One might expect the unexpected when travelling from Yukon to Ireland.
However, the phrase, ‘What now?’ does not always apply to negative context, not even in Ireland, despite their recent 30-year Troubles.
Take, for example, unexpectedly connecting with Hungry Hill there, one of our favourite Canadian bluegrass bands.
That was hardly punishment when our main mission in the Emerald Isle was to roust out the stories of far out (distant) and very dead medieval ancestors, the formidable Maquires.
On our first morning in the small town of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, we found Hungry Hill’s concert poster — larger than life — gracing the walls of Fermanagh Lakeland Tourist Centre.
The poster advertised a concert for three days later in the town’s fabulous Ardhowen Theatre. We bought tickets online.
On August 28, Hungry Hill energized an appreciative audience in the theatre’s 100-seat Gallery Bar (very unlike the traditional Irish pubs — more like a cozy banquet room).
The original part of Ardhowen Theatre is an Edwardian mansion. An addition houses a 300-seat amphitheatre and the glass-walled Gallery Bar overlooking the River Erne.
It felt surreal, a little like magic, as Glen and I and Aunt Isla Evans sat there eating lemon cake with spooning cream, and watching Jenny Lester and crew on stage.
We had done just that at home in Haines Junction a couple of months earlier (sans the lemon cake and spooning cream).
Talk about Shining Moments (the title of one of the band’s newer songs).
The five Hungry Hill bluegrass musicians hail from Yukon, British Columbia and the United States. They are well-known to Yukoners from the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Haines Junction.
Two of them, Nadine Landry and Bob Hamilton, are popular Whitehorse musicians; vocalist and fiddle player Jenny Lester and guitar player Mark Thibeault live in Smithers, British Columbia. Ross Nickerson, banjo player, lives in Baltimore and Tucson.
The band chose the name Hungry Hill because it refers to a section of the highway close to Smithers. Interestingly, it is also the name of a mountain in the Republic of Ireland.
Landry comments on the various venues they experienced in Ireland. She describes Tom Malone’s in Miltown Malbay co. Clare.
“It was one of the smallest stages we had ever played on; we had to hang the microphones from the ceiling for extra room.
“It was my favourite gig. The place was packed and the energy was incredible.”
“Bluegrass music was extremely well-received in all the communities we visited. Irish music is in part the cradle of bluegrass,” Landry adds.
“Irish trad and bluegrass feel like cousins to me. Bluegrass is not well-established there, but there seems to be a growing interest.”
Travelling more than 3,000 kilometres in a rental VW van, Hungry Hill toured Northern Ireland, The Republic and England for 42 days.
They played five festivals and more than 25 shows.
And that followed immediately after touring Ontario and the Prairies.
“This was by far our biggest tour!” Landry says.
“We didn’t have time to visit much of it, but we did get to the spectacular Marble Arch Caves,” Landry says of the town of Enniskillen.
“And we found an amazing thrift shop; I got myself amazing shoes for two pounds!”
On a much more serious note, the musicians comment on the political/social climate of Ireland.
“I could feel that The Troubles were not that far in the past for the North. It didn’t feel as open as the Republic, although their response to us was fine,” Hamilton says.
Landry agrees. “The vibe in Northern Ireland is totally different than in the Republic.
“I did feel safe at all times; the only thing scary to me was the price of gas!
“But I sense that the northern people are somehow more reserved than the rest of the country. All the recent Troubles they have gone through is not forgotten and I felt it is still very palpable.”
“It put us in touch with the reality of things we have heard only through the media,” Lester says.
Nevertheless, Ireland and the Irish did not appear gloomy (despite the summer’s cool ‘mizzle,’ especially in the north). Hungry Hill reports rewarding experiences and hopes to return.
“We made tons of friends along the way,” says Landry.
“There are fond memories of pub gigs, sea baths, castle tours, and most of all surviving the drives on the wrong side of narrow, winding, shoulderless roads,” adds Lester.
“It would take days to tell all the stories,” adds Hamilton. He recounts a positive one.
“We were in Galway needing a bluegrass fiddle player, and were given a phone number for someone deemed to be about the best in the UK.
“It turned out that he was right there playing in Galway, too. Within five minutes we had found him, within an hour we were playing with him and he finished the tour with us.
“Talk about trusting the universe!” says Hamilton. “That to me is an example of the magic of Ireland.”
“And travelling on the other side of the world and meeting folks from two hours away from home was really amazing — really makes it a small world,” says Landry.
“Seeing folks from back home can be an out-of-body experience, and it’s a special treat to have them connect us to stories from our home across the sea,” says Lester.
A standing ovation and encore at the Enniskillen concert prompted Landry, vocalist and bass player, to dedicate a piece “to our friends from home.”
She raised the rafters of that beautiful theatre with, I Know My Baby Loves Me.
So what now for these musicians?
Hamilton plans to enjoy playing music with his family and friends. He also operates Old Crow Recording Studio in Whitehorse.
Lester and Thibeault are building a house; Thibeault builds Rayco guitars; Lester trains horses and cooks in summer camps.
The two expect to be back on the road in February 2009.
Nickerson has his online work at Banjoteacher.com.
Landry will do some recording and Yukon tours with the Done Gone String Band.
“And I also plan on achieving a lifelong dream — going to Lafayette, Louisiana, for Mardi Gras!” she says.
Hungry Hill has been invited back to all the provinces and countries they have toured.
“So we seem to be on a self-propelling trajectory, Landry says. “Hungry Hill has become more than we hoped, a group that is stronger than the sum of its parts.”
“Having Debbie Peters at magnum Opus Management do the bookings for us has brought us to new levels in farther-reaching places,” she adds.
“We will be going back to Ireland for sure,” says Hamilton.
Whatever these musicians do, as the Irish would say, “Still an’ all they have music,” meaning they are very good at it.
In fact, Hungry Hill has been nominated for Ensemble of the Year by the Canadian Folk Festival Awards.
Results will be announced on November 23, in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Elaine Hurlburt is a writer based in haines Junction.