In the pub where famous Irish singer Enya grew up, there are gold and platinum records decorating the walls and – if you request it – a video of Enya will play on the big screen. (Her song is Orinoco Flow. You’ll know it when you hear it.)
Ask the publican, who happens to be Enya’s brother, and he’ll tell you about visits from Bono and U2, and about how the band Clannad – nearly as famous as Enya – was born here, made up from the nine brothers and sisters of the Brennan family and a couple of uncles.
Tacked to the walls are a few photos of famous guests, but that’s about as commercial as it gets at Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck, County Donegal. This is a traditional Irish music pub, the language of conversation is Gaelic, and the ceilidh – that delightful blend of Irish entertainment and audience participation – goes on whether Bono is queuing for a beer or a minibus of tourists has just arrived.
Bono has said that if he ever fears he is getting big-headed, he thinks of Leo’s Tavern, where the old boys at the bar don’t know who he is, and where he has to line up for a drink like everyone else, even if they do know who he is.
American tourists seek the place out, and sometimes a New Zealander pops in – on a couple of occasions drawn because of Enya’s music in Lord of the Rings. She was nominated for an Oscar for the song May It Be from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Everyone – tourists, visiting musicians and locals – gets the same respectful welcome, and often a pressing invitation to join in the ceilidh, which is usually bubbling away around a piano at the end of the bar. It’s wise to go to Leo’s Tavern with a song, a dance or a story in mind.
Between serving meals, the waitress steps forward to perform a traditional Irish dance. The barman shares his thrilling baritone in an unaccompanied lament which tingles the soul of anyone with a skerrick of Irish blood, and a young local girl is coaxed from the bar to play a piano solo.
It’s all in a day’s work for the Brennan family, whose father and mother – with much help from their nine children - set up Leo’s Tavern in 1968.
"All nine of us worked in the pub," says Bartley Brennan, one of Enya’s younger siblings, "and we all had to get up and do a musical turn with dad."
Dad was a solo accordionist, much sought after in this part of Ireland as a wedding entertainer. He played 80 weddings in 1967. Mum was a music teacher who taught all the children to play instruments, among them sister Moya Brennan, who is a successful harpist and folk singer.
"I wasn’t much good at the musical turns," says Bartley. "Eventually the others said ‘you stay behind the bar and we’ll do the music’ ."
Nowadays Leo returns with his accordion if they press him, and mother Maire, better known as Baba, sings in the church choir. Enya continues her career from a castle near Dublin, the family band Clannad (which means family in Gaelic) is still touring and recording, and the whole family gets together at Leo’s Tavern only rarely.
The writer paid her own way to Europe and was assisted in Ireland by Tourism Ireland. discoverireland.com
- The Dominion Post