Retreating in Ireland: Irish Music, Irish Food, Irish Culture
By Jessica Taryn
Tucked away in the little town of Loughmore, Ireland is the perfect retreat for a person itching for a truly Irish experience. Theresa Bourke, music teacher and performer, owns and operates the Fiddler’s Retreat, where she says you will experience, “great food for the body and great music for the soul.”
Bourke runs two programs for beginners and advanced musicians to come to Ireland and take fiddle or violin lessons with her, while staying in her beautiful home and dining on her home cooked delicacies made of the finest local produce and ingredients. Guests also have the opportunity to tour the area, visiting historical destinations, and of course, the local pubs.
There are two options for staying at the Fiddler’s Retreat. The Fiddle Package is a six- or three-night stay for 900 and 500 euros respectively. This package includes a reception upon your arrival, including champagne or Irish coffee.
This package also includes daily fiddle or violin lessons; transportation to afternoon sightseeing tours; traditional Irish music sessions at night in which students can play with other local Irish musicians; and accommodations in Theresa Bourke’s home including breakfast, dinner, and refreshments each day.
Guests really seem to appreciate the time they spend with the locals when they get to see how passionate the Irish are about music.
Richard Williams of Ardrossan, Scotland, who visited the retreat this past August, considered himself an advanced beginner on the fiddle. He said, “The sessions in the pubs were a real eye opener. To see a little, old lady of over 70 years playing along with people in their twenties to fifties was warming.”
The second package is called Irish Music, Culture and Cookery, which is a six-day stay. This is more of a cultural experience, and is better for the less experienced fiddler or violinist who wants to learn more about Irish culture.
“This course is great for people who do not have any musical training. It is an appreciation holiday; entertaining, informative, lighthearted learning,” said Bourke.
This package also includes the welcome reception, overnight accommodations, meals and snacks, sightseeing and traditional music lessons. Guests are also offered lessons about the history of music in Ireland and its place in today’s culture, a cooking demonstration where they learn to make Irish stew, brown bread, Irish coffee and a chance to fill a pint of Guinness.
Bourke also accompanies her visitors to Irish sport outings as part of this package. Hurling, horse racing, and greyhound racing are among her favorites. At night after the Irish music lessons, guests get to meet the locals and experience true pub culture. Language classes are also available for an additional charge.
Both packages make time for people to go off on their own, or simply relax and enjoy Bourke’s scenic property.
Williams said that the trip was well worth the money. He learned a lot and really enjoyed the experience.
“I enjoyed so many things. The family-style accommodations, the food, the afternoon trips, the casual relaxed atmosphere, the way Theresa was able to make us all relax and enjoy the learning, and her constant encouragement.”
According to Bourke, both packages can be altered depending on the wants and needs of her guests. “The schedules are flexible. I get an idea of what people are looking for prior to their arrival, as the package is fairly comprehensive. People are usually delighted with the variety, but should people want to do something else I would help them make that a reality.”
BECOMING FIDDLERS AND VIOLINISTS
According to Bourke, her daily lessons are so in-depth that a stay at the Fiddler’s Retreat is about the equivalent of nearly six months of weekly lessons at home. Her lessons include teaching tunes from traditional Irish music, such as reels, jigs, and hornpipes. She teaches bowing techniques, phrasing and expression using audio and written materials as well as demonstrations of her expert skills. While much is learned in a short period of time, a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere is maintained throughout the lessons.
“Theresa tailored the fiddle tuition to suit me each day and I received one-to-one attention. I learned a lot from her strong, rhythmic style of playing. My host also arranged for sightseeing outings and trips to sessions, most nights, which were great! I would thoroughly recommend Fiddler’s Retreat to anyone who wants to experience Irish traditional music, food, culture and friendship!” said Julie Harvey of Scotland.
Fiddler’s Retreat is located in the Golden Vale, the most luscious green land, perfect to support plentiful agriculture. It is near large mountain ranges, flowing rivers and lakes.
Aside from the amazing trips to pubs and famous historical sites, the scenery itself provides a relaxing and enjoyable environment and backdrop for the trip. “There is some time set aside for people to simply relax and unwind. There is a free day for guests to enjoy the village and home where I live. They can take a stroll down to the river, read the newspaper in a pub over coffee, or even listen to the birds in the back garden,” said Bourke.
Bourke suggests visiting the town of Cashel where guests can see the 200-foot-high Rock of Cashel and its surrounding area, which is rich in Irish history. The Cashel Palace Hotel is another fun place to see, which is where the very first pint of ever-so-famous Guinness was brewed.
She also suggests visiting Kilkenny City and Castle, a great tourist site for guests to take in true Ireland and get in some good shopping while they are at it. Bru Boru Heritage Centre is a great place to visit. The centre has two performance theatres, a restaurant, a craft and information centre and a genealogy centre.
Bourke also often tells visitors to drive up Silvermine Mountain to a viewpoint overlooking Lough Derg on the River Shannon, and from there to drive to Killaloe and Ballina, waterside villages, which are quite a sight to see, with cruises available during the summer. Another favorite destination is Thurles Town where tourists can see the G.A.A Sporting Museum, founded in 1884, and Hayes Hotel where G.A.A was founded.
There they can also visit St. Mary’s Famine Museum and the Cathedral of Assumption.
Williams fondly remembers his trip to Cashel, “The Rock of Cashel was beautiful, very picturesque, full of history, and had a great sense of atmosphere,” he said.
Breakfast consists of cereal, fruit, and yogurt, then comes the hot breakfast of bacon, sausage, black pudding, vegetables, eggs and baked beans. Toasts and breads, tea, coffee and juices are always offered.
Dinner is more formal and Bourke prepares quite a meal. For an appetizer she prepares smoked salmon platters with green salad, lemon and capers with her “secret house dressing.” She offers Irish farmhouse paté and coleslaw, followed by tomato and Irish Boilie cheese served with bread and Cumberland sauce.
She also serves deep fried camembert cheese on a bed of rocket leaves served with cranberry and port sauce, home-made country vegetable soup with hot bread rolls and butter. Her specialty for dinner appetizers is vine tomato and buffalo mozzarella cheese dressed with basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Dinner is absolutely wonderful, according to Williams. “It is really a first class meal. Delicious, full of flavor, well presented, and made with the finest local produce,” he said.
The menu includes traditional style bacon, cabbage and turnips served with potatoes and parsley sauce. Bourke also prepares roast breast of duck, oven-roasted vegetables and potatoes served with berry sauce and jus reduction. Other entrée choices are slow-cooked beef and vegetable stew served with creamy mashed potatoes, oven-baked fillet of salmon with steamed seasonal vegetables and white sauce, and a sirloin steak served with stir fried peppers, fennel, courgette, buttered baby potatoes and a peppercorn sauce.
Dessert consists of homemade apple tarts with lightly whipped cream, fresh fruit salad and ice cream, cheesecake, black forest gateaux, and fruit cake with clotted cream.
The meal always includes tea and coffee, and a cheese board made of Irish farmhouses cheeses; Cashel Blue, Cooleney Camembert, farmhouse cheddar and goat cheese.
“Guests sit around the table and enjoy good food. The sharing of chat and laughter is a highlight of the time people spend here. It’s a special experience that you can not recreate in a hotel environment,” said Bourke.
“English is essential because the guests need to be able to understand what I am teaching. But as far as the other aspects of the stay are concerned they will appreciate it regardless of the language. Mind you I sometimes think some of the characters speak other languages when we meet them after copious amounts of Guinness!” Bourke joked.
Ideally, guests speak a good amount of English, but as long as they are able to understand the fiddle lessons, it is not a necessity for the rest of the trip. Williams said, “We had no problems with language when I stayed. We had a German lad and Japanese lady, who spoke English well enough and we all enjoyed ourselves and got on very well.”
TIME OF YEAR
“In the winter it is lovely to be at the fireside, listening to the wind and in the summer we make the best of the long evenings. So, the experience at Fiddler’s Retreat is an all year round offering,” Bourke explained, “People do come back more than once on the fiddle package but the appreciation package is often used as a once off, authentic and unique Irish holiday experience that is not offered by any other person or organization here,” said Bourke.
People may come back to the retreat more than once to experience another of Ireland’s seasons, and to accelerate their fiddling even further.
“It is my intention to visit again, hopefully around April or May of 2006,” said Williams.
“The atmosphere was really warm and relaxed, pure joy,” Williams said, and that was just what Bourke had intended to create when she began the Fiddler’s Retreat.
Bourke said that Ireland became such a tourist destination that touring companies and hotel chains have turned it into a moneymaking scheme and only take visitors to touristy sites where guests do not get to experience true Ireland.
“I believe we have to get tourists out of the main centers and into the heart and soul of the country to see the real Ireland. That’s why I think the return of the family-run bed and breakfast is so important. Visitors get to meet the locals in their local environment, have a drink in a pub that is owned by the person you meet behind the bar, allow the small business and local crafts people show off their wares.
“A handmade piece of knitwear or a fine handmade porcelain figurine, a jar of homemade jam or chutney will bring joy to the bearer and reward the maker. Visitors should see the villages and small towns where everyday life goes on. I established Fiddler’s Retreat because I am passionate about all things Irish and want to allow people to experience my real vision of Ireland.”
According to Bourke, people thank her all the time and say that it was among the best experiences of their lives.
“All I would like to say is that I enjoyed one of the best weeks of my 61 years. The encouragement received and the pointers I learned from Theresa, and now put into practice, have made a big difference in my playing. What more could I have asked for?” said Williams.
A week at Fiddler’s truly provides a unique experience for visitors. Helge Fleischer of Germany said, “It shows but one week on the calendar but for me it was one of the best weeks of my life.”
Bourke suggests that everyone learn about the fascinating culture that is Irish, and she would be delighted to be the one to teach it. “Fiddlers Retreat is unique; Irish host, Irish home, Irish food, Irish music, Irish culture, Irish craic, Irish experience,” she said.
For more information visit fiddlersretreat.com.
Jessica Taryn is a lawyer in New Jersey.
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