Sunday Stories: “Epiphany”


by Russ Doherty

“This music is The Future of the Irish Culture.” 

As dozens of fiddle notes flood the room, that phrase leaps out of my mouth. The music grabs me by the throat. 

My wife, Therese, snorts, indicating her take on my epiphany. She tosses back her Irish whiskey and orange juice and says, “You always think your private insights are so important. That’s BS. This is nothing but the same folk music I danced to in high school.” Sinead, our daughter, keeps right on coloring with her newfound five-year-old friend, Caitlin. 

“I’d love to learn this music.” Two years earlier Therese had insisted I stop touring with my pop band and take only local gigs so I would be home to help raise Sinead. Since then I’ve vowed to change my life so many times, to no avail. Things stay pretty testy between us.

Therese reacts by shaking her head. “You say that about every type of music you like: Django Reinhardt’s gipsy-jazz, Robert Johnson’s blues, Peter Gabriel’s art-rock. You can’t do it all.” This isn’t the first time she’s scorned my ideas.

We’re watching the entertainment at O’Looney’s Pub in Lahinch, Ireland, right above the Strand, a stunning curve of beach leading up to the immense Cliffs of Moher. The place is noisy and packed: kids, parents, grandparents, friends, locals, tourists, drunks. The pub is a long, thin room with tall windows overlooking the beach. Wooden booths line up against the windows; a mahogany bar with all the upside-down whiskey bottles occupies the other wall. Outside a sliver of moon on the water adds a surreal ending to a gorgeous day. 

We’ve sampled this Irish traditional music in half a dozen places so far on this trip: Kinsale, Dingle, Galway, and Dublin, among others. But this time it’s passionate—alive, slicing through the room, and filling the corners of my mind. The warm air has the notes dancing on it, imitating the spray coming off the waves outside. I don’t even know if I’m a competent listener; no one else seems to be paying much attention. Yet everyone in town is here—this must be the hub of their lives. 

“I don’t want to do it all, but I do want to become part of this.” I’m bobbing my head.

Therese waves me off and goes to the bar to order another drink. 

The entertainment tonight consists of children dancing in embroidered, Celtic-knotted costumes while other children, and what appear to be their parents, play the tunes. They’re mainly solo dancers doing very intricate steps. One little girl in pigtails executes a precise combination of triplets with her feet, twirls around, jumps and kicks, and steps back into rhythm. Right behind her a gray-haired grandmother wearing plaid overalls and a white blouse pounds her fiddle like she’s fighting for her life.

As the music picks at my consciousness, it hits me: I hear this music nowhere in America—not on the radio, TV, concerts, or in nightclubs. I’m a professional musician, classically trained at the University of California, and this beautiful, communal music has somehow passed me by. The sounds we’re listening to reach into my soul, seize my heart, and rearrange my future.

Therese comes back with only one drink for herself. She stares at me, daring me to talk.

“I do. I have to learn this music.” It’s a life decision, and I feel a life decision is like a car: you’re either driving it, sitting in the passenger seat, or watching from the side of the road. I’ve been in institutions most of my life—school, the orphanage, the Army, jail, college—and I know I need to be driving that car, not letting someone else make decisions for me.

Caitlin, our table companion, had wandered over from her parents after spotting our five-year-old. Sinead immediately broke out her store of drawing materials, and they set to producing art that imitated Picasso at his most childish: colorful, simple, lines and swirls.

“Caitlin, do you like this music?”

“It’s not Madonna, so.” 

Therese hoots and shoots me a look. Sinead smiles up at me. Therese’s ironic laughter hurts—she knows I have to play Madonna and Prince nightly, and she feels extreme pity for me and my lousy falsetto. 

It’s a constant battle for me every night on stage, watching the audience act like they’re on TV. An unscripted comedy of error-prone humans. Thinking they can attract with androgynous fashion, sculpted hair, a painted face, or cross earrings what they can’t attract with wit. When they do seduce the object of their desire, they’re left with someone who has fallen for an image, not a real person. The couplings rarely last. Then both disillusioned partners resume the prowl, stalking another supposed perfect mate in the dance of life.

Some nights I’m so distracted, I lose track of where I am in the music.  

Last week we were in Howth, U2’s stomping grounds just north of Dublin, watching an “arranged” show that was supposed to resemble an authentic Irish pub. The bar of the Abbey Tavern that night was packed with tourists, but one of the Dubliners leaned in to me and shouted over the music.

“This music is shite! They don’t know three feckin’ tunes. Go to the west, go to Doolin, get the real feckin’ thing.”

I’ve been thinking about that night. Was the music really bad? Or do I have zero perspective? What would it be like to get lost in this folk music? Instead of the glossy pop stuff I’ve been playing to pay the bills. 

My brain races. “I need to learn how to play this music.” 

Like a mantra, the phrase repeats over and over in my brain. The undulating melody lines keep twisting and turning back onto themselves, resembling musically what the Celtic knots do in weaving and drawing. The recurrent thoughts test me. Can I step outside myself and become another type of musician? Someone who mesmerizes the audience with folk tunes instead of just pumping out today’s electro-pop hits? 

Therese says, “Oh, please, you barely make enough money as it is. If you switch to Irish music, you’ll lose all your pop music gigs. I don’t know any place in Santa Barbara where they hire folk musicians. We’ll go broke.” We love each other but often we don’t agree. She’s wedded to stability. 

Therese wasn’t big on us coming back to Ireland. She feels we’re vacationing on borrowed money. And now I’m proposing to quit my current gig when we get home.

In America we separate the generations: the kids are in day care; Mom and Dad each have their own car, job, and voicemail. The grandparents are in a rest home. You can’t even bring your kids to a bar. And here in Ireland we’re all in the same pub with our drinks, coloring books, and Irish music. 

Besides, if Peter Gabriel can quit Genesis, I can certainly quit my band. My heart starts doing the same boom-boom-boom that happened to Peter in his song “Solsbury Hill” when the eagle came to take him home.

I say, “It can’t just be about money, I want to keep our family together.”

It’s 11:30 at night, far past time for all these children to be in bed, yet no one seems tired. The yeasty smell of Guinness mixes with the salt air. Earlier we watched the sun sink into the Atlantic, reddening the sky, the Strand, the ocean. The glow is still visible on everyone’s faces. Being so far north, the summer light gives almost two days of sun for every twenty-four hours that actually pass. Ireland is glorious in the long months. 

Therese gives me the look again. “We are together and neither Sinead nor I play music.”

Maybe I’m getting punch-drunk. This music is haunting me; something about the melody echoes centuries of skepticism, distant eras, sadder and wiser times. As the night gets later, the music gets wilder and the pub overflows. Smiles dominate as heads bob and talk, glasses clink, and feet tap in the kaleidoscope of sound. 

And here, when I least expect it, I’m thrown this challenge to test my courage and ability to change. It’s scary, feeling my old life peel away. There’s no point in pretending that nothing’s happening or thinking I’m not ready. There’s no one to chart this out for me. This decision won’t wait. I can’t look back. I’m either gonna come out okay on the other side or I won’t. Can I do what I’m dreaming of? I’ve lost my way so many times already in my life. I might as well take this shot at winning. I have to accept that I won’t be the same person once I make the change. Hopefully—even if it breaks me—I’ll end up stronger in that broken place.

A whole culture, an island, my ancestral home, embracing music that’s hundreds of years old, and I pretty much know nothing about it. That’s gonna change.

As we leave we return Caitlin to her parents, thanking them for the loan of their child. I tell them how much I love the music. “Go to Doolin,” the dad says, “it’s the center of the music.” 

We have our destination and my rearranged future. Boom-boom-boom.


Therese and Sinead talk as we walk back to our B&B, mostly about the dancing and the kids at the pub. My mind drifts, reviewing how we got here.

We’ve had eight years together since our honeymoon in 1982. Eight years of saving to come back to Ireland, and having a child, and me trying to balance a music career with making enough money to live in Santa Barbara. And then Therese’s mother died three months ago, and we inherited her house—a devastating but wonderful miracle. 

One week after we moved in, the movie Thelma and Louise was released. Watching those two women drive off that cliff, seeing them choose to die rather than spend the rest of their lives in prison, was enough to unhinge me. It caused a midlife crisis. I felt my life spinning out of control. Tonight the atmosphere at O’Looney’s steamrolls my consciousness, makes me question why I live my life the way I do. And I decide to embrace the change.

Therese’s always afraid I’ll lose my job as a professional musician. She’s a postal union employee, can never be fired, and values job security over everything. And here I am, constantly reinventing myself as a musician, but one who can be fired at any time. So we’re basically Mrs. Stable and Mr. Edge. And, once again, I’m about to push the envelope to the limit.

I’ve never told Therese much of anything about my life growing up or about the orphanage or jail. All I told her was I wanted to forget the past. I didn’t want her to think I was some tale out of Dickens. But I can’t seem to sit in one place. I keep trying to make things better than they are. That doesn’t sit well with her.

After a good bit of persuading by me, Therese agrees to go to Doolin tomorrow night. To experience the heart of Irish music.


My book before bed is Famine by Liam O’Flaherty, obviously a distant relation. As I’m reading, I learn the Irish famine was called An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger. The book proves to be a gut-wrenching read as I delve into what happened. Perhaps Irish happiness in the pubs today is a cultural counterbalance to the horrible times in the 1840s when Ireland lost half its population to starvation and emigration.

I wonder how my family—the family that orphaned me—survived. And why I’m alive when millions died: in the fields, in the workhouses, or on coffin ships to America. And whether my survival is what attracts me to the music of my ancestors.


The next night we leave Sinead with a babysitter. 

Doolin is out the back of nowhere on the edge of the Burren—one hundred square miles of gray limestone that formed when the glaciers receded and has eroded ever since. It’s a desolate moonscape. 

Therese and I park and walk in the rain to McDermott’s, a bright-yellow pub. A crowd mills about outside in the wet with drinks in their hands, all talking at the same time. We chance upon Seamus, who resembles a leprechaun: tiny, red hair, floppy tweed cap, green sweater. He speaks with the lyrical cadence of the Irish, lovely, inclusive.

I ask, “Is the traditional music good tonight?” 

“Aye, it’s grand, so.” He escorts us in. 

We push into the pub. It’s packed with more people than live in the village. We get seated and order drinks. 

Seamus pays for our drinks and says, “You get the next round.” Okay

The traditional Irish musicians are transcendent. Their sound is exotic, throbbing, and mystical. High pitches, low, thick booms, jagged melodies, and propulsive rhythms. Round goatskin drums and black wooden flutes, copper pennywhistles, burnished fiddles, and blond guitars. Different musicians are embellishing different notes. Some are deliberately pulling the music out of time with almost no breathing in between the phrases, forcing an otherworldly stopped-time atmosphere to the music. The gorgeous arrangements ache of a simpler time, a quieter life, an embracing family.

The liquid music is magic to me: moving, hypnotic, and healing.

I’ve reached nirvana. 

What kind of musicians are these? I don’t remember hearing music like this before: centuries-old tunes played so vital, so alive, in a little village on the edge of the Atlantic. It’s cold and wet outside, but listening to these musicians, their fire enfolds me, whispers to me, and pulls me in. It solidifies my decision.

Whoever I was before today doesn’t matter. I start learning this music tomorrow.

I came to Ireland thinking only of Therese, Sinead, Irish culture, and myself in some misguided attempt to connect with the myth and legend that my ancestors had fled to survive. 

And now I’m hoping Seamus can dance a jig. 

Instead, he starts talking over the music, asking my last name. 

“Flaherty,” I say.

“Sure and aren’t there a lot of Flahertys in Doolin?”

“I wouldn’t mind looking for my ancestors.” 

“Sure, doesn’t every American, but aren’t they dead, so?”

Which reminds me. “I’m reading the book Famine by Liam O’Flaherty.” 

“Christ, you wouldn’t catch me reading that shite.”

“I want to know what happened.”

“They all died is what happened.”

“But our ancestors didn’t.” I point to him and me. “That’s why we’re here now and able to talk about it.” When I’d rather be listening to the music. I feel another epiphany coming on.

He shouts at me, “The old people deny there ever was a famine. But me ancestors died and left more Guinness for me!” He guzzles his stout. 

Conversations in Irish pubs always grow louder than the music. I change the subject. “Why aren’t they amplified?” I point to the musicians. “With louder sound the musicians could be heard over all the talking.”

“Sure and you couldn’t hear yourself think the way some of these eejits play.”

“But isn’t that the point? We would hear the musicians we came to hear and not all the talkers. Why isn’t anyone listening to the music?” 

Seamus looks pained, like my opinions are getting on his nerves. “Sure an’ it’s better than pop shite. Ye go to Dublin for that. Here it’s the grand craic we’re mad for.”

It takes me a moment to remember that craic in Ireland is not cocaine but an enjoyable conversation. 

I formulate what appears to be the Second Epiphany of Irish Traditional Music: Never, under any circumstances, act as if you are paying attention to the music.

“But why talk where the music is, though?” I ask. “Couldn’t you talk easier at home?”

He snorts. “Sure an’ there’s nobody there at home.” He sweeps his arm to include everyone in the room. “People are needed for conversation. And they’re all here at the pub. Are ye sorted out about that one now?” 

My First Epiphany needs to be repeated. “Don’t you think this music is The Future of the Irish Culture?” 

Therese starts laughing into her whiskey. “You just won’t give up, will you?”

“These chancers don’t have any future.” Seamus is oblivious to my line of thought. “Shite, if they ever get near the future, it’ll run away from them.” 

He holds up his empty glass. 

Which I now have to pay to refill.

I’m trying to understand what’s drawing me to this music. Replacing the emptiness I feel, the loneliness of being an orphan, of having no past.

So I try again. “I’m thinking of learning how to play this traditional music. I’m currently a pop musician at home.” 

Seamus stares at me like I’m a mental patient. “Then you wouldn’t want to be wasting your time on trad feckin’ music. No one in Ireland would accept you as a trad musician.” He almost sneers. “Sure an’ you’d be treated as a blow-in. These musicians have been playing these tunes since before you were born.”

“Do you play trad music?” I ask him.

“Me time is much better spent.” 

The band takes a break, and Seamus waves over the young fiddler. “Cormac, Paddy here wants to be a trad musician. Tell him how hard it is.”

Cormac shakes his head. “Well, you won’t make any feckin’ money, that’s for sure.”

Therese says, “I told you.” 

“Who’s your favorite fiddler?” I ask Cormac.

“Martin Hayes, he’s won the All-Ireland Fiddle Championship five times. He plays the tunes slow and haunting. He’s deadly good.” He tilts his head and looks into the distance.

I’ve never heard that name. But now I know who to listen to. 


On a very rainy drive back to our B&B, I justify my decision to Therese. “I’m prepared to lose what I have for what I might get… It’s about letting go.”

“What, letting go of your paycheck?” she says.

“No, letting go of pop music as I switch to Irish music. The type of music I play defines who I am as a person. Without it, the other stuff of life would just be stuff. I’d have no reason for my existence.” 

Therese says, “God, you are so overblown. How do you plan on existing without money? We have a child to raise, you know. Maybe you should edit your thoughts a little more or at least talk less, since us non-musicians might have a different opinion.”

“The point is, I need music. Otherwise I’m out of balance, you understand? Without it I don’t exist. It’s how I express myself.”

We’ve had discussions like this before. Having Therese in my life makes me whole. But she feels my being gone on a regular basis shows I don’t have the same commitment to the marriage that she has. And she lets me know her feelings. 

She says, “You have an addictive personality. It’s like we’re in different cars, driving in different directions. But we’re a couple and I don’t feel right ordering you around. So long as you pay your half of the bills and are a good father, I don’t really care what kind of music you play or how much money you make. You have to be happy.” 

We seem to have an agreement.

Hopefully, my learning this music won’t screw up our relationship.

Much as I try to push these thoughts away, I can’t escape the conclusion that there’s something wrong with me, something missing. Music sometimes seems a safer harbor for me than family does. 

My journey begins.


Eight years later my life has changed so much, I barely remember my original inspiration. 

Therese was right and I’m living the consequences. I now play Irish music for zero money at my local pub, surrounded by unconventional musicians, slowly learning music that is passed on through an oral tradition. 

A rectangle of morning sunlight hits my desk as I think about the deal I’ve made with the devil. I took a day job to finance my half of the money bargain with Therese. My take-home pay every two weeks as a lowly accounting clerk is exactly $666—the Number of the Beast.

Though I’m happy Sinead, at thirteen years old, is the flute player and dancer—basically the star of our group—I’m relegated to being the rhythm guitar player no one listens to. Irish music is all about the melody; rhythm players are ignored. 

I’m still a messed-up individual trying to be part of the whole.

Sure, I’m living my epiphany, revitalizing Irish music in Santa Barbara, but I wonder if I might’ve gotten lost.

The music inks me like a tattoo, etching memories on my soul. 

While I keep looking for that eagle to take me home. 




Russ Doherty attended the Writer’s Digest, Santa Barbara, and Kauai Writers Conferences, studying or playing guitar with Greg Iles, George Saunders, and Joshua Mohr. He has a double BAfrom UCSB in Screenwriting and MusicComposition. His work is published in Broken Plate, Ellipsis,Evening Street Review, Opiate, Glint Literary Journal, The Quiet Reader, and Summerset Review. His shortstory “The Towers” is published in Potato Soup Journal’s Best of 2021 anthology. He spends too much time walking the beach talking to the characters in his head.

Art source: Dominik Scythe/Unsplash

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