Hara, a brown haired and balding thirty-something. Our booth only allowed us to see the left hand side of his head and the neck of his guitar, but being able to see the musician play proved to be unnecessary in enjoying his performance. He performed traditional Irish folk songs while my travel companion and I sipped coffee with Bailey’s and shared a traditional Irish breakfast meal at nine o’clock p.m.
O’Hara paused to take requests multiple times throughout his performance. As a singer myself, I had a pining desire to perform a song with him. At one particular moment when O’Hara inquired about requests, no one in the audience responded. I had a song in mind but did not want to be the only person speaking up. While debating whether to share my request, I attempted to sit up and down in succession with my thoughts, half hoping that O’Hara would notice me. My bashfulness got the best of me, and I shrunk my shoulders defeatedly when O’Hara decided that he was not going to get a response. Our seats also faced the back of the bar and tables on the right hand side, and one customer across the way noticed my body language, pointed at me, and said, “she has one.”
All weekend, I had the Once soundtrack stuck in my head, the soundtrack to a movie about two Irish and Czech musicians. I knew that I wanted to hear the Oscar-winning song from that movie, “Falling Slowly,” and notified O’Hara of my request. I subconsciously picked that song because it is a duet, and sure enough, O’Hara asked me to come up and sing with him.
O’Hara had a stool conveniently placed next to his, and I slid into the red cushioned stool before we began to make some music. He asked for my name and introduced me to the audience, adjusting his microphone to his right so that I could be heard as well. My stool stood at a further distance from the mic and O’Hara had begun playing already, so I had to crane my neck to sing into the microphone in order to be heard. O’Hara definitely had a louder voice than me and let me take over the mic, even when I was just singing the harmony.
I do not have nearly as much experience as O’Hara performing in venues such as bars, but I did not feel intimidated while onstage. The surrounding lights were dim enough that I did not have to stare into the faces of the audience members, and the atmosphere was intimate. At times, I closed my eyes to focus on what I was singing. Singing along with O’Hara’s voice and accompaniment made me feel welcome and comfortable. I could not help but think how wonderful of an opportunity this was to perform with a native Irish man in his home country. My travel companion stood in front of us and snapped a few pictures.
After we finished performing “Falling Slowly,” O’Hara thanked me again for joining him, and asked if I would like to perform more songs with him. We deliberated for a solid five minutes, throwing names of musicians back and forth. The Beatles. James Taylor. Damien Rice. We could not think of any other songs by these artists that we both knew, and I retreated back to my spot in the booth.
O’Hara’s set lasted another twenty minutes in which my travel companion and I passed the time sipping traditional Irish drinks: Bailey’s Irish Cream and Smithwick’s beer. Customers left, and the guy that made it known I had a song request gave me a thumbs up as he exited the bar.
I chatted with O’Hara and helped him pack up for his second gig of the night, winding up the electrical wires that plugged in his acoustic guitar. “It was very nice to meet you, Taryn. Keep singing. Cheers,” he said to me while he headed for the door.
“Cheers,” I called back emphatically. Even if my first interaction with a genuine Irish man in his home country was not with a red head, my encounter with O’Hara left me pleasantly surprised.