A Western Sojourn
Once upon a time many years past, I found myself being a tour guide of sorts to a wealthy American studio owner, making his virgin voyage across the pond. For some reason he’d decided that this pilgrimage would be enhanced by my presence, particularly as far as Liverpool went, but also on side trips to London and Ireland. Well, business was a little slow at the time in question, so the prospect of an all expense paid trip to the old stomping grounds, with first class transportation and hotels, plus a most generous per diem, was rather hard to turn down, so I signed on. As he was an avid collector of all things Beatle, and generally infatuated with the mystique of the old home town, Liverpool was the main focus for him, and there’s more than a story or two about our time there, and similarly about London, but my focus here and now is about the adventure in Ireland, most specifically when I shepherded him to the Wild West of County Mayo, to sample the traditional Irish music that is so plentiful in that area.
Flying into Dublin, seriously stoked on early morning pints after pulling a cocaine-fueled all-nighter at Liverpool’s four-star Adelphi Hotel with an Irish comedy troupe who’d been performing a few gigs in the ‘Pool, we checked into Blooms Hotel in the heart of Temple Bar, down by the Liffy, fired and wired. We careened around the town, Dame Street, Grafton Street, over the Ha’penny Bridge to the rough and tumble of O’Connell Street and so on, for forty-eight hours, barely seeing the inside of our hotel rooms, much less disturbing the perfection of our expensive bed linens.
In this long gone time the marching dust was not only legal, but barely known in Ireland, so we tooted and booted with no concern at all for legal repercussions, which made it possible to put the bevy down in spectacular quantity, while remaining relatively sharp and on the case.
On the third morning we repaired to Amiens Street Railway station for the trip west, a journey I was most familiar with, having done it year after year in my childhood. We had first class tickets, but soon repaired to the bar car, via smoking carriages that were blue with fumes, Ireland still being a resolutely tobacco-using nation at the time. Drink was taken as we rattled along past the areas and stations that had been long implanted in my consciousness (The whole route is memorialized in “Haveran’s House” from my album “Here Comes the Skelly”). We finally pulled into Westport, County Mayo, at about four in the afternoon, the fresh sea air from Clew Bay an immediate bracer.
My man, in his particular fashion, approached the only cabbie on station, as there wasn’t much call for independent transportation at that particular time of the year, and immediately hired him, Declan being his name, to be our personal driver, on call at all times, sealing the deal with two hundred crisp Punt ( the Irish currency before the Euro). Well, Declan was immediately our man, as they don’t breed fools in the Far West, and after bringing us to our luxurious hotel overlooking Clew Bay and the wide western expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, he assured us that he was totally at our service at any hour, giving us his card with its minimal phone number.
Westport is a lovely town, the first planned town in Ireland, built from scratch in the mid nineteenth century, but like many things Irish, it had attained an age and mystique in a hurry, so by this time it inhabited it’s space most enchantingly, and, along with Doolin down the coast, had become a hotbed of the resurgent Irish traditional music scene, anchored by ‘Matt Malloy’s’, an eponymous pub owned by the celebrated flautist of the Chieftains, with whom I’ve shared a stage from time to time.
There were many venues featuring the trad. however, and after a freshener of sorts, we summoned Declan to take us down the hill to the bounty of music pubs that awaited. After a skim around, it seemed like Matt’s place was already besieged by tourists, so on our chauffeur’s recommendation we landed hard by The Octagon (the town square, basically,) at Dunning’s.
It felt and smelled good to me from the get-go, and as it was only about six, we settled in at the bar for a little sustenance, both solid and liquid. We chose a couple of pies and a couple of pints that were served by a barmaid equipped like the figurehead of a Viking long ship….flaming red hair, sea-green eyes, sturdy and sensationally shapely, standing a good five ten in her cuban-heel boots, with an accent you could spread on your morning toast…it was that buttery and tasty. A bit unusual in that part of the island, as the Viking strain is usually more prevalent on the eastern coast, but there she was, and my traveling companion was immediately gob-smacked. Like many an American tourist, he wasn’t shy about flashing the cash, which I’d tried to advise him against, to no avail, in Liverpool, and he seemed to think that a display of largesse might be a path to this young lady’s bounty.
My own attention was diverted by the arrival of a gnomic fellow, hovering in the vicinity of my less occupied elbow. He waited patiently until eye-contact was made. “You would be a musicianer, sor.” A somewhat archaic form of address was not uncommon in those parts and as a large chunk of my family hailed from nearby, outside Tuam, County Galway, I was familiar with it. His lilt was somewhere between a statement and a question, without being either, or maybe being both, so I replied in kind “I would, indeed, and thank you for asking.” He gave a satisfied nod “And what would be your instrument, sor?” I replied that I played several. “What would be your choice if you were to play here tonight?”, he persisted politely. “Well, if you were talking a seisun, I’d probably play bodhran, but I don’t have one with me….do have a tipper though.” It’s always been my practice to have a tipper handy in Ireland. The double-headed wooden beater slips easily into a pocket, and can double as a weapon should the need arise. I brandished mine briefly, which once again drew a satisfied nod from the little fella. “ I’ll be back presently, so…ye’ll still be here?” A little bemused, I replied that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, and he scuttled off out the door.
I returned my attention to my traveling companion, who was now focused intently on the barmaid, and tried to divert him a little. “I wouldn’t waste time and money on this one…she’s probably a good Catholic girl, and half the guys in here are probably blood relations, you know?” He wasn’t in the mood to pay attention to any of that of course, so I envisioned a later time in the proceedings when I might have to extricate him (not for the first time) from a social contretemps.
Within a few minutes, however, the little man was back, sporting a beautiful bodhran, which he extracted from a pillow case, handing it to me reverently. It was a finely made drum, with intricate Celtic decoration on the taut goatskin, and I’m sure he felt my appreciation as I handled it, examining the finer points of its structure. I was wondering if he was going to try to sell it to me, but he said “So now, the seisun will be starting beyond in the back room presently. Will ye come along”. I turned to my besotted fellow traveler, asking him to come on back for the music, which was why we were there in the first place, but he brushed me off. “I’ll come in a while. You go have fun.” Fair enough; I’d done my bit in that regard, so I was ready for a play.
My new friend threaded through the growing throng ahead of me, like he was leading a prize horse he’d come upon. The large back room was already well populated and a steady stream of newcomers were finding chairs and tables as he led me to the musicians’ circle. A pair of unmistakable brothers, if not twins, were wedged together on a wooden settee, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, each with an accordion to hand; a teenage fiddle player was applying rosin to his bow. There was a balding cittern player, who looked like he knew his business, and a young woman sat at a table with an array of musical bones and spoons in front of her. My mentor got me seated without a word to the musicians or anyone else, and the players seemed intent on avoiding eye contact with me at any cost.
There was no P.A. and no microphones, so I assumed that this was going to be strictly instrumental. There was also no compere or apparent band leader; nobody calling the shots, or calling the tune. As a pint manifested itself in front of me, the brothers struck up a jig, and we were off. This team could all play seriously well, so it was no problem for me to grab the groove and get stuck in. Tune followed tune, running the gamut…jigs, reels, hornpipes, ballad airs, and the notoriously tricky slip-jigs, with the occasional refreshment stop the only respite, and all with nary a word or look exchanged, except for a wisp of a smile from her with the bones from time to time when I executed a particularly adventurous pattern. The pints kept arriving on the table around which we were assembled, from whence I knew not.
Playing bodhran is a strenuous exercise at the least of times, but in this context it was turning into a rather intense aerobic workout, so the ale wasn’t having any great effect on me as we burned through the evening. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for lover boy in the front bar, who had not ventured back to the music room as far as I could see.
After about an hour or so of hell-for-leather, there was a respite for a tobacco break, and my mysterious little pal hove to and led me outside to a tiled courtyard where the players were busily firing up pipes and ciggies. I was surprised to notice that the young lady who was so fluid with the bones and spoons walked with a halting spastic gait, which just goes to show you, and the assemblage, though hardly effusive, complemented me on my playing, which was pleasing to me, as I viewed this encounter as the real thing, much more intense than the seisuns I’d experienced in American-Irish pubs. When I mentioned that I lived in Nashville, the atmosphere loosened even more as I found myself peppered with questions about Music City, and we all returned for the second stanza in fine fettle.
By the time it came to call it a night, and I handed the bodhran back to my benefactor, I realized that I’d not seen hide nor hair of my fellow traveler for hours. I worked my way back to the front bar, where he was face-down on the counter, dead to the world and legless in the virtually empty room, the Viking barmaid long gone, and his wallet considerably lighter, as the bar-back informed me he’d been buying drinks for the house. My little friend had disappeared as quickly as he’d first shown up, so it was now down to me to get my slathered road kill back to the hotel, which was situated above the town, so walking was out of the question. Fortunately, I had Declan’s card, and he showed up reasonably quickly and between us we were able to manhandle our semi-comatose charge into the taxi, and thence to the hotel.
I bade Declan goodnight with a sense of foreboding, as we were due to head with him to Limerick the following day, via Tuam and the scenic coastal vistas of Galway and Clare, and my co-passenger’s present condition boded ill for the enterprise. I needn’t have worried…the restorative powers of a hearty Irish breakfast and a few stiff toots of the marching dust had him up and at it when Declan’s taxi arrived at the appointed time, and we headed southwest to face whatever adventures lay ahead.