“When I die, that’s the way I want to go!” It is the third time I have heard someone say this since I arrived in Ballydehob village today. Each time, the comment is made with resolute happiness; a notion that is not usually associated with death. But then these people are witnessing a funeral event unknown to Irish culture. It is the May weekend and the Ballydehob jazz festival is in full flow. As part of the celebrations, a New Orleans funeral parade passes through the village. A lone man, dressed in a colourful suit with a painted face, leads the march. Behind him, a brightly coloured coffin is carried up the main street by four men in black with painted skeleton faces, followed by a 20 piece brass band and a 10ft ‘widow’ puppet. The parade begins on a sombre musical note, as everyone hangs their head and marches slowly in step with the music. But once the procession reaches the gathered crowd, the music picks up a beat and they begin to dance. The surrounding crowd joins in and a sea of mobile phones hover in the air, like lighters at a Celine Dion gig, recording the whole event. The atmosphere is electric and in typical west Cork style, everyone is loving it.
Ballydehob is a tiny village on the Wild Atlantic Way in West Cork. The population only hovers around the 300 mark. And yet it seems to have more festivals to enjoy than any other big town or city in Ireland. The jazz festival is a big one and it marks the start of the summer season down west. The funeral parade is a clever add on to this jazz festival, where artists and musicians rock out a memorable performance. No wonder, some of the visitors to this lively festival would like to reorganize their last wishes; this raucous send off would put a smile on anyone’s face. But then this is only one of the highlights of this weekend event.
The festival began in 2007 and has grown to become a big national event on the Irish calendar. As its popularity continues, it draws big international names to its doorsteps. A large queue forms outside the town hall on the Saturday night and snakes round the corner towards the main street. Everyone is here to see ‘Lake Street Dive’, an amazing Boston band that has been doing the rounds on big US talk shows like Stephen Colbert and Conan. On the Sunday night, the festival ends on a crescendo with a moonshine shindig and the delectable tones of ‘Meschiya Lake and the Little Horns’. Other music acts like Bean and Irene, Nelson Lunding, the Underscore Orchestra, the East Coast Jazz Band, Sam Clague and Gary Baus, fill the pubs and cafés throughout the village over the weekend. Ballydehob might be small but it is long and the main hub of the action lies on the big bend in the centre of the village, where the pubs burst at their seams. The crowds spill out onto the street where they merge to form one large thronging mass, oblivious to the traffic trying to get through on this main route through West Cork.
In the middle of this bustle sits Levis’s corner house, a beautiful old pub. Walking through its doors is like stepping back in time. The bar and shop combination of old days prevails in memory here. A shop counter sits directly across from the bar and every old brand or ware still sits on display, reminding us of days gone by. Books, tinned soups, jams, washing powder, seashells, biscuits and photos fill the shelves; everything still in its original packaging. The shop counter itself serves as a staging area for the various music acts to set up and play. This space works so well and is testament to the popularity of Levis’s as a popular music venue throughout the year, festival or no festival. Walking through the bar to the back room, is like accidentally wandering into someone’s house. An old living room area offers refuge to guests who need a seat or a catch up in a quiet corner. One large table provides the perfect space to meet new people or gossip with old friends. People wander in through the back door and pass through to the bar. It is like a house in the country where the door is always open. Levis’s corner house oozes with the true essence of West Cork. Everyone is welcome and you won’t want to leave.
Ballydehob is worth a visit on any given day. Visiting is like the funeral parade in some sense. You might start off your visit weary from everyday life but you can be sure that you’ll be skipping to a different beat by the time you leave this beautiful village on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Note: This blog was transferred from my old website. Therefore the publishing date is not the original date for this piece. The blog above refers to the Ballydehob jazz festival in 2016.
More images of West Cork can be seen on my website at: trishpunch.com