The Bag and the Cup of Tea

Companion Chapter

Shannon Heaton’s Irish Music Stories project explores Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic traditions. Each podcast episode explores a different topic (like parenting, immigration, humor) through a traditional music lens.

To accompany these aural collages of music, conversation, and narration, Shannon’s essays and poems offer bite-sized meditations on Irish music and dance.

Irish Music Stories has bloomed from many hours of conversations with musicians and dancers; from many miles logged to make these connections; and from countless fights, train trips, and car rides through a couple of decades of session playing, before IMS ever launched.

This was all made possible by one well-packed carry-on. Thanks to Laura Cortese for reading this essay in Episode 51.

The Bag and the Cup of Tea

Mosquito repellent. Green curry. Fireplace smoke. She could detect faint notes of each, as soon as she’d spilled the dregs of her airport tea on the side of her backpack.

Stupid. Why rush? The plane is already delayed.

Fellow travellers in Gate 15C, even the ones out of olfactory reach, watched as she piled small electronics, flute case, extra clothing, notebooks, and tubes of toothpaste and face lotion on the floor of Shannon Airport.

No, I wasn’t named for the airport. Yes, it’s a common surname—it’s also a common Irish American first name. Why is this reaction to my name so annoying?

She dabbed at the dark spot on the side of the pack with a T-shirt she’d pulled from the bag and amused herself by identifying the onlookers: Concerned Compassionates (older Irish); Chucklers (other Irish); Eye Rollers (Young Urban Irish); and The Guy Who Said “Way, to Go, Chief” (Boston Irish).

Her carry-on was damp. It was also well appointed. This one was about nine years old, only her third backpack since childhood. It fit her flute with the long middle section, And it had a reinforced leather bottom and just enough zippered pockets to keep track of. This edition also had a padded compartment in the back for the laptop. But except for the back segment, the design and contents of the packs had been pretty consistent for decades.

Shannon had the backpack down. But for all her globetrotting, she still agonized about how to pack the suitcase. Shoes were the hardest. Running shoes were bulky but essential. But she wasn’t about to walk around Europe or Asia all day in ugly sport shoes. And then there was the issue of what to wear for gigs. Life got easier when she settled on street-to-stage boots instead of packing a third pair for performing. But packing was still a struggle. How do you find comfort and convenience on the road? Carry everything you want, or move around easily with truly lightweight luggage?

For this trip she’d gone with the wheelie bag, so she could fit a few extra items. But she’d forgotten about all the uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets. From Ennis to Dublin, she cursed her suitcase choice.

But the backpack was perfect. If stained.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When she was going to Ireland every year, she’d used a different pack. Similar, a little smaller, no laptop sleeve in the back. But it had been almost eight years since the last trip (funds were tight). So this time around she did her best to see everybody she could. If the suitcase wasn’t ideal, the nights of music and the kitchen visits set the stage for an epic holiday. And since she’d decided to record a bunch of her reunions, she ended up with a rich collection of stories.

This turned into a massive oral history project and culture podcast, starting with the story of Realta Gaela, a band of 8-15 year olds from Boston who competed in the 2015 All Ireland Fleadh, with tens of thousands of other traditional musicians from around the globe. Shannon spoke to a few folks on that Ireland trip—friends and mentors of the young Boston group. When she got home, Cormac Gaj, who’d played flute and pipes with Realta Gaela talked about the Sligo Fleadh.

It was massive! They took over this giant auditorium. There must have been at least 1500 people there. All there for this one competition. 

Singer and Boston Comhaltas music school teacher Mairin Ui Chiede also reflected on the kids’ experience.

You can go across the Atlantic to Ireland to participate. And it’s an experience that’s forever with you.  The competition is just the minor part of it. It’s the people you meet, the music you hear, and the relationships you build. And the community that you belong to after going to a Fleadh, well, you may have been the slowest one in the marathon, but that’s okay. You finished! You reached your goal. You got to the end! And that’s what sustains you as a human being, to belong. 

Episode 01-Trip to Sligo is a great underdog tale. A good Irish music story.  

And Shannon went on to gather stories from kitchens, backstages, festivals, pubs, rest areas, and airports all over Ireland, North America, Europe and Japan. When she did remote interviews (a few pre-2020, and all online during Covid times), the backpack stayed home. And she got a break from the suitcase dilemma. But there’s still a hint of bug spray, curry, and smoke in the old bag. And if these Irish music stories do their job, maybe you’ll get a sense of the spills and essence of this well-travelled music tradition. 

The Heaton List