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The Milk House: Like an Emerald Isle cowboy

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2020

It was suggested as something that would be “fun” – and granted, being a good foreign national generally meant pretending to learn the language of the country you lived in.

However, it was also true that most Irish people weren’t fluent in Irish (what Americans call “Gaelic”). Regardless, I signed up for a year-long class, even though by the end I still couldn’t say much more than “I am Ryan” and “I am the wind on the pig’s back.”

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The culmination of the course was spending a weekend in Carraroe, a small town located in one of the island’s Gaeltachs. Although everyone there can also speak English, Irish is supposed to be the first language in a Gaeltach, and no doubt they are instructed to only speak to visiting students in the native tongue. It was only for a weekend, and everyone in the group was in the same boat.

Still, it was intimidating when you can barely count (and not much more) in the only language you’re allowed to communicate with. At night, we all walked the mile into town to blow off some steam in one of Carraroe’s two pubs. The only thing we were looking for was to get away from those watching us and being able to speak English.

What we got, however, was so much more.

It was country karaoke night in the bar. The floor was filled with people of all ages dressed in cowboy hats, boots and rhinestones. Older couples two-stepped, and men walked around with their thumbs tucked in their belt loops. I think I saw a bolo tie or two. They didn’t choose the classics like “Ring of Fire” and “Friends in Low Places” that everyone would know. Instead, they sang obscure country songs from McBride and the Ride, The Desert Rose Band and Brother Phelps that I only recognized from being a super-fan during the mid-’90s.

I was sent to Carraroe for a cultural experience. It turns out, I got one.

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The reason why country music is so popular in Ireland has been mused over for generations. Granted, it largely crops up in pockets, and mostly in the West and Northwest, but its fan base is undeniably large. In fact, it has spawned a subgenre called Irish country, with its own stars like Daniel O’Donnell and Big Tom. It can be said without much argument that Irish country is where American country music was several decades ago, with simple lyrics and basic steel guitar chords, and with albums of the smiling singer transposed against a green idyllic landscape. Still, its followers are no less faithful.

Ireland attracts a lot of American country stars to its venues. Once, I caught wind that one of my favorite singers, Hal Ketchum, was coming to my town to give a concert. Taking my chances, and perhaps feeling like I was the wind on the pig’s back, I got in contact with his agent. I told her I was a freelance journalist who wanted to interview Hank. I had never written anything for a magazine before at that point, and when the agent asked what publications I represented, I simply said “Oh, different ones.” Surprisingly, they agreed to the interview, but then he ended up canceling his trip to Ireland for personal reasons. Hence, our lifelong friendship never materialized.

Hal Ketchum wasn’t the only American country singer to famously cancel his show in Ireland. Garth Brooks is beloved in rural parts, and in the day it wasn’t uncommon to see old men brag about having his complete discography. Brooks seemed to recognize the country’s esteem of him and co-wrote a song named “Ireland” that he later recorded. The fall of Garth Brooks on the Emerald Isle, however, started with him thinking that he was bigger than the Irish way of doing things.

In 2014, he announced he would start his comeback tour with five shows in a row in Croke Park, the big stadium in Dublin. The city council, however, only granted him permission to have three shows – on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night – citing that the other two shows during the week would be an excessive disruption to the residents in the area. Ireland, after all, runs on parish politics, in which a politician gets votes by fixing potholes instead of grand ideology. Brooks got his nose bent and, in retaliation, canceled all the concerts, refunding the 400,000 tickets that were already sold.

The popularity of country music in the U.S. is probably easy to debunk, as it is meant to speak to the experience of rural Americans and be a banner for their lifestyle. After all, cowboys are a unique defining feature of the relatively young nation, and one that perhaps only Australia shares. Still, one would be remiss not to point out that country music enjoys a certain level of popularity in the urban American population as well. I was once gifted an MP3 player on a Greyhound bus by an inner-city resident, the device being full of rap ... and Kenny Chesney.

Although I can only speculate (as a would-be journalist), I wonder if part of the attraction to country music is the fact that the cowboy boots, pickup trucks and 10-gallon hats are completely outside of what most people know. Once I went to a heavy metal concert, and soon realized most of the people with long hair and dressed in black were actually IT workers, nerdy students and confessed introverts who wanted to feel different.

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Nashville is far from Dublin, both in distance and experience. However, you can put on a cowboy hat and take on a whole other persona. Perhaps that’s why it’s also so popular in unexpected places like Ireland, and why it still maintains such a strong following. And from the number of Irish country singers on the scene today, it doesn’t appear like it’s going to let up any time soon.

Listen, Garth. You really blew it.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He tweets at @PenOfRyanDennis.

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