So let’s say you’re sitting in the Crane Bar in Galway, across from Sean Ryan, one of the greatest living tin whistle players in the world, and he tells you that your modified Clarke D tin whistle is out of tune. Sean Ryan just spent about ten minutes tuning up his own Susato, a black plastic American-made whistle with a low, haunting voice that echoes through the room and into the hearts of its listeners. Sean Ryan’s picture is the one painted on the wall behind the stage upstairs, where he’s depicted sitting in a chair, playing whistle for a small dog who listens in eternal rapture. Sean Ryan is the man you came here to see, came here to play with (or so you hope) ever since you heard about this session when you were in Dublin on the other side of the country.
Don’t look to the man sitting next to him, Ryan’s friend/protégé for God knows how many years. He’s seen his own share of two-bit tin whistle tourists. And don’t even try the weathered guitar player sitting across from you, waiting for the next song. Don’t get me wrong, you didn’t ask for this. After all, you were just sitting close by, hoping to get a listen in when Sean asked if you were playing, said that he didn’t get to be good by leaving his whistle in its case. Time is running out, and Ryan’s gruff face, framed by two long curtains of white hair and a black flat cap, is waiting. Your trusty flute sits in its case beside you, but you came here for the whistle. So what do you do?
Turns out there is a woman sitting at the other corner of the table who is holding out one of her own whistles for you, its red mouthpiece winking at you like a rose in the heather. And then you realize that you’re not alone, not quite. She’s been here for years too, she’s also a fan, she’s also learning. Then you sit back and become a small part in one of the greatest musical experiences of your life.
I will never forget the sound of Sean Ryan’s whistle as he played a slow air in that quiet pub on a Sunday afternoon while the rain gently fell outside. The atmosphere of the pub shifted as we all became aware that we were encountering a singular event: This tune has been played countless times before and will be played countless times again, but never in the same way. Beneath that stony demeanour hid an ageless soul, which could only find its escape through eleven and a half inches of polyurethane.
I would spend the rest of my time in Ireland looking for a Susato like the one he played, but I also knew I would need to find my own whistle, and my own voice with which to play it.