It’s a dreamland event at Christmas, and almost a Santa’s grotto for grown-ups who like music. On arrival, Dingle is festooned in lights. The weather is kind for December and the glow from the cafes, restaurants and, of course, pubs is as inviting as it gets. Visionary actions by a few locals and a few music people has slowly brought Other Voices to be a selection box of free music peppered across one of Ireland’s gemstone towns.
The setup is simple and, remarkably, ticket free. It’s centred around St James’ church in the centre of Main St, and the filmed-for-tv gigs that happen twice nightly from Friday to Sunday. Access to the 60 seater is restricted to competition winners, and a scattering of workers and writers. Getting in is seen as a bonus but by no means essential. The real treat in this set-up is that around the town are a collection of bars that are both on the off-venue music trail and also stream the concerts live from the church. No-one else in the country will see these til they are edited and broadcast in the spring so there’s a lovely sense of the moment in Benner’s Hotel bar, in An Droichead Beag, in Foxy John’s – all literally a stones throw from where these gigs are happening and sharing the live moment together. And literally anyone can join in here and watch Lisa Hannigan and Saint Sister work as well as you’d imagine in a small church. The real treats though are Imelda May’s captivating re-invention, Le Galaxie’s disregard for decorum and the loose-canon sweat and energy of All Tvvins.
Out on the streets it is happening in abundance, everywhere and almost all the time. There’s even an industry conference fitted in. Ireland’s Edge featured panels talking about creativity, technology’s influence on it, migration and commemoration and runs from Friday through to lunch on Saturday. Jim Carroll’s Banter public talks continue in a weeny room at the back of Foxy John’s pub and you might hear people raving in the bars afterwards about Catherine Murphy TD, Eithne Shortall and Paul Howard’s moments in the chair.
Brand new this year is Music Trail West bus tour around the peninsula, which stops at various locations with space for a small gig and a drink. A beautiful drive plus music from Ryan Vail and Katie Laffan to name two. You’d be hard up if you went wrong on that one. (Accompanying photos by Mark Earley are from this tour)
With all of this, you still have to make time to explore some great seafood, the surprising amount of great coffee shops, the landscape and its fresh air and somewhere in the middle you fit the endlessly joyful movement between all the bars and venues on the music trail to find the acts you’ve heard about in advance, or picked up on by osmosis. On the way to one little bar gig you pass three or four worth sticking the head into. You may deal with a queue outside some of the bigger draws, yet you’ll always get a seat for some great smaller acts as you broaden the horizons and let go of the need to see David Kitt in the Brewery or Farah Elle in Nelliefreds’ back room – instead taking in the joys of Beauty Sleep in The Marina Bar, spoken word by John Cummins in Murphy’s Ice Cream shop, Cry Monster Cry up in the Brewery and Ruth in John Benny’s pub – who has even written her own Bond song for an imagined 007 film.
From within the music scene of predominantly Dublin, it is a gathering of almost everyone you know, and a pre-Christmas celebration for promotors, writers, bands, record companies and so on. It puts a lot of people who promote music in Ireland in the same tiny town with fresh new talent, yet it isn’t like the A&R feast of Hard Working Class Heroes, it’s way more relaxed. There may be some concern that it’s a closed shop but evidence from other visitors for the weekend disputes that. The music and good atmosphere feeds from Dingle itself through everyone, and it’s all pervasive. There is, however, talk of how it doesn’t feel like the secret discovery of years previously, especially with queues outside small venues of acts people are eager to see.
It’s clearly growing. A sponsor in Eir, really well organised literature and free wifi in every music trail venue, as well as the live church streaming, make it feel professional all over. The oddest part, and perhaps its greatest achievement, is that there’s no tickets. Though it means there’s no way to pay to support it, it also means no preferential gate keeping (apart from the church for obvious reasons) and also no limit to the amount of people who can show up bar Dingle’s finite hotel and B&B rooms and thus pour into the venues. With a decision to be relaxed about venues that are full, we find time for some beautiful pints with infrequently seen friends and were also pushed into other venues to see acts we might have missed otherwise.
To be in Dingle surrounded by the warm locals, the cold perfect stout, a generous helping of pals, and passionate, varied live music at every turn in early December is magical. Even though there may be yet MORE queues next year, it’s hard to discourage this most perfect of bookends on our own thriving island.