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McDonalds plan farewell performances for their McGurk's family

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 19, 2008- When Bernie and Barbara McDonald finish their set at John D. McGurk's Irish Pub and Garden on Monday night, it will mark the end of an extraordinary run of Sunday and Monday performances for the traditional Irish music tandem.

"I'd say it's been about 13 or 14 years we've been playing there steadily," Barbara says. But both she and her husband played on the pub's small stage for years before that. In fact, Bernie's association with McGurk's goes back to the late 1970s, early '80s, when the pub was newly opened and not yet grown into the several rooms it now occupies.

Not many musicians get the chance to leave a choice gig of their own volition, but in this case it was the McDonalds who called the tune. They're retiring to their home in outstate Missouri, in part because they've reached point at which they simply want to play music for the joy of it, and in part for more practical concerns.

"We live a long way away [from St .Louis]," Barbara says with a laugh. "I think what really put us over the mark was the gas prices."

In their years of playing at McGurk's, the two have developed a devoted following who've found that a pint of Guinness goes down a little better while Bernie sings and fingerpicks his well-worn Martin guitar and Barbara plays her wooden flute.

"In some ways, we're sort of like godparents and surrogate parents to a whole bunch of people," Bernie says. "Since we're not parents ourselves, it's been a really interesting thing to grow old among people who are maturing - the waitstaff and the people who come to see you. This has been a really cool thing - to be involved in their development. They're not just people who come in and have a drink. We got involved in people's lives."

Along the way, they've also shared their love and expertise of Irish music. The McDonalds specialize in Irish harp music, especially that of Turlough O'Canolan, as well as Irish dance music along with the occasional original tune by Bernie.

The couple met in Minnesota in 1980 and married in 1987.

Barbara especially is a scholar of Irish music, having visited Ireland for several long periods in the '70s, amassing a substantial collection of recordings and musical manuscripts.

"You have to remember back before there was any internet," Bernie says. "You had to go to old bookstores and root through a lot of dusty, miserable stuff. Her collection of old music has been a big facet of our musical personality."

Of his own songs, Bernie says, "I have a tendency to be somber. My songs are generally kind of slower, melancholy, and I love what Barbara and I can do in terms of brightness, in terms of dance tunes and the bright tunes the harpers composed." He adds with a laugh, "I love that mix, that everybody can get everything if they'll just be patient."

When the McDonalds retire, Bernie will also say goodbye to another longtime passion: his hosting for the last dozen years or so of the "Ireland in America" program on KDHX. The show - which Bernie says features "jigs, reels, hornpipes: music that is true" - will continue, however, as he turns it over to Tommy Martin, a Uilleann piper from Dublin who is another regular performer at McGurk's.

Barbara says she's not sure how it will feel taking the stage at McGurk's for the last time. At this point, she just wants to make sure their regular Monday fans are able to get their usual seats. "We're thinking of it more in terms of saying goodbye to them," she says. "They've been the people we've been spending every Monday night with all this time."

"We're trying not to anticipate what it might be like," Bernie adds. "What you anticipate is this kind of wrenching thing. So we're just going to go there and we'll just do it. We'll do our best and so will they and there you have it."

Dan Durchholz is a freelance journalist. 

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