I read the news today, oh boy, and learned that Georgie Byrt had died. It put me thinking about my musical journey and the musicians I played with, back in West Clare during the 60’s and 70’s. Piano player and taxi man, Georgie was from my hometown of Ennistymon and the first time I ever played on stage, it was with Georgie and Mickey Hogan’s Dance Band. I was fifteen and scared and excited as if I was going on my first date.
Mickey Hogan had invited me to his house a week or so beforehand, and I figured it was just to play a few tunes; he played the fiddle and tenor sax and had the reputation of being a maestro. I brought my electric guitar and amp and we played for an hour or two — tunes and songs that my parent’s generation danced to.
After the session, his wife served us tea and plain biscuits, and we chatted. It turns out Mickey was checking my musicianship, and asked if I was free to play at an upcoming wedding with his band. I said yes, yes of course. We shook hands and his wife said that a musician would always find a wife. She told how she fell in love with Mickey when she danced to his music, forty years beforehand.
“It was the uniform that got me,” she said, “Mickey had a beautiful band uniform, snow-white with gold buttons and I was smitten.”
At the wedding, Mickey wore a red tunic with gold buttons and the rest of us wore blue blazers, which he supplied. Mine was oversized, and I had to turn up the cuffs so I could play the guitar. I forget who the other band members were apart from Georgie, who told me to stand near him. When Mickey announced the next number, George would whisper to me, something like: “Key of G and there’s an E minor in the second part.” That’s how the evening went. The band blasting out tunes and songs, and Georgie telling me the keys and the chords. Georgie was a gentleman, may he rest in peace.
For a town as small as Ennistymon, there were more musicians than houses. Fiddlers, drummers, piano players, accordionists, sax players, trumpet blowers, guitarists, flute and whistle blowers — you name it, we had it. Some musicians had regular gigs with bands like the Tulla Ceili Band and the Kilfenora; others were hired hands and could flit from trad to country to old-time, jazz to soft pop. We were crossover musicians, guns for hire and in spite of my father’s disapproval, I was sneaking out and playing with some outfit most weekends. School took a back seat and I used fall asleep at class on Mondays. Eventually it was too much for my parents and they decided to pack me off to boarding school in Galway, telling me to ‘mind the books and forget about the music for the time being.’ Of course I didn’t, both parents came from musical families and music was in my blood.
A few weeks before I left for boarding school, I was invited to join a ‘pop’ band in Miltown Malbay, a few miles down the coast from Ennistymon. It was Fintan Malone’s band and called The Merchants. Another Miltown guy — Alsie Clancy was the singer, Malone played lead guitar and Willie Healy, a friend from Ennistymon played drums. We had no bass, but it didn’t occur to us that was odd, as we rehearsed Kinks, Beatles and Rolling Stones songs in Malone’s Markethouse. We were rebels, playing rock and roll in the sacred shrine of Irish traditional music. In shop doorways around the street, local teenagers listened to us rehearse, and when we had a few dozen numbers together, we did our first gig.
That was on a Sunday afternoon and called a ‘hop’, something less serious than a night gig, which might have freaked parents and Fr. Kelly. The gig went well, even though we fluffed a few numbers. I made a shambles of a Kink’s song ‘Tired of Waiting’ and Malone cracked up laughing and the drummer lost time. Alsie took a song in the wrong key and we couldn’t find where he was until the second verse. It must have sounded woeful, but the Miltown crowd was loyal and clapped rather than booed. Afterwards, Mrs. Malone had dinner ready for us, and excited as Oscar winners, we plotted our course to the top of the charts. We also decided to let our hair grow long.
The following summer, we were a tight outfit. Willie Healy got a job in Dublin and our new drummer was my good friend Jimmy Hill. We practiced a few of times a week, Jimmy and myself hitching to Miltown, often staying the night in Malone’s house.
Every Sunday night we did a gig in the Markethouse and it was always crammed. We did a mixture of pop and rock, dressed in mod gear, inspired by Limerick band, Granny’s Intentions. In West Clare we were hotshots, an up and coming young band which priests were wary of. Getting gigs in parochial halls was tough work and a lot of padres turned us away from their doors. But we got other breaks — playing support to top band in ballrooms around the county. For those gigs, we had a roadie-cum-driver called Christy Body, who had a sister called Annie.
People in West Clare still talk about The Merchant’s gigs, and hindsight makes the band appear a lot better than we were. One night, a group of Girl Guides from Limerick who were at camp in Spanish Point came to our gig and screamed every time we played a number from the charts. It was like we were the Beatles, the way they crowded around the stage, beaming and waving at us. The local girls were a bit miffed and there were a couple of cat-fights. When I began ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ the place went gaga, and I struggled with stage fright until Malone joined in the chorus.
Since I was a toddler, I spent the summers with my grandmother and grandfather — Susan and Tommy O’Sullivan — in Lahinch. Grandma played fiddle and concertina and tried her best to get me interested in traditional music. She played tunes every night of her life and my grandfather tapped a box of matches for percussion. She used finish the session with a reel called ‘My Love is in America,’ but granda didn’t tap for that one. Many years later she told me she had fallen in love in America in 1922, when she was on the run from the Black and Tans at home. Grandma never forgot the cop from Cork who arrested her for picking flowers in Central Park, on her first Sunday in New York. He let her go and asked her for a date. She fell in love, came home to do her duty in the Civil War and never went back to New York. I’d say she went to bed thinking of him every night, after playing that tune. She called my guitar ‘the yaw-yaw’, inspired by the Beatles ‘She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.’ She rooted out an old mandolin she brought back from America and encouraged me to learn it, but my head was with the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones.
And then I was struck on the Road to Damascus…or rather the road to Miltown. It was in the month of August, when Miltown hosted the ‘Darling Girl from Clare Festival.’ Every night there were big crowds in town and we were gigging heavy, we had groupies and girlfriends and were waiting for our big break. I hitched from Lahinch with my guitar and got a ride to Spanish Point crossroads, about a mile from Miltown. It was late afternoon, warm lazy weather that brings out the best of West Clare. I walked towards town, in the distance I could hear music playing from the speakers mounted on telegraph poles, ceili bands, flutes, pipes, fiddles. This used be the fashion, to ‘warm the town’ and invoke a festive feeling. Paddy Flynn was the local DJ and PA expert. I wasn’t paying much heed to the music, probably thinking of the girl I would meet after the gig, a good-looking chick called Bríd, who wrote love poems and gave me one every night we met. The old railway station was on the outskirts of the town and here was the first telephone pole which had a speaker. As I was approaching it, Paddy Flynn put on a record that I hadn’t heard before. It began with harmonica, guitar, mandolin and maybe another instrument. Then a guy began singing and the first words brought me to a standstill.
‘Sullivan’s John to the road you’ve gone,
Far away from your native home…’
The hair stood on the back of my neck. I leaned against a stonewall and listened, not with my ears as much as with my heart. Something came over me and I’ll never forget those few minutes. I remember thinking, ‘who is that?’ Then Paddy Flynn played a tune I knew — The Exiles Jig— by the same group. I’d never heard traditional Irish music played like that, with counter melody and harmonies weaving around the tune. It was Sweeny’s Men — Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and Terry Woods — musicians who I would become friends with a few years later. Traditional Irish music suddenly became relevant to me, after listening to it for well over a decade.
I don’t recall how our gig went that night, or if I got a love poem from the girlfriend. The following day I took out the mandolin grandma had brought back from New York and asked her to teach me The Exiles Jig. I remember her blessing herself and saying,
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what has come over you?”
She got the fiddle and we sat in the kitchen while bread baked in the oven. She showed me how to tune the mandolin and then played The Exile’s Jig until I got it. Then she taught me Banish Misfortune, Patcheen Flanagan’s Jig and Hardiman the Fiddler. Local tunes which rose easily from my genetic memory. Later I went up to the attic and practiced on my own.
That night when she took down the fiddle, we played my new tunes and granda tapped the box of matches. I vamped along and picked a note here and there when she played her own selection. As she drew the notes at the beginning of ‘My Love is in America’, granda put the box of matches in his pocket. And for the first time, I felt the wistful longing and loneliness she channeled into that tune. I had finally arrived at the Well.
All Clare images courtesy of Clare County Library