a few words of a kind…

Irish Diaspora: The Scattering & The Gathering

51skBtRrXBL._SS500_Back in the late 1990s, Dermot McMahon, a Clare businessman had an idea to put together a book about the county’s emigrants. Called The Scattering, the book tracked 78 emigrants and sent a team of photographers around the globe to snap them in their adopted environment. In 2000, the late President Hillary launched The Scattering at Shannon Airport. It was a fitting and poignant venue, as most had left home from there.
A few of those featured in the book were back for the launch, including Martin Hayes and myself. There was much hand shaking and curious looks from well wishers. There was music, tea and sandwiches and the proceedings were broadcast live on ClareFM. I remember having quiet chat with Martin and we recalled the first time we left SNN and wondered how many more times we would walk under the departures sign. I figured we were the last generation that would leave, emigration was at a standstill and Ireland was doing well…

I was wrong, very wrong. Fast-forward a decade and Ireland had boomed, burst, was on the ropes, reeling from shocking changes. The country was in crisis — financially, politically, spiritually and culturally. The Irish were emigrating again and everyone was broke.

To help the country out of the fix, in July 2009 the government convened The Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh House in Dublin and invited the brightest Irish minds and others who had a Midas touch. It was the brainchild of David McWilliams, enfant terrible of economists and author of a few books on Ireland’s rise to fall. One of the elements that came to the fore most strongly in Farmleigh was the ‘potential for leveraging our cultural identity in support of economic regeneration‘. With this in mind, on March 2, 2010, Taoiseach Brian Cowan appointed Gabriel Byrne as the first Cultural Ambassador for Ireland. Probably Cowan’s most enlightened decision, this was a pro bono job, with expenses and would be for three years.

gabeByrne was a popular choice at home and abroad, and he set to work immediately. He played a central role in Imagine Ireland, a year of Irish arts in America sponsored by Culture Ireland. He organised several events that explored Irish identity, including a retrospective of Irish films at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a series of documentaries about Ireland at the Lincoln Center. The Irish government invested €4 million in Imagine Ireland. Byrne did background work as well — he spoke with studios and filmmakers about making films in Ireland, and with Liam Neeson he produced ‘James X’, a play by Mannix Flynn about clerical sexual abuse in Ireland. By this time, Ireland had a change of government and when the new Taoiseach, Enda Kenny had harsh words for the Vatican, Mr. Byrne praised him for his courageous stance.

government1In June 2011, while Imagine Ireland was making waves in the US, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs announced that Certificate of Irishness would be available to applicants in the autumn. It was estimated that there were 70 million people of Irish heritage scattered all over the globe and the certificate would be a moneymaker. It would be aimed at those whose Irish ancestry went back beyond their grandparents, those Irish who are not eligible for an Irish passport. The new identification would grant them special tourist and travel deals as well as being a concrete acknowledgment of their Irish heritage. FEXCO, a Kerry-based company would provide the certs in association with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

While we were digesting this news, wondering would the idea fly or flop, a bigger announcement was made. At the Global Irish Economic Forum in July 2011, Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar unveiled The Gathering and told us that: “The Gathering will be a year-long program of events, festivals and fun designed to bring record numbers of visitors…an invitation to the world to come and join in Ireland’s renewal.” (Renewal, Leo? Remember what happened to the last New Ireland?)

The Gathering was predicted to generate an extra $399 million for the Irish economy and would cost $5 million. With an 80 to 1 payback, the government was home and dry. Every town and village in Ireland would be asked to participate in the events, aimed primarily at the Irish Diaspora, as well as people with an interest in the country. Fáilte Ireland CEO Shaun Quinn said, “There are a lot of people with Irish connections or a fondness for Ireland who have a vague plan to get here some time — we want to light a fire under them and get them here in 2013.” (Right Shaun, you mean burn them…even before they arrive?)

TradFest And so the show was on the road. The Irish Diaspora was the market and Irish-America was the main target. It’s not known if the mandarins in Dublin had any contact with the Irish Cultural Ambassador, Mr. Byrne about the project. As the year wore on, we heard that: ‘The Gathering is the people’s party. It will kick off in spectacular style at the New Year’s Eve Festival in Dublin and will be celebrated through gatherings of the people and Ireland’s major festivals during 2013.’ (WTF? The people’s party? And the country up to its nose in debt? Was this some sort of ‘pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’ routine?)

Gabriel Byrne’s resignation as Ireland’s Cultural Ambassador was a surprise. In an interview with The Irish Times on December 11, 2011, he announced that he was stepping down at Christmas. He had been almost two years in the job and said,
“I just don’t have the time between my career and that.”

The Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan said Byrne made “an outstanding contribution to the country” in his role. “His inspirational leadership of Imagine Ireland is helping to restore Ireland’s reputation at a critical time, breaking new ground for the next generation of Irish artists and helping them to find new audiences for their work in the US…The doors he has helped to open for Ireland and Irish artists in America this year offer huge opportunities for the years to come.”
That was the last we heard about Gabriel for a while.

The Gathering preparations went full steam ahead in 2012. Jim Miley, former general secretary of Fine Gael, was appointed as Program Director on a €168,000 salary. An ad agency was commissioned to spread the word and ads began to appear like spring snowdrops in newspapers and magazines that might be picked up by The Diaspora. On the ground, communities were encouraged and cajoled to create events, invite long-lost cousins home from Texas. 2013 would be The Year of The Irish. We were told that the world was coming to Ireland and urged to be a ‘part of it.’ Discover Ireland crooned: “Irish roots. Tall tales. A love of everything about the Emerald Isle, from Molly Malone to fields of green. Whatever the reason, come to our fair land for The Gathering 2013 and you’ll be part of something special.” (Something special? A heat wave?)

The first time I saw The Gathering logo I was reminded of a light show at a Mr. Floppy rave in San Francisco, late 1980’s. I thought the thing was alive and quickly looked away. But it became ubiquitous. The online edition of The Irish Times had several on its home page, same with other publications. Using this retro-techno version of our sacred triple spiral as a branding tool is distasteful at the very least…it may not bode well for The Gathering. Bad vibes from the ancients…

The Gathering campaign was officially launched in the US on September 22, 2012. Táiniste Eamonn Gilmore and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar came to New York to do the honours and to give out a few Certificates of Irishness. Irish-America was invited back to Ireland for a big hooley. You could come anytime of the year, it didn’t matter because the Irish were up for the craic 24/7. There was no sign of the former Cultural Ambassador at the event. And the bad news about the Certificate of Irishness was kept under wraps. In one year, just over 1,000 of the potential 70 million clients had forked out €40 to have a framed computer generated page on their wall. Did the government get it wrong about the Diaspora? Is the Diaspora smarter than the government thinks?

During the run up to the American Presidential election, TodayFM was broadcasting The Last Word with Matt Cooper live from New York. On November 5th, Gabriel Byrne was a guest on the show and dropped a few bombs. He said The Gathering was ‘a scam’, a ‘shakedown’ of the Irish Diaspora. Talking about his work as Cultural Ambassador, Byrne went on to say the he was “really disappointed the way all those contacts, all that hard work was just dropped and it really made me disillusioned and disappointed with this Government who go on about their love for culture, for arts and actually really don’t give a toss about it.”
The former Cultural Ambassador had gone rogue.

The Government and The Gathering heads and the tourist handlers went nuts. Project director Jim Miley denied the plan was a shakedown, and said while Byrne was “a man we all know and love, and he has his opinions — they are one man’s opinions”. Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar said: “the response to the Gathering has been really great in America” and then described Byrne as “popular with women of a certain age group” (WTF, Leo?) TD Michael Ring called Byrne ‘unpatriotic’. The only politician who came to Gabriel’s defense was President Michael D Higgins. He said Byrne was a “magnificent Irish person” who merely wants the Government’s flagship tourism initiative – which he branded a ‘scam’ – to have a deeper connection to the diaspora. Then somebody leaked Byrne’s expenses to The Irish Times. During his term, Gabe chalked up €15,845 for hotels, flights and chauffeurs. So what? He was doing the digging for free. I know a former county councillor who ran up twice that amount in a year and all he did was go to cattle marts and funerals. The expenses ‘leak’ overshadowed news that the government was pumping another $5 million into the The Gathering.

Byrne’s comments about The Gathering were widely reported. They struck a chord, both with the Irish at home and abroad and people began to wonder about this yearlong celebration. They frowned at the ads. The campaign seemed on the sick side of slick. The photos looked odd. We were being branded. Mad men showing the world what we were not like. This was the ‘Renewal’ that Leo mentioned. Discover Ireland horsing out crap such as “Gather ’round everyone – time to talk about The Gathering. C’mere and we’ll let you in on something. We’re planning something big. BIG big.” (oh Sweet Jesus…)

The Gathering organisers are active in social media and recently a picture of a Gathering ‘trad music session’ went viral among Irish musicians. It was a cheese-smile photo, clearly staged by models and day runners. There was not a genuine musician among them. How they held the instruments showed they were from Central Casting. Although The Gathering has given funding to the Willie Clancy School and other worthwhile events, it has already riled musicians and artists.

A recent thread on Twitter about the year-long celebration brought mostly negative comments —
“Gathering feels like a grubby moneymaking racket. We’re citizens, not commodities.”
“it seems like we’re pimping out our heritage and pimping off the emigrants.” “I don’t like how the politicians are promoting it.”
“the campaign is embarrassing and outdated. This event has no connection to either Ireland or the diaspora.”
“Anybody returning for the gathering is an idiot as it shows they support the morons running this country.”

Being still part of The Scattering, I came home to Ireland for Christmas. The Delta flight from JFK to Dublin was full and almost all were ex-pats. These were part of The Scattering, a much different tribe from those expected to attend the Gathering. Entering the arrivals hall in Dublin I felt a gush of welcome. Hundreds of smiling faces, everyone there to welcome Paddy and Biddy home. A boombox played Fairytale in New York, some sang along and a guy waved a sign that read GODOT. Screams of joy and hugs and kisses, nobody has a welcome for their own like the Irish. If only The Gathering could bottle that, the Yanks would never leave.

When I got home, junk mail about the Gathering was there before me. Every house in Ireland received the same. The photos were frightening — models with horse teeth smiles and the mind altering logo spattered everywhere like bird shit. One piece included two postcards invitations which we were encouraged to mail ‘to a friend or loved one overseas to come and visit Ireland in 2013’. All one had to do was affix a stamp and drop in the mail. The mailer said ‘It’s up to you.’ so I hung it on the wall to bulk up the Christmas cards.

Last night a few of the lads came to my place for a session. It was stormy and wet and I had a good fire blazing. We sat around and played tunes for a while, then drank tea and chatted about gigs and stuff like that. Sneezer frowned at The Gathering card over the hearth and said,
“Every house I’ve been to over the Christmas has these shagging cards on the wall like fugging Post-it Notes.”
“I’ve them on the wall too,” admitted Murphy, “I got no Christmas cards this year. Email has fucked all that up.”
“I can’t think of anyone to send them to,” I said.
“Me neither,” sighed Murphy, “I was half-thinkin’ of sending one to the ex, but she might take it up wrong…”
We were silent for a while and then Sneezer took flight.
“It’s a pity that poor ol’ Hunter Thompson passed away,” he said. “If he were alive, I’d arrange that hundreds of invites were sent to him. Hundreds. You know, do a lil’ fundraiser for the postage. I mean, it’s up to us…and the government want the world to come to Ireland, why not invite Hunter? He loved a good party and was always up for the craic. He’d stay for the whole year,so he would. Hunter’d light plenty fires, drink whiskey, back horses, buy drugs, make loud noises, shoot his AK47 at stop signs, lop a few grenades here and there and frighten the crap out of politicians and civil servants. They’d probably deport him, you know…but he would make The Gathering a memorable one.”
Murphy nodded and said,
“Maybe Hunter would be the only one that showed up. I’m getting worried that nobody is posting these fuckin’ cards to anyone.”
Me too.

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When Everyone in Ballyjames had Helicopters

This is an extract from When ‘Everyone in Ballyjames had Helicopters’, a very long short story. It’s from my recent book Quare Hawks, available for Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0098TKAAE . Quare Hawks can be read on Mac/PC with the free Kindle app from Amazon. American writer Willy Vlautin had this to say about the book:

“Quare Hawks is a collision between old and new Ireland. Both heartbreaking and hilarious, and hopeful and despairing. Eddie Stack has a way of making you laugh and cry at the same time. A brilliant collection from a great Irish storyteller.”

Willy Vlautin, author of Lean on Pete, Motel Life and Northline

The road from Mulla to Ballyjames is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, and miles of it weave along the northern face of the Killgory Mountains, through pine forest and high bog. The region is remote, sparsely populated by small farmers and a few reclusive artists who live in the hills.

About halfway between Mulla and Ballyjames, the pine forest falls away like stage curtains and Logra Lake appears unexpectedly. From the mountain behind, a waterfall pours into the lake, and the view is so spectacular, that the county council created a roadside vista area with two picnic tables and a litterbin. There is a small country store across the road from the vista area. Petty’s of Logra has been there for generations, catering to basic needs of the locals. A sleepy, two-story building with white walls, green windows and shop front, it doubles as a post office. Apart from Wednesday, business is very slow and sometimes the shop is shut for hours. Occasionally it might not open at all for a day or two.

Wednesday is doleday, and in the morning, recipients come to collect their allowance at the post office and buy a few provisions in the shop. A police car is always there with two officers, who bring the money and the departmental documentation. With a dozen or so local recipients, mostly small farmers, everyone knows everybody else and it’s as much a social gathering as an official roll call.

It’s a busy day for Paddy Petty – busy in the post office and busy in the shop. Dole day provides his week’s wages and he juggles hats as postmaster, shopkeeper and government paymaster. Medium height, eternally dressed in old blue suit, shirt and tie, Paddy uses Brylcreem to sculpt his dark wavy hair and tame his bushy eyebrows. Nearly fifty and fighting against it, he was once married, but his wife left a decade ago. She told him she was going to visit her sister in London and he drove her to the airport but never saw her again. She blew away like an autumn leaf, writing him a goodbye card from Southhampton. When people asked where she was, Paddy said she’d gone and joined the nuns and eventually they stopped asking. Nowadays he received comfort from Goldi, a hippie from the other side of the Killgory Mountains. Goldi swapped him free-range eggs and organic carrots for tobacco and chocolate. She was easy on his head and stayed with him once a month, often for three or four nights.

In late May, a few strangers turned up to collect dole at the post office. Scruffy young men and women, dressed in leather, they had odd hairstyles, tattoos and facial rings. When they got their money, they bought cartons of milk, bread, cheese and crisps from Paddy and went across the road to the picnic tables.

Paddy watched them from his shop. Two were jabbering on mobile phones, others admiring the view. He thought them mediaeval in their look and manner; even their speech was from another age and place, wherever that may be. A couple of mongrel dogs sniffed around the table and they threw them crusts. Three men and two women. Paddy looked at the new names on his register: Cloud Maggs; Sixtop Reeves; Birdie Cole; Zag Homa; Ork Toms. He noted they were all of ‘no fixed abode’ and pursed his lips, trying to match names with faces. When he peered through the window to jog his memory, they were gone.

He saw them again the following doleday. They came in a battered white van with foreign registration plates, and along with the original five, came four others of similar dress and appearance. Two of the new ones had blue woad on their foreheads, another had a raven on his shoulder. Paddy looked at the new names: Yorrel Hix; Midnight Lyke; Tatan Brown; Filly Downs. They were mannerly and pleasant, pocketed their money and bought bread, sardines, milk, rolling papers, pouches of tobacco, and cans of beans. Then they gathered around the outside tables, talked on phones and had a picnic. Paddy glanced out the window at them, checked the register: his ‘family’ was growing, twelve regulars and nine irregulars.

George West, a so-so English potter who had settled in the area, came to the shop around midday. He noticed the picnickers and whispered to Paddy, “I yam an ol’ hippie, but I never did see the likes of these in my travels. They’re like something from a bad trip, man.” Paddy added up his bill, glanced out the window.
“It takes all types to make a world, George, and their like have to be in it too.”
“They’re campin’ down by the lake at Collock’s Shore.”
“Easily known they’re not locals.”

The strangers came to the shop every few days. Paddy thought they didn’t wash and smelled of musty hay. He couldn’t place their accents or the language they spoke amongst themselves:
“Hey Zag, banda suko Tatan hagur zonka.”
“Ah no man, nishin suko zonka.”
“Why not? Burka lato sut?”
“Nah. Ishto.”
“Hi, two packs a Golden Virginia and four pints a milk.”

They all had a similarity in their leather jerkins, muddied jeans and badly-cut hair. It was difficult to tell one from the other and Paddy felt their numbers had grown. George the potter confirmed this when he came to do the Lotto at the weekend.
“Jesus man, there’s three vans down at the lake now and a horse-drawn wagon. There must be a couple a dozen of ‘em there. There’s kids an’ all runnin’ naked around the place, man.”

On dole day Paddy had thirty-eight strangers on the register, an all-time record when he added his regulars. They swarmed outside the shop and blocked the light coming through the door and window. When they moved to the picnic tables, Paddy sprayed the space with air freshener. He was annoyed at the amount of extra work they generated: all the counting and doling of piles of money, the watching in case they shoplifted. But they also bought a good deal and for this he was pleased.

Before leaving for HQ, the policemen came to see him and buy cigarettes.
“An odd bunch,” Sergeant McGee said.
“There’s no harm in them though,” Paddy suggested, wringing his hands.
“No, no. We believe they’re part of some pagan outfit or cult or something.”
“Is that so?”
“Earth magic and that sort of thing,” Constable Collins said.
“They’d learn plenty about it, if they went cutting hay or footing turf for a few days,” Paddy muttered.
“And there’s more of them on the way,” the sergeant told him.
“I s’pose it can’t be helped.”
“We’re expecting about forty more next week.”
“Jesus, that’ll be nearly eighty of them so,” Paddy winced.
“It’s a changing country,” Constable Collins sighed.
“There’s six helicopters in Ballyjames,” the sergeant said. “Every builder has one, and those who don’t, have race horses. Solve that one.”
“Everyone has a helicopter now.” Collins said. “On Sunday they come to Mass in them and land in the football field.”
“Terrible fucking noise,” McGee said, “you’re lucky there’s no helicopters around here, Paddy.”
“Tis something to be grateful for,” agreed Paddy.

Later that evening, a convoy of five vehicles came through Logra. An old school bus painted purple led, followed by a pickup truck with a makeshift cabin in the back. An ambulance towed a grey station wagon and they were tailed by a black Ford cargo van. Paddy watched from the doorway as they passed slowly, laden down with people and gear.

Next morning three horse-drawn wagons with green canvas barrel tops were stopped outside when he opened the shop and he was reminded of a scene from a cowboy film. A woman approached, followed by a toddler. They were scrawny and wild looking. Forest people, thought Paddy, smelling the moss and the leaves from them. She bought two pints of milk and two cans of sardines and paid in small coins.

After she left, two young men arrived, one of them leading a large blonde cat-like animal on a leash. It’s a fucking lion, thought Paddy in alarm, stepping back from the counter. The men rattled away in their own lingo:
“Hanz, serto von puka?”
“Ishna zee, sunto zog.”
“Cool. Albu onxa.”
Paddy heard the animal snarl and curled his toes. The man tightened the leash and spoke firmly to the creature.
“Smells another cat,” he said to Paddy, “two cans of beans and a pack of Golden Virginia, please.”
He was ten pence short, but Paddy nodded and suffered the loss, relieved to see them leave.

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“No,” she said. “Fortunately I’ve Never Had That Experience.”

This is Kitty, the first chapter of the novella  “No,” she said. “Fortunately I’ve Never Had That Experience.”. This Kindle edition can be read on Mac, PC, iPad etc using free Kindle app

My mother used say ‘Kitty’s on the steers again,’ when she’d see the petite woman rushing down the street, a gray pack on her back. The town knew that the only time Kitty was in a hurry was when a relationship of hers broke up. It seemed she was compensating for time wasted with this man or that, and went about her business in a determined manner, intensity creasing her forehead. By degrees, she rekindled friendships with old friends, smiling broadly and telling them how happy she was to be liberated, and relieved to be on her own again. She went jogging with Mrs. Lynch, and rejoined the Sunday morning yoga class at the town hall. Every second evening she went to the gym in the Leisure Center and lifted weights, ran on the treadmill, swam ten laps of the pool and went home exhausted.

Kitty was a teacher at the Community Secondary School. She came there as a young woman and some thirty years later, she still looked much the same as the day she arrived, apart from the wrinkles on her face. When she taught me I had a crush on her, but we didn’t get along that great. It annoyed her that I was good at English but hopeless at French.

In her heyday, Kitty was an attractive woman with short brown hair and the smile of an angel. She had a soft Northwest accent and blue eyes, and an elegance that befitted a lady. For work she dressed better than all other teachers, in quality clothes with a professional accent. She went casual on weekends in jeans and purple fleece, and had a tomboy look with a swagger that said she was fun. She could knock back a pint as good as any man, but rarely drank more than two.

Since the day she moved to our town, Kitty lived in the same apartment, the top floor of an old Edwardian house across The Square from our pub. Whether she was aware of it or not, but my mother knew when she came and went, who called to her, how long they stayed and so on. Sometimes over a few drinks after the bar closed, Mother would look out the window, see the apartment ablaze with 100-watt bulbs and say, “Kitty’s in The Lighthouse tonight.”

This could lead to gossip or theories about Kitty, which I found painful because I still had a crush on her. Mother would wait for me to comment, but I never did. She’d finish her drink and sigh, “Poor Kitty is a weird fish.”

Because our pub was the nearest to Kitty’s place, her men friends often dropped in for a drink while waiting for her to come back from work, or maybe just to raise some courage before meeting her. Mother could name all the suitors who came there since Kitty had joined us.

Top of the list was Mr. Rogan, an engineer from Ennis, a red-haired man who smoked a pipe and wore a green corduroy jacket. A nice man, my mother thought, a bit on the quiet side, but very well travelled and a great conversationalist when he got going. He was seeing Kitty for over two years, and a rumor went around that they were looking at sites on the High Road and thinking of building a house. Kitty looked very happy with Mr. Rogan, and linked him tightly when they went for walks down the Glen or did shopping around town. They looked like they were in love, but something snapped and suddenly Kitty gave Mr. Rogan the boot. The poor man was distraught and would drive from Ennis every evening, have a few pints in our place and watch for signs of life in Kitty’s apartment. Then he crossed The Square and rang her bell, but there was never a response. After a month he gave up, and we never saw him again.

Kitty went on the steers after that, a summer of self-improvement she called it, but it lasted a couple of years. She had occasional boyfriends, but they never stayed long and she went back on the steers for another while.

Then she met Mr. Hillman, a reporter with The Clare Clarion. We knew Mr. Hillman, because he reported on court cases, dog races and funerals in town; he often wrote his stories in our pub. There was always a notebook peeping out of his pocket and the seat by the window became his perch while he waited for Kitty. He was the first writer that I ever met and from talking to him, I decided to write a book.

Publicly they were not as close as she and Mr. Rogan, but Hillman stayed at her place a few nights every week. I found it hard to see them kiss goodbye in the morning, when I went to get the papers. They were together for a a year or more and seemed to be getting on well.

And then one night they had a row. We could hear the muffled shouts across The Square and my mother peered through the window. It was well after closing time and we were having a few drinks in the dark. Next we saw that Mr. Hillman was outside Kitty’s place, trying to talk calmly to her. She was wearing a nightdress and shouted, “Shut to fuck up! I’ve had it with you!”

Then the door banged and Mr. Hillman shouted, “And I’ve had it with you too, you fucking adolescent!”

Unlike Mr. Rogan, Mr. Hillman didn’t come ringing Kitty’s doorbell again, but whenever he came to town reporting on a story, he parked outside her place and always dropped in to our pub for a few pints. One day my mother asked him how Kitty was and he shook his head.

“Ah Kitty, poor Kitty. She has a lot of baggage.”

“God help us,” my mother said, and left it at that.

That night I began the book with a speculative piece about Kitty’s baggage. I wrote in an old leather bound shop ledger, which was the size of serving tray and at least four inches thick. The edging was marbled and the tome weighed a half-stone at least. It was slow going, writing in longhand most days with my father’s old fountain pen. I didn’t know what the book was going to be about, or if it was going to be fiction or a mishmash of poetry and prose. It would be a reflection of whatever was on my mind. Therapy maybe. With the book on the counter, I toiled away like the monks of old, while I waited for drinkers to arrive. When they did, I carefully dried the ink with blotting paper, closed the book and put it under the till.

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Return Journey

It always warms me at how easily I slip into Irish mode, a jigsaw piece slotting back into the puzzle, just like I never had left. A day or two back home and my friends begin to drop by. Some call during the day, others at all hours of the night. Some text beforehand: ‘welcome back. R u up 4 a visit?’; ‘passing Fitz’s cross. Put on the kettle’; ‘heard you home. Will drop in for quick chat’. Others just arrive at the door, bearing smiles and gifts. Artists, sound engineers, boatmen, relatives, ladies in waiting. All good friends, the fabric of my life.

Our cottage was built in 1798, The Year of the French. It has been re-roofed and revamped a few times since, and there’s a lot of history and a feeling of good vibes between its 3-foot thick walls. Antoine Ó Raifteiri the poet spent many nights here on his rambles around Kiltartan. A century later, Yeats cast his eyes on the ground as he passed the door on his daily walk from Toor Ballylee. The first ever outside broadcast of Irish traditional music was made here, when Ciarán MacMathúna recorded Joe Cooley, Joe Leary, Milo Mullins, Mike Fada Fahy, Dolly Furey (his future wife), and others. The ‘new’ flagstone floor in the living room came from Russell’s quarry in Doolin and was quarried out by my sons Aindrias and Éamon, under Gussie Russell’s tutelage. When I had very little going for me in America and other parts of the world, thoughts of my little flag-floored cottage kept me keeping on.

Inside the décor is boho San Francisco cum traditional Irish. An adventurous son painted one of the doors in Rasta colours. Another door came from an old Protestant church and has two stained glass panels. The pews in the kitchen came from the same church. The living room is cluttered with books, shelves of cds and bric-a-brac from thrift stores in San Francisco’s Mission. From the stairway hang laminates from festivals and memorable gigs, a fiddle bow and a fishing rod. We have a stove in the stone hearth and the tiled wall behind it was inspired by a cafe wall in Barcelona. On the walls there’s art by Phillip Morrison, Ted Turton, Mick O’Dea and my son Jamie. There’s a 1950’s kitsch couch and armchair that I bought from a farmer in Tulla, and an old sugán chair that came from Doolin. When there’s a half-set being danced, most of the furniture is put outside in a hurry.

Here, the light wakes me early in the morning. There are no human sounds, just birdsong. Finches, blackbirds, thrushes and more I can’t identify. There’s the cooing of wood pigeons, chattering magpies and caws from the rookery down the road. After breakfast I go for a walk. This is the land of lush meadows, verdant trees of every variety, rabbits, hares and foxes. I’m the only human about and stroll the boreens, halting now and then to look at the dew on the fields, the bees and the blackberry blossoms, the swallows and swifts dancing overhead. Nature in its element, timeless and perfect.

At a certain part of my walk, I can see the Burren in the distance. The grey sleeping mountains are worth their weight in gold. The Burren is calming, an anchor to the long ago. It gives out protection and a feeling of connection. When the weather is warm and water is scarce, the wild goats come down from there and head this way. There are little streams and small ponds around here, and the herds drink from them in the early morning. When I meet them they stare at me as if to say ‘WTF are you doing here?’

Joe Cooley

We have an old half-door— the bottom half used be closed to keep the hens out, and the top left open to let in light and fresh air. From the door we can see the hills of East Clare and Mahera Mountain: Martin Hayes country. We probably can see each other’s houses with binoculars. East Clare music flows all the way over to here. In the meadow beside the cottage, Seán Reid of the Tulla Ceili Band once asked Joe Cooley if he’d play with the team that night. Cooley was making hay with Mike Fada Fahy and had a pitchfork in his hand.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Joe said and plunged the fork into the ground. He walked away from the meadow with Reid and went home to get his accordion.
“That was the end of Joe and the farmin,” Mike Fada used say.
A turning point in a man’s journey that breathed new life and vibrancy into Irish traditional music. In this place, tunes and stories, poems and songs surround me. This is home, back to the roots, ar ais don draíocht.

Joe Cooley photo courtesy of Cooley-Keegan CCE, San Francisco

Books by Eddie Stack

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Pure Clare — the Flanagan side of my family

My great-grandmother was Máire Ní Ríada, from Moher, in West Clare and she married Pádraig Flanagan from the hamlet of Barr Trá on the other side of Liscannor Bay. The O’Ríadas were a musical family, as were the Flanagans, and both were staunch Irish speakers. At that time, there were seven Flanagan families in Barr Trá and their ‘taoiseach’ was Murt Mór, Pádraig’s father. They were a tight knit clan, fishermen and small farmers, black haired and genteel, and partial to fun and sport. They were cynically called the ‘Barr Trá Gentry’ by their English overlords, who they refused to kowtow to.

Pádraig and Máire’s wedding took place at her house in Moher, and seven currachs of Flanagans rowed across the bay for the celebrations. They came ashore in Clahane, a mile or so from the O’Ríada house. Other guests walked the 10 miles by road to get there. The Barr Trá Flanagans were related to the Doolin Flanagans (also musicians) who were there in force and the wedding must have looked like a meeting of the clans. The celebration was said to have lasted two days and nights with much music and dance, songs and stories.

When it was time to return to Barr Trá, the sea was choppy and the Flanagans stood at the shore in Clahane and looked out at the breaking swell, near where the sunken village of Killstiofín lay. Men spoke in whispers and Murt Mór pulled a fistful of grass from the ground and tossed the blades in the air to see how the wind was blowing. North east and swirling. Not great weather for being on the sea. The sky was darkening and they decided to and make a dash across the bay. They figured it would be safer for the women and the older men to walk home along the coast road and Máire blessed her husband and watched the currachs launching. The crowd waited on the shore at Clahane until the boats had ploughed through the breakers and into the open sea. They said prayers for their safety and walked up to the road and headed for home.

By the time the group had reached the village of Liscannor, it was raining hard and they couldn’t see beyond the breakers. They proceeded to Lahinch, and took the cliff road to Barr Trá. It was a slow walk, hampered by wind and rain. Every now and then they looked out to sea, but there was no visibility. It was dark when they reached home, the men had not arrived, and the village worried.

The Barr Trá people built a bonfire on a height above the shore to guide the currachs to safety. They doused it with kerosene and the flames danced wild in the wind. The women looked to sea and said prayers for the seafarers. Old Murt Mór and his friends smoked pipes and muttered. They knew it was a terrible night to be on the sea and they feared the worst.

Four hours passed before the first currach came ashore. The shattered boatmen brought tales of mountainous seas and the dreaded reefs of Killstiofín. It was their fear that the sunken village would rise from the depths and take them down, as was known to happen back then. They said the currachs were scattered like the Spanish Armada and they had lost sight of the others. More prayers were said and more turf was fed to the bonfire.

One by one, five more currachs arrived with drenched and weary men who said they had never been on a sea so wild. Then there was a lull, and hope was fading for the safety of Pádraig and his men. By dawn the sea had calmed, and a black speck was seen way out in the ocean. At last Pádraig made the shore with his crew, after nearly 12 hours at sea. The men were hugged and blessed and Pádraig took my grandmother to her new home. She boiled the kettle while he undressed and dried himself. She was going to make tea, but Pádraig got a bottle of poitín from a cupboard, so she made hot punch instead. He said he was saving that bottle until he had something to celebrate, and today was the day.

The newly weds were still in bed that night when the Strawboys came rapping at their door. It was party time again, and Barr Trá lit up for a mardi gras. There were celebrations to welcome the new bride, and to thank the sea for not taking the 20 and more Flanagan men who had gone to bring her home.

Barr Trá by Phillip Morrison

Pádraig and Máire had eight children, of which seven survived into adulthood. My grandmother Susan was the youngest and played fiddle and concertina. True to her roots, she became an active member of Cumann na mBán during the War of Independence. After the Rineen Ambush on 22 September 1920, the Black and Tans burned the town of Lahinch, including the Flanagan house on Main Street. Susan’s boyfriend Mick Lehane, a local IRA commander who was wounded at Rineen, and her sister Bridget perished in the blaze. Susan escaped through a hail of bullets, and was declared an enemy of the Crown for her part in the aiding the IRA and more. She went on the run and months later, arrived in Philadelphia in Feburary, 1921. From there she went to New York where three of her sisters lived and became active in the Biddy Earlys, the Clare branch of Cumman na mBan in NY. She told me that for years afterwards, she woke up with nightmares of that horrific night of The Burning.

The Golf Hotel, Lahinch —where British Army officers stayed and played. It was mysteriously burned down in the 1950s.

Susan returned to Ireland with Sinéad de Valera after the Treaty. She arrived home to the Civil War and seeing old friends shoot at each other disillusioned her. She wanted to go back to New York, but her mother pleaded with her to stay. She did, and got married a few years afterwards. Thirty years or so later I was born in West Clare, her first grandchild and the fourth great-grandchild of Pádraig and Máire Flanagan.

A few years ago, my son Aindrias was playing at an Irish trad session in Sydney, Australia. The session was led by an accordion player from Moy, near Barr Trá, an older man who didn’t take to easily to strangers joining his gig. When he left down the accordion to get a drink, Aindrias played a few tunes on the fiddle that he had learned from me, tunes I got from my grandmother Susan. After he finished, the accordion player cried, “Hey! I know who you are now! You’re Flanagan from Barr Trá!”
Aindrias carries their music and their dark looks. Goes to show you can’t beat breeding, as they say in West Clare.

I heard the story of my great-grandparents wedding and the aftermath from the late Micheal Flanagan, from near Spanish Point, who was from one of the seven Flanagan families of Barr Trá. It came back to me during the week and I thought it better to write it down before it left my mind again.

images courtesy of Clare County Library and Phillip Morrison

Books by Eddie Stack

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The Reflections: doing our bit for Ireland

The Reflections were not a tourists’ band; we didn’t have a broad repertoire of waltzes, ballads, come-all-yahs and the other stuff that tourists can clap hands to. So we were a bit apprehensive when Aughty Taw announced that he had such a gig for us. It was a default gig: the original band had a double booking and a panicked hotel manager got in touch with Aughty. He said it was a lucrative job and there would be a free bar at the event. That clinched it.

It was in a venerable hotel in Ennis on a July Saturday afternoon, and we had nothing else to do that day, apart from an unplugged gig at Johnny Burke’s in Spanish Point later in the night. Johnny’s was a ‘trad and beyond gig,’ low pay, hi-jinks and free porter. We had fans down that side of the country and the plan was to camp out afterwards near the beach, have a bonfire and whoop it up until maidin geal. I was looking forward to that more than the tourist reception.

Tires the Roadie got the loan of a pick-up truck and brought drums, keyboards and other gear to Ennis; the rest of the outfit traveled with Aughty in a little green mini which was used to running on empty. On the way, I began writing out a set list. ‘Lovely Leitrim’, ‘Rambling Rose’, ‘Goodbye Johnny Dear’ and so on. I knew the melodies and would ad-lib the words as per normal. Aughty suggested instrumentals he could do on sax or clarinet — ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’, ‘Moonlight in Mayo’, ‘Christmas in Killarney’ and the likes. If worse came to the worst, he volunteered to croon old chestnuts like ‘Gentle Mother,’ ‘The Mountains of Mourne,’ and other vintage numbers. On whistle and fiddle he would play jigs and reels to give them a bit of diddly-eye candy. We had it all sorted by the time we passed through Inagh. Though we had never played these numbers before, we would ensure the tourists were happy campers.

Aughty said, “Jaysus lads, it’ll be a piece of cake. Money for shag-all and free drink for the boys. Sheo! It’ll set us up nicely for Johnny Burke’s — where, if we play our cards right, we’ll get more drink agus go leor ladies. Sheo!”

We echoed a chorus of “Sheo! Sheo! Sheo!” and Drummer Hill rattled on an empty petrol can with two coins.

We got to the hotel on time and Aughty met the manager, who brought us upstairs to the function room. I was taken aback by the size of it. The bandstand was in the corner opposite the bar and there were dozens and dozens of tables around the room. At the back, a team of chefs were setting up a banquet and I wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew.

As Aughty had sourced the gig, he was the de-facto bandleader for the show. He called the shots. Tires set up the gear with Killoran and Drummer, and Aughty and myself massaged the set-list at a table. A waiter appeared and asked if we’d like a drink. I ordered a pint and Aughty said he’d have a brandy and port, with a pint of Harp. I gave him a sharp glance, indicating that it was a bit early to be hitting the hard stuff. He just muttered ‘Sheo!’ and jingled coins in his pocket. Shortly, we were joined at the table by the rest of the lads and we went over the set-list.

I don’t know how much we had drunk by the time the tourists arrived into the room, but it was a lot even for a Saturday afternoon. I remember the invasion of oddly dressed people, baseball caps, cameras, perfume, blue perms and ill-fitting toupees. They were mostly middle-aged and older, American, German, Asian, British. Hundreds of them. Ten busses, a waiter said. Reality shifted. We were in a Fellini movie. Killoran, now verging on speechless, leaned towards me and muttered best he could,

“I don’t…I…I don’t think we’ll get away with this one.”

The manager had requested that we play while the visitors dined and we took to the stage when a gong rang. Sax hanging from his neck, Aughty frowned at the set list and said, “Achtung! ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’. 3-4 time, two sharps. Over and out.”

We had a wobbly start but got it together after the first verse. I looked around and Drummer nodded, so did Killoran, we were in the groove and it was mellow. Aughty was playing fluid as a river and all that was missing was Bing Crosby. I was next up with ‘Lovely Leitrim,’ followed by ‘The Boys from the County Armagh.’ The visitors clapped cautiously and we ploughed along with ‘Katie Daly’, ‘The Butcher Boy’ and god knows what else. The clapping got louder and people came closer to have a look at us.

An American woman asked if we knew ‘Danny Boy,’ and Aughty said,

“Yes indeed, madam, and it is one of our all time favourites.”

He gave the usual commands, then blew a funky version of the song on the sax. It was a stand-out performance, totally out-there stuff, blues on the green, pure magic. Killoran took a solo on the ivories and Aughty gave a back-beat on a tambourine. He nodded to me to take a solo, and I went to the mic and spoke the words, like I imagined Van Morrison would do — “Oh Danny, Danny-Danny Boy…the pipes, the pipes, yeah man the pipes are calling…” I made up most of the rest of the words but the crowd didn’t mind, and clapped enthusiastically when I finished my piece. Then Aughty topped off the number on the clarinet and we got a huge applause.

The Asians were the first to twig that Aughty was a star and they gathered around the stage and took pictures of him. The attention sent him further out there and he took up the fiddle and blasted out a set of rocky reels. It was a Reflection’s gig like no other and we morphed into a Clare version of Horslips cum Fairport Convention. The tourists loved it and danced and pranced like Deadheads. We just couldn’t go wrong and Aughty controlled the show with commands like:

“Five-four on the two-eighty. Engines ready. Check, check. ‘Thank God We’re Surrounded by Water.’ Visibility good, prepare for takeoff.”

And away we’d go. Everything we did was a hit and so I asked Aughty if we might chance ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. I figured it would be awesome to have all the Yanks and the Germans, the Asians and everybody else sing ‘How does it feel? How does it feeeel..’ Aughty was horrified and said,

“Jesus, H Christ…is it daft you are? There will be no fucking Bob Dylan played at this engagement. I’m in the fucking cockpit!”

I was sorry for asking and drained a pint in two slugs. Then he had me sing ‘I’ll Tell My Ma,’ and as a peace-offering he funked it up a bit and that was as near as we got to Bob.

The evening flew and we hadn’t time to drink all that we got. After the show, we spent a good half-hour having our photos taken with giggling tourists. We smiled for Ireland and everyone was happy. Aughty was really spaced out and spoke to the foreigners in his own lingo. They were all enthralled, apart from the Germans. He did dodgy tricks for them with a pint glass, and tried to do somersaults and cartwheels on the dance floor. It was a comic attempt, money spilling out of his pockets before he crumbled into a laughing heap. The visitors clapped and laughed and photographed him. He could do no wrong, no matter how he tried. Up the Republic.

We dismantled the gear and packed away the instruments. Tires helped Aughty down the stairs from the function room, but he got wedged into the corner of a landing and became stuck. How we got from Ennis to Spanish Point, I don’t know.

Talty the Roadie was there before us and frowned when he saw Aughty stagger into the pub. We were late, we were banjaxed but the show had to go on: Johnny was a cousin of mine and family pride was at stake. I switched to lemonade to sober up a bit. Seeing our state, Johnny produced a huge plate of grilled sausages and said, “Ate up lads.”

Somehow or other we rose to the occasion, Aughty got a second wind and though all he could say was ‘Sheo!’ he played whistle and fiddle as good as the best. Killoran tinkled on a piano; Drummer beat bongos and bodhran, I rattled away on the mandolin and gave a few songs with the guitar. When our fans gathered, the bar revved up to ninety and we played anything that came into our heads. We were blasting out ‘Hey Jude’ — the long version — when the cops came, cleared the pub and told us to go home. Nah-nah-nah-nanan-an-nah…

Miltown Girl and a few of her mates pitched the tent for us. Fellas brought driftwood up from the shore and made a bonfire. Killoran and Talty came with crates of drink; Tires rolled joints and a few of the local heads gave him a hand. I lay on my back and looked at the stars, listened to the the surf lapping on the shore below. It was a beautiful night, surrounded by friends and happy ghosts, a salty freedom in the air. It had been a long day, but we did Ireland proud. Aughty played ‘The West Clare Reel’ on the whistle, and Miltown Girl sat beside me and rubbed my head.

“Hey you,” she said, “how did the Ennis gig go?”

“It was a bit of a detour,” I replied, “but they’re always the most interesting ones.”

“How about taking another detour?” she asked, pulling me to my feet.

We linked each other down to the beach and walked between the sea and the starry sky. From the bonfire came whoops and screams of merriment. Aughty blew a few notes on the whistle, Killoran strummed the guitar and the revelers sang Dylan’s ‘Mighty Quinn’. Then Drummer sang ‘Lay Lady, Lay’ and Miltown Girl and myself danced close and slow under the West Clare sky; danced until long after the music had stopped.

Books by Eddie Stack

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St Patrick’s Day Story: Granda and me

couldn’t let the day pass by without posting something…dig the graphix…have a great 17th everyone

Granda and Me

Granda had a ‘thing’ about the church — he was excommunicated during the Irish War of Independence for carrying a gun and that turned his head. Even though Bishop Harty took him back to the fold afterwards and blessed him and everything, Granda never went back spiritually. He just went through the motions.

At Mass, I used watch his Einstein head from the choir gallery, his mind in another world, rising, kneeling and sitting with the flow of congregation. He came without prayer book or beads and sometimes fell asleep, even snored, during fire and brimstone sermons.

Granda seldom mentioned religion, which was kind of taboo in our house. If it did come up in conversation, he’d point to the picture of St. Patrick which hung above the radio in the kitchen and calmly say,
“D’you see that man up there who’s staring down at you? Your own patron saint? Well it’s that man’s followers who dug Ireland’s grave and put the stake in her heart to make sure she was dead and would never rise again.”
I saw grown men and women flee from our house in horror after hearing Granda’s revisionist theories on our patron saint and the men in black who came in his wake.

The picture of Saint Patrick was ever-present and I think it hung on the wall as a prop for Granda’s theories, sort of like a wanted poster. Sitting, eating or doing homework at the table, you couldn’t escape the Saint’s gaze as he stood on the sea-shore in bad weather, rage in his eyes, crosier raised and vestments flapping. At his feet were scores of wriggling snakes, squirming from Erin with their lives. It was a nightmarish sight.
“But what about the snakes?” I asked Granda one day.
“There were no snakes. All that snakes stuff is pure propaganda.”
Proper gander to my young ears, a polite way of saying total bullshit.

Saint Patrick came to the fore at school some months later when Brother Liston announced it was time to practise our Irish hymns, the National Holiday was coming round the bend. There was a big cheer in class, because we loved to sing. It was an easy way to pass the time and the noise we generated blocked the wind and rain and raised our tender young hearts. We could build up great steam with a hymn, belting out Latin words that meant nothing to us. When we got really cooking Brother Liston would light a few candles, put them in front of the statue of Our Lady, close his eyes and conduct the choir with a pencil. Sometimes we sang for hours, candles would expire and the smell of burning wax would bring Brother Liston back from Heaven. Then we’d finish with a rousing march that went—We stand for God, And for his Glory.

We had hymns for all season — requiems, High Mass, Benediction, Novenas, Rosaries, plain chant, hymns for the conversion of Russia, Easter specials, Christmas carols, but Saint Patrick’s melodies were the oddest. Unlike the others, they were mostly in Irish and so we understood the words. But that in turn opened another can of maggots when I deduced that one of the hymns was a plea to Saint Patrick to give us hope. I didn’t realize we were hopeless until then. It seemed something was going on that I knew nothing about. There was no point in discussing my anxiety with Brother Liston so I mentioned it to Granda one Lenten evening over a supper of kippered herrings and brown bread. He asked me to sing a snatch of the hymn, which I did:
Give us hope, Glorious Saint Patrick,
Great Liberator of Ireland,
Soul of brightness and joy,
You who vanquished the druids,
Dark hearted pagans of no good.

The song freaked Granda. He reeled from the table like he was shot. It was all wrong, he flared, it was propaganda. And what’s all this tripe about the druids, he asked, the druids were fine people, very learned and wise. And what was all this about the liberation of Ireland, he cried, sure it’s the Church that oppressed us. Jesus Christ, he moaned that’s the worst piece of propaganda I’ve heard in years. And worser still, it’s being drummed into the heads of children. My mother told him to shut up. His eyes glazed and he shook his wild head of wild white hair and muttered,
“That song is heresy. Pure unadulterated heresy. If the druids were around today, we’d be a lot better off.”
I didn’t know what heresy was, but I knew it was serious and after that I held back on the song at choir practice. Brother Liston twigged my reluctance to sing and stood beside me, his ear a foot from my mouth. Louder, he muttered. I obliged. Louder, he growled giving me a pinch on the ear. I skidded out of key and he hit me a fierce clatter across the head and knocked me out of my desk.

That year, a new curate called Father Malachy organized the first ever Saint Patrick’s Day parade in our parish. It was a small affair that started outside the church after last Mass and trailed through the street, ending at the Protestant Church on the other end of town. The parade was led by a fife and drum band from a place called Bunwanny, a bedraggled lot in kilts and black tunics, they were famous for the amount they drank and they made an awful sound. Behind them marched a company of soldiers without guns, followed by our civil defence corp—the men from the firebrigade, then Bogie Molloy leading a pack of greyhounds. Next came a couple of floats—coal and sand trucks decked with green ribbons, carrying dancers, footballers and local characters.

We had no experience with parades and wondered what to do as it passed. Should we cheer like they did in America? Heckle like we did politicians? Or join in behind Willie Daly’s pony troupe? We joined in. The whole street joined in: shouting and cheering like a crowd of jail breakers, we marched behind Daly’s team of ponies. The town hadn’t seen so much jubilation since the night Bogie’s greyhound won a big race in Shelbourne Park.

Afterwards, Brother Liston corralled us into the parochial hall to sing hymns for the annual old folks party. We sang well, got sweets and green jelly for our efforts and were allowed to stay for the sing-song. Granda was there, a big sprig of shamrock in his cap. He had drink taken and no sooner were we finished with our hymns than he stood up, dragged Murt Hynes, (who sat beside him) to his feet and announced that they were going to sing.
They sang a rebel song, Down By The Glenside. They were old soldiers and never missed a chance to put things in perspective. Brother Liston smiled but didn’t join in the chorus like everyone else. I sang like a lark,
“Glory-oh, glory-oh, to the bold Fenian men.”
After that performance, when the clapping died down, Aggie Marrinan began to croon in a soft voice,
“The night was dark and the fight was over,
The moon shone down on O’Connell Street.”

Everyone sang and the mood had shifted from a religious one to a patriotic one. I was beginning to notice there were different layers to Saint Patrick’s Day. Some had nothing to do with the saint, as far as I could see. It was an occasion to open the valve and let it all out. You could be as Irish as you liked and feel good about it. You could put away the Halloween costume for a day.
Granda was asked to sing again and he obliged with an emigration song which began “On the dock the ship is anchored…” and had a line in the chorus that went — “Three leaf Shamrock I adore thee.”
That started a spate of shamrock songs and then Brother Liston took the limelight and sang a quasi-religious ballad called “Dear Little Shamrock.”
He had a quivering tenor voice, a trained voice, as Aggie Marrinan would say, and his performance was unsettling. Old timers shuffled their feet under the tables, cutlery fell on the floor, chairs creaked. He finished on a high tension note that lasted for half a minute or more, but before anyone could applaud, Granda thumped the table, staggered to his feet and shouted,
“Propaganda! Propaganda!” at the startled Christian Brother.
Cronies pulled at Granda and whispered,
“Sit down Ned. Take it easy.”
John Gallery muttered to me,
“Jesus, your grandfather will be arrested.”
Granda wagged his finger at the monk and shouted,
“Don’t hijack the shamrock, ye did it once but ye won’t do it again!”
The party delved into confusion. People shouted, staggered, chairs overturned, Father Malachy appealed for calm. Aggie Marrinan seized the moment and thumped out “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” on the piano. But they weren’t, they were just cockeyed with drink and anarchy.

Granda was taken home by Coyne the butcher and later that night Father Malachy came to the house to see how he was. In bed, my mother said, opening the door three inches. He didn’t rise for two days and when he did, mother ignored him.
Back at school Brother Liston looked at me strangely and didn’t ask me anything for days, kept out of my space. My mother’s intuition told her he was planning to give me a trouncing for Granda’s indiscretions. She suggested that Granda write an apology to the monk and when he made no attempt to, she wrote one herself. I brought the note to school with me and planned to give it to Liston at the eleven o’clock break, as discreetly as possible.
The note gave me a sense of security, like a holy medal or a drop of Lourdes water is said to give. But then when I wasn’t expecting it, Brother Liston pounced. It was Catechism class and he asked me to prove the existence of God. My proof didn’t even convince me. It was curtains.
“Come up here you pagan,” squalled Brother Liston, beckoning me up to the front of the class for public execution.
“Put out your hand and take it like a man,” he ordered.
I did, and with every blow wanted to scream ‘propaganda’ at the panting monk. He belted me until I cried, not with hurt but with rage. Then he gave me two clips across the face for good measure and said,
“You better learn the Proof of the Existence of God by tomorrow or you’ll get twice the hiding. Pagans aren’t welcome in my class.”

Back at the desk I sat on my hands to ease the searing pain. My cheeks blazed as if they’d been branded with a red-hot cattle iron and I hung my head in shame as the Christian Brother ridiculed me and my family in front of the class. I think that was the day I became totally disillusioned with God, St. Patrick, Rome, vocations, teachers and men in dark clothes.
Mid-morning break came, time to slip Liston the note. As I walked towards him, something older than me muttered inside my head, “don’t bother”. I hurried past the sneering holy man and went straight to the toilet, locked myself into a stall, tore the note into tiny pieces and scattered them into the bowl. I pulled the chain and rang out the bells of hell again and again until a torrent of monastery water washed away my poor mother’s plea in a hundred pieces. No apology, no surrender. That’s the way Granda would have done it.

Books by Eddie Stack

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The Warrior Carty: an Irish Christmas Story

I grew up in a small pub in the west of Ireland, where every market and fair day, a cadre of old IRA men held fort at the corner of the counter. Known as ‘The Boys’, they were our local heros, the men who fought the British at Rineen, Monreel, 81 Cross and other hotspots. I once saw a picture of them taken in 1919 and was struck by how young they seemed back then, they looked like boys who’d just left school.

After ‘The Boys’ had a few drinks, conversation turned to the ‘campaign’ and who did what and who didn’t do that. Sometimes it seemed there was unfinished business from the revolution being settled in the pub. One man, Murt Hynes, used thump the counter and my father would have to tell him to take it easy. In the late afternoon, Murt often challenged his mates to take up the cause again and ‘finish the job for once and for all.’ They stared at the floor in silence, finished their drinks and went home. Alone, Murt would sing a few rebel songs and then my mother made a plate of ham sandwiches to fortify him for the journey home.

The Warrior Carty is set on the day of a fair around Christmas time. The character is not directly based on any of ‘The Boys’, but I have always felt he was one of them.

The Warrior had enough of the Christmas fair and took cover in Looney’s bar. It was empty, dark and cold, still waiting to be strobed by the solstice sun.

“A harmless aul fair,” sniffled Bridgey, totting up his bill on a brown paper bag. “Four shillins for the Powers an’ three an’ sixpence for the bottle a porter…what’s that altogether?”

“Seven an’ six Bridgey,” said the Warrior, leaving three half crowns on the red formica counter. He settled them into a small pile. “Thanks Bridgey, and good luck to you.”

“The same to yourself…ahh, they have the country ruined…and everythin’ is so dear sure…”

“They have this poor country shagged, Bridgey. That’s about the size of it now.”

“‘Tis true for you…”

“And what’s more, the crowd that’s doin’ it never fired a shaggin’ shot in their life.”

“‘Tis true for you.”

“Anyways,” sighed the Warrior, flopping his arms in resignation, “give us another small whiskey.”

“Powers, wasn’t it? ”

“‘Twas…that’s the way now Bridgey. What kind of a Christmas are ye havin’ so far?”

“Yarrah…’tis quiet. Don’t you know yourself now. An’ sure today is the big day an’ can’t you see the way it is. Quiet, sure. You might rise a stir in it yourself above in the Square later on.”

“Not today, Bridgey.”


“Not today, Bridgey,” the Warrior repeated, shaking his head, “but anyways, this is the overcoat I was tellin’ you about, the last day I here.”

She admired the dark crombie coat and listened to how he came upon it. And he was wearing the good blue suit, clean shirt, collar and tie. These he bought from the Pakistani hawker who came to Ennis every Saturday. That was another story, better left for another day, he said.

“Is there anyone dead belongin’ to you?” she asked.

“No, not that I know of, Bridgey,” he answered. “And I didn’t hear anything up the town. But there was a funeral this morn beyond in Maheramore, I s’pose you heard that. That poor Mrs. Canney was buried. Her son is married to a daughter of Paraffin Hogan’s.”

“Is that the boy that drives Blake’s lorry.”

“Now you have it.”

“That’s where Doran’s hearse must have been. It passed up the road a while ago.”

“I got a lift to town with them. ‘Twas my first time in a hearse and it won’t be my last, Bridgey.”

“‘Tis true for you.”

She smoked one of his cigarettes and put the pieces together. The Warrior was wearing his good clothes because of the funeral. He had a few drinks after filling the grave with Doran. That’s why he wasn’t going up to the Square, he had drink taken. He never drinks before going to the Square.
“Are you alright now for a while? I have to put down the dinner.”
“Sound as a bell Bridgey — but give us another half wan an’ a packet of plain cigarettes so I wont be botherin’ you.”

Bridgey peeled potatoes into a bowl by the kitchen fire.”That bar out there is freezin’,” she sniffled. If it got any colder she would have to get an oil heater. She could hear him stamp his feet to keep the blood running to his toes.

“Are you alright, Warrior?” she called, tapping on the bar window.

“Sound as a bell, Bridgey. The circulation.”

“I hope he don’t throw a turn,” she mumbled. It would be the talk of the country — The Warrior Carty to die in the only pub he was served in. The six other publicans in the town would not let his toe inside their doors but Bridgey saw no harm in him. He was persecuted by his own after he fought for them in the War of Independence and the Civil War. Later he went abroad and the misfortunate wretch got shell-shocked in some foreign war. That’s where the strange behavior comes from, like the exhibition above in the Square. “God help us,” she sighed and added an extra potato to the pot.

The usual crowd gathered in the Square before midday and waited for the Warrior Carty. This was the highpoint of their fair — to see and cheer this robust man lift a cart-wheel, which was as big and as heavy as himself, and balance it on the hub of his chin while the Angelus bells rang out. It was an extraordinary feat and he performed it at every fair, hail, rain or snow. He did it to distract the fair from prayer and succeeded for the most part. The Warrior’s act could be the making or the breaking of the day.

When the church bells called for prayer in Looney’s bar the Warrior blew a smoke ring for every peal. It was as defiant as he wanted to be that midwinter’s day. He knew the followers in the Square would be disappointed, but that was life — nothing lasts for ever. He had retired. The decision had been made in his sleep and he was obeying. Orders from the management. Not God, just the Management.

The crowd felt like fools. Cheated of their entertainment and their prayers, they dispersed sullenly and griped about the Warrior. Where was he? Had he not walked the town earlier in the day, showering everyone with Christmas greetings? It was not his form to ignore the call of duty, especially today, The Small Fair of Christmas.

A long lean farmer said he must have lost his nerves. His neighbour disagreed. “The Warrior was born without nerves,” he claimed. It was his age. “He must be sixty-five or seventy years old if he’s a day,” he insisted, sliding into Peter Egan’s bar. Inside, they joined a couple of cattle jobbers who were already discussing the Warrior.

“Well sure, he started out first in Boland’s Mill in 1916…then he led the Faha column of the boys in 1920,” declared a barrel-shaped jobber in a once-white coat. “I know it. And he never surrendered after the Civil War. I know that, too. Carty never handed over the gun.”

“Tha’s right sure. ‘Don’t give up the fight.’ I often heard him say that,” drawled his companion. “An’ he went off to Spain with the Brigade too. Maybe that was to get another wallop at the Blueshirts

“Maybe, but I don’t think so.”

“An’ sure if they hadn’t locked him up in the Curragh Camp durin’ the last war he’d have been soldierin’ somewhere.”

some of the Clare IRA who ambushed + vanquished the Black & Tans at Rineen, 1921

Bridgey left a plate with a piece of haddock and a potato on the counter.
“Ate this,” she said. “It’ll do you good.”

“The Blessin’s a God on you Bridgey,” he said and picked at the meal. He felt like confiding in her. He wanted to explain why he didn’t go to the Square and what he was doing in Sunday clothes. But it was a delicate matter and she might pick it up wrong.

“Bridgey…” he asked, motioning for another whiskey and stout. “Do we soften with age?”

“‘Tis hard to say,” she said slowly and pondered at her reflection in the mirror behind the whiskey bottles. “The aul fair’ll be over early,” she muttered, putting his drinks on the cold red-topped counter. He would be her only customer today.

The money-box was getting heavier and he was getting drunker, but in a quiet sort of a way. For a short while, a beam of evening sun warmed the bar and they traced about things of long ago like rekindled lovers. He reminisced about the great fairs, when you could walk on the backs of beasts from one end of the town to the other without stepping on the ground. Bridgey reminded him of the great dances that used be held before the Christmas years ago.”All that’s gone now,” she sighed.

They recalled the big crowds arriving home from England and wondered where they all were now.”A sad day for Ireland, Bridgey,” Warrior sighed and a cloud of silence darkened the bar. Bridgey fumbled under the counter and a string of Christmas lights blazed a trail around whiskey bottles. Tiny beads of yellow, green, red and blue blinked at the Warrior.

“Jaysus, Bridgey,” he said slowly, “but I love Christmas, even though Christmas is not the same as it used to be.”

“Nothing stays the same sure,” she said, almost in a whisper.

Sipping a cup of tea, she peered at him from the dark kitchen. He was talking to himself and counting his money, cursing her blinking Christmas lights. The Warrior had enough drank for one day but she hated to ask him to leave. He tapped the counter with the heel of his glass and called her.

“The same again, Bridgey…is that clock right?”

“No…’tis slow…hurry up an’ finish this like a good boy. Tonight’s the night of the carol singin’ above at the church an’ I must get ready.”

“Sound Bridgey. An’ Bridgey, before I forget it…give us a naggon of whiskey and a packet of Players for the morn.”

“Here,” she said, wrapping the small bottle and cigarettes in a brown paper bag, “this is from me for Christmas.”

He pressed his chest against the counter and lowered his head as if to kiss her. But he clasped her cold hands instead and whispered, “You never forget the Warrior. The blessin’s of God on you. Bridgey, you’re the only wan in this town who has any breedin’.”

“You can’t bate breedin’ Warrior.” she said, “How’re you goin’ home?”

She came outside the counter with a broom and peered out the front door.
“There’s no wind out. Take it aisey an’ you’ll be sound.”

“I’ll be sound anyway…But Bridgey as the song goes — ‘Oh what matters when for Erin dear we fall.’ I don’t mind in the least fallin’ for Erin…many’s the good man an’ woman have done so in the past. But Bridgey, what I do mind, is fallin’ for some of the shaggers that live here.”

“Our Lord fell three times,” she said quietly, sweeping his crushed cigarette butts into a heap.

“And he rose again Bridgey. We’re martyrs for punishment.”

The Warrior drained his glass slowly and put Bridgey’s Christmas present into his overcoat pocket. He wondered if he should try for another half one, but decided not to, it would be bad form.

“Bridgey… I’ll hit away,” he said. “Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year to you astore.”

“The same to yourself and be as good as you can, Warrior. Happy Christmas to you now. Mind the step as you g’ out.”

She bolted the door behind him and unplugged the Christmas lights.

Main Street smelled like a farmyard in the wake of the fair. It was quiet apart from a few children who played in the light streaming from Callaghan’s sweet shop. The town was winding down for the carol service and the Warrior numbed when he discovered the pubs were blacked out. He tried them all — Tracy’s, Egan’s, Hogan’s, Vaughan’s, The Widow’s and Dinn Joe’s.

“Shag ’em,” he snorted. “An’ shag ’em again.”

He had hoped to breeze into the enemy camp in the quiet of the evening, just when the day’s takings were counted and the publicans were happy. He would extend the olive branch and ask to be served again. He would keep the peace. There would be no more trouble, no more defiance. No more would he lure the Christians away from the Angelus prayer by balancing the cart-wheel. He was retiring from all that.

But his plan was foiled because he had tarried too long with Bridgey. And the church didn’t help. The pubs would be closed until after the carol singing. Muttering about goodwill and room at the inn he plodded back down the street to wait in the shadows until God relented.

Passing Peter Egan’s he had a sudden urge to lash his boot through the glass paneled door but was distracted when the new curate, Father Hannon, suddenly appeared like a host. “Hardy weather,” the pale priest hailed, side-stepping him.

“Say wan for me Fader,” grunted the Warrior and wandered in the opposite direction.

He slipped into Hogan’s Alley to relieve himself in the darkness, but Gretta Greene saw him. The mad woman from Frohaul who had once done him a turn behind the town hall peered into the laneway and jeered, “The frost ‘ll kill et. The frost’ll kill et an’ make a small boy a you Warrior Carty you dirty scut you. I’ll say a prayer that you’ll go ta hell.”

With his back to the church he plodded on. Two women, pious as nuns, scurried past, arm in arm.

“Peggy, is that the Warrior Carty?”

“Tis. He’s an awful nuisance.”

“He’s in town since early today. I saw him when I was gettin’ the paper. Was there a girl in that family?”

“No. An only child that fella, an’ spoiled an’ young. He lives on his own. The mother died in the workhouse. Sure that fella couldn’t take care of himself.”

“Never married?”

“No. And he let a great farm of land go to wrack and ruin. Drank it.”

The Warrior felt the cold in his bones. Frost glistened the black tar road that separated the lines of shops. Stars above and stars below. He stood at the Square and gazed at the sky. A great black dome dotted with peep holes to heaven. Shocked by the thought, his head reeled. “Jaysus…I’m half drunk,” he mumbled to the night. “I’d better sit down before I keel over.”

Outside Hogan’s pub he flopped on an empty porter barrel. Hogan would be his first port of call with the olive branch, the whiskey would keep him warm till then. He uncorked the naggon and listened to the Christmas carols escaping from the church. Some he knew from long ago and crooned along between sips of whiskey. Memories paraded before him and he felt the town growing strange. It reminded him of a desolate railway station he saw from a train, one winter evening in war-torn Spain. “I’m only just passing through,” he muttered.

After the carol singing, the faithful passed the Warrior slouched over the empty barrels outside Hogan’s.

“He’s in town all day,” a man from the Vincent de Paul whispered to his wife.

“Thank God you don’t drink,” she whispered back. “It’s a terrible curse.”

Father Hannon shook his head and crossed to the other side of the street. “An awful disgrace,” he muttered to Coyle the butcher.

Nobody bothered the Warrior and hard frost crept over his crombie coat in a white fur. At closing time Frank Hogan tried to move him on, not out of sympathy or concern — but out of fear that the old soldier might erupt during the night and cry him out. But the old soldier was dead. Twisted like a vine, white as ice. The Warrior was gone and only his burly body remained.

His remains were brought to the church in a plain coffin paid for by Bridgey Looney and Ned Duffy. Laid out in his good blue suit he looked like a saint in death. After Mass on Christmas morning only a few mourners followed the tricolor-draped coffin through the streets. The Christmas morning cap guns were silent, the children called a truce for the funeral.

It was bitter cold in the graveyard above the town and Father Hannon rushed through the prayers. Ned Duffy fired four shots from an old revolver and children in the town below replied with a thousand rounds or more.

“Home is the hero,” Bridgey whispered. “May God be good to you, Warrior Carty.”

The Warrior Carty is published in The West: Stories from Ireland. A spoken word version of the story with music by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill is available for download here.

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No Rhyme, No Reason

Yesterday I got an email from a friend in London. It was a newsy note that ended,
“Life is fragile, give it plenty love.”
The ending struck a chord with me, because I had earlier been wondering about the fragility of life in light of two well publicized suicides — that of Gary Speed in the UK, and Kate Fitzgerald in Dublin.

Gary Speed.

Gary Speed

Gary Speed was 42, a highly respected footballer and manager of the Wales soccer team. Hours before he took his own life last weekend, he was on BBC1’s Football Focus show and in great form, promising to come back again before Christmas. A friend he spoke with after the show, said Gary sounded happy and full of life. Hours later, his wife found his body hanging at the family home outside Chester. There were no suspicious circumstances. No message, no goodbye note.

Kate Fitzgerald was 25, an Irish-American, she was born in San Jose, California and moved to Ireland with her Irish parents in the 1990’s. She studied journalism at Dublin City University, and became a member of Democrats Abroad, after watching George Bush demolish Kerry in a 2004 US Presidential debate. By 2007 she was the organization’s chairperson in Ireland, and had built its membership from 200 to 1400. She was a regular commentator on Irish radio during the 2008 US Presidential election and came to the States for Obama’s inaugeration.

Kate Fitzgerald

Work stress and a relationship break-up spun Kate Fitzgerald’s life upside down and she began drinking heavy. Under the influence of alcohol and antidepressants, she signed herself into St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, on July 18 of this year. St Pat’s specialises in mental-health issues, substance and alcohol abuse. After she was discharged from hospital in August, she sent an email to Peter Murtagh of the Irish Times, which was signed Grace Ringwood. The email contained an article on suicide, and Grace was insisting on anonymity should the Irish Times decide to publish it.

Mr. Murtagh wrote back and they made contact by phone. She told him her real name and he recognised it, as the Times had previously published an article by her. She was a good writer and seemed more mature and confident than her 25 years. Murtagh said he’d recommend that the Times publish her piece, but he would disclose her real name to the editor. She seemed pleased with that and followed up the conversation with an email a few hours later, in which she said she enjoyed writing and looked forward to contributing to the Irish Times in the future.

On Friday, September 9th, the day before World Suicide Prevention Day, the Times published her piece, anonymously, as she requested. A few days later her father, Tom Fitzgerald, called the newspaper and said he was certain the suicide article had been written by his daughter Kate. She had taken her own life on August 22nd, a couple of hours after emailing Murtagh. He may have been the last person she spoke to. There was no goodbye note, no explanation. She was only a few weeks out of hospital.

The fragility of life, the balancing act of the mind. Two talented people calling time long before it’s due. Two people who seemed to be in good spirits, when they spoke to others, just hours before taking their own lives. I wondered how this could be. I looked back at the suicides which had impacted my own life and still came up with no answers.

Paddy was my dad’s cousin and one of his best friends. He had a fine farm, a small shop in the village and was engaged to a local hair stylist. I was in primary school at the time, and remember when their relationship ended, because there was a lot of talk in our kitchen about the engagement ring being returned to Paddy.

One spring Sunday, he came to our house after Mass for the usual cup of tea and a chat with my dad. It was lambing season and he was going to the farm, in case foxes or carrion crows were preying on newborns. After that, he was meeting his ex in a local hotel, and she was returning the ring. He seemed in good humour and said he’d see us later, but I never saw Paddy again.

That afternoon a man came with the news that Paddy had been found dead, half his head blown off. I’ll never forget that. The man was a family friend and he was shocked and distraught. He explained that even though the news was devastating, he couldn’t stop laughing and said it was like his brain was working backwards. I’ll never forget that either, or the trouble that my dad and his friends went to, to ensure Paddy’s death would be registered as an accident, rather than suicide. It was my dad who delivered the news to his ex, as she sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for Paddy. In later years I asked dad about it. He conceeded that Paddy took his own life, but the why remained a mystery. “I suppose something snapped in the poor fella,” he said.

Jack was a grouchy old man, a life long dole recipient who lived in a council house with his son’s family. He always wore a brown suit and tweed cap and held court with other dolers in an alleyway near the post office. He was king of the corner-boys and delighted in lobbing smart remarks at decent and innocent people. I didn’t like him. One evening I was coming home from fishing and I met Jack on the road. He had a coil of rope over his shoulder and he stopped to chat with me, which I thought was unusual. He was friendly and spoke about good fishing spots and what the best flies were for that time of the year. We continued on our separate ways and I went home for my tea.

Some hours later word came to town that Jack was found hanging in Mrs. C’s cowshed. The widow discovered him there when she brought the animals home for milking. The news stunned me. I was confused and tried to convince myself that it must have been an accident, hadn’t I spoken to him earlier? And he didn’t seem cracked or crazy, if anything he was more than normal. I couldn’t reconcile things, and the image of that coil of rope over Jack’s shoulder has never left me.

Maurice was a few years older than me. He worked in London and came home for two weeks holidays every summer. Wearing the latest fashions, he cut a dash, maybe too much of a dash for our town. We hung out with him in the shoemakers workshop and he told us about a book he was writing. It was about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, years before the cliché was coined. I was fascinated and figured the book would be banned in Ireland. At the time I was playing in a local band with a cousin of Maurice’s and we absorbed every word he told us about the London scene, the clubs, the hustlers, the whiz and the gizz. He promised to come to a gig we were playing in Lahinch at the weekend, and we were excited that he was coming to hear us.

I heard about Maurice’s suicide from his cousin. Maurice had hung himself from a tree in the Old Glen, a place he loved to walk. We were numbed, helpless and bewildered. How could he? He was in the middle of the scene in London and seemed to be enjoying life with no problems. What went wrong? We never found out. He left no note. As a mark of respect we cancelled the gig, it was the only gesture we could make.

Who we meet on the street may not be who they appear to be. Everyone suffers, everyone wants to be happy and free from sorrow. But for some, the pain gets so great that it blocks the light of the soul. Life is fragile alright, and I wish we always knew how to go with the flow, and avoid the submerged rocks and demons. As Jerry Garcia sang in ‘Ripple’, “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”

In the wake of Gary Speed’s death, Irish journalist Eamonn Maillie spoke to psychiatrist Dr. Phillip McGarry about secrecy and depression. Here’s their conversation.

From Bob Dylan to Clare Sets

The Reflections had neither a rehearsal space or sound equipment. We just had our instruments, and we hired out gear when we gigged. I never remember us having any formal rehearsal, apart from what we did in venues when we got there early, which was rare.

We were North Clare latchicos, playing songs most people never heard of. And when we did popular stuff, we put our own twist on it and that was always different. Officially we were a four piece unit — Brendan Killoran on piano and keyboards, Johnny Rockett on bass, Jimmy ‘Drummer’ Hill on the sticks and me on electric guitar. Most nights we were joined at some point by a ‘ghost’ fifth member, Aughty Tá, an older multi-instrumentalist from Ennistymon. Aughty played sax, flute, piano, whistles, fiddle, clarinet and saw. Sometimes he just joined us for the National Anthem and the booze up after the gig. Other times he could be at the venue before us, ready to rock and roll, in a blue blazer from Micky Hogan’s band. You never knew how the night could go with with Aughty Tá.

Unwittingly, we were Clare’s poor version of the Grateful Dead. Like them, we arrived late and took a long time to set up. Sometimes band members were a bit canned or maybe well canned, when we hit the stage. Occasionally our starts were disastrous, and we had to stop and begin the number again. But it was all part of the show, and our fans forgave us. And like the Dead, we had long solos that could go anywhere, especially if Aughty was on board. He was a genius to improvise and go ‘out there’.

Ennistymon used have a Happy Family Festival back in those days. It was held in July and the pubs stayed open legally until 2am. The town used be mobbed every night. There was a huge white marquee in Blake’s Field and the showbands played there. Open air dancing was held in the town square, where ceili bands played on a stage. Fr. Easton, a hip padre, asked The Reflections to play for a teenage hop in the marquee one Wednesday night. He offered us twenty pounds, to play from 9pm to midnight, and we agreed. By Aughty’s calculations, that was at least two hundred pints.The same night, the Kilfenora would be playing in the square, and there was sure to be a huge crowd in town. We were looking forward to the gig. We’d be finished early and in good form for a bit of craic.

The Reflections had two roadies at the time: Talty the Vet and Tires O’Dwyer. Talty had a grey Ford Anglia estate, reg number DIE 999. His parents also had a grey Anglia Estate with the same reg. Anyway, he was in charge of things electrical and Tires’ job was to make sure the gig went smoothly, by opening bottles of beer and cider, and rolling spliffs for the band. Tires was a cousin of Aughty Tá’s.

On the afternoon of the gig, Talty and myself went to rent the sound gear from Mr. Tierney in Corofin, a local genius who had recently built a one-man submarine. Mr. Tierney showed us the craft and told us of his plans to launch the sub in Lake Inchequin. He already had 2 crates of Harp larger for the celebration. Talty said we played a song called ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Mr. Tierney smiled and said, “See, everything is connected.” He opened a few bottles and we drank to that. Several more bottles clinked while we listened to him expound on physics, cosmology and hydromechanics.

The rest of the lads were loitering around back-stage when we arrived with the gear. There was a bit of annoyance that we were late and a tad oiled. Aughty said,
“Let there be no panic. Sheo! Sheo and a Box. Galtee, voo!”
I knew he was half-pissed too.

The roadies set up the gear in a hurry, and plugged us in. Father Easton looked a bit nervous and had four frowns ploughed across his forehead. Drummer Hill clicked the sticks and we just hit the groove like turning a tap. We sort of surprised ourselves. Everything was spot on — the sound was just right and the band was earnest and tight. I spotted Aughty playing maracas to ‘Lovely Rita’ and thought, ‘this is going to be a great night’.

In no time at all, we had the marquee hopping, and lashed out all sorts of stuff. We knew the melody and chorus of many songs, but not a lot of the lyrics. Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was in that zone, but we did it anyway. Killoran played a masterful introduction, swirling on the keyboards, and I invoked Bob, making up the words as I went. The rest of the lads joined in the chorus and so did the crowd. A few girls from Liscannor swayed in front of the stage, screaming “How does it feel? How does it feel?” and that drove us further. I think our version had more verses than Dylan’s one.

The gig was flying, when one of the roadies thought we needed a light show. We were in the middle of a Stones’ number — ‘No Expectations’ or ‘Sweet Lady Jane’ — a slow, check to cheek song anyway, when I noticed activity a little away from me. Tires was standing on a beer barrel with a black cable, which was strung with colored bulbs. Soon a string of flashing lights ran across the top of the stage, with a huge Christmas Star shimmering in the middle. We went into another orbit.

Whoever was ‘doing’ the lights — switching then on and off — couldn’t keep time to the music, and Drummer Hill got pissed off by the distraction. But it’s hard to tell a roadie anything. Eventually the light switch burned out and everything returned to normal on stage. Johnny Rockett sang a Doors’ number and the drummer did “Sunny Afternoon,” by the Kinks. We were back in the groove.

Just as I twanged the opening of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” the light show began again. It was horribly out of time, and I shouted at the roadie to stop. No good. When Aughty did a searing sax solo, I smelled electrical discharge and looked around. I saw a spray of sparks coming from behind the stage, like there was welding going on. Everyone else seemed oblivious, as if it was part of the show. Aughty stood on one leg like a yogi, eyes closed and he blew his heart out. Suddenly there was a boom, total darkness and a little sizzle. Then confusion.

The audience began foot stamping and shouting, “We want more! We want more!”

But there was nothing we could do. It was an emergency beyond the band’s control. A man from the Festival Committee appeared in a hurry with a long silver flash light and announced that the gig was over and told everyone to go home. Two cops arrived and shouted “Home! Home!” Then Fr. Hannon and Fr. Easton rushed into the tent with flashlights, and escorted the audience outside. The Committee man fecked us out of it, said we couldn’t play for nuts and our shit had blown the town’s electrical transformer. We had plunged Ennistymon into darkness. He was drunk, and Aughty told him to shag off before he banjaxed him. Fr. Easton passed me twenty quid and sighed ‘thanks’. Then we were left to ourselves in the dark, until Aughty produced a candle from his sax case.

While the gear was being packed away, we finished the beer and smoked a few spliffs. Aughty decreed that we, The Reflections, did NOT blow the town transformer, per se, BUT we may have conspired the circumstances for such an event to take place. He said it MAY have been written in the planets, and that strange stuff could, and DID happen when great music was being played. He reminded us that the crème de la crème were playing in the town that night: the venerable Kilfenora Ceili Band, and us, The Reflections. Timidly, one of the roadies suggested that he might have helped the situation along, because he recalled something going wrong while he tipped two naked electric wires together, to the beat of Revolution.
“Anything is possible,” Aughty conceeded, “Strange things are done in the midnight sun, by the men who mine for gold. Sheo! Sheo!”
I knew we were not far from launch time.

We left the marquee and strolled up the road to the square. The town was in beautiful blue darkness, and night was happy to see us. There were stars in the July sky and candles in every pub. The Kilfenora Ceili Band played on without amplification, warriors that they were. Dancers did sets in the dark and battered sparks from the road stone. It was magical to hear the rousing cheers from the town when the band changed tune, like someone had scored a goal. And they had. We stood listening to the jigs and reels, tapping and shuffling our feet as good as the rest of them. A few West Clare girls who had been to our gig, dragged us out for a set. From Bob Dylan to ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’, in no time at all. That was Clare in those days. Music had no boundaries. We were all tuned in, in some inexplicable way.

The Kilfenora Ceili Band

(courtesy of Clare County Library)

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