“Would all foot passengers please prepare for disembarkation. Disembarkation will begin in a few minutes”
Our ferry boat was bobbing in the port of Holyhead and apart from the staff, we were the last ones still onboard.
Alicia was travelling separately, on her way to Belfast to try and visit a friend in hospital but Isaac and I were about to step on british soil for the first time in twelve days.
This morning already seemed far away and I wished for a good hot Irish breakfast in my stomach.
Isaac slowly put down his cello and suitcase again, there had been a lot of waiting and hauling around. “It’s been one helluva trip” he sighed.
“Next time, we are hiring a car” I said as I gently rubbed the new sticker on my guitar case. I had picked it up in Galway and it depicted a blue and yellow boat, called a Galway hooker: the emblem for the town.
Galway is where Alicia and I first met and it felt good to be back on that same street, singing like we were that day in March. The small tourist town had once again treated us very well indeed and we had managed to squeeze in a photo/video shoot in Barna woods, just outside the town with my friend Joni Nelson, as well as a few decent busking sessions and two live concerts, the last of which was in the upstairs room of The Roisin Dubh (ronounced: roe-sheen-dove)
We had tuned our instruments and stowed them behind the red velvet curtain at the back of the stage. The room was filling up and the lighting was low when Johnny Irvine (Of the Galway street club) sat down.
Johnny is a short fella with fiery red hair and beard and veins that pop when he shouts and man can he roar.
When he strums his resonator guitar, it’s almost as if it will bend and break, when he stomps his foot, the whole room shakes and when he sings, it’s with a hell-bound growl as if he’s trying to ‘spit at the devil himself and laugh in his face’ (in Johnny’s own lyrics).
Steven Sharpe was doing an excellent job on sound.
We pulled a quick shuffle around on the small stage.
The audience was close, listening.
Our set list was loose with some audience participation.
We played for hours.
In the back I could hear the husky croons of Johnny and some of the other singers in the Galway Street Club as they sang along to our encore. A great audience makes for a magical show and they had been more than great.
Galway had sent us away with the sound of fiddles in our ears and the loose change jangling in our pockets.
Hearts beating fast, like the Corrib river.
“I think I miss Lichfield” I said to Isaac as the ferry workers in uniform started to sweep up around us. The words sounded unconvincing as they came out of my mouth.
“I miss Cork” was Isaac’s reply.
Our first gig was of the whole tour was in the City of Cork at a place called Sin é (pronounced: ‘shin-eh’)
I had played solo there one year ago and the Landlady, Hillary, had been very gracious and accomodating when I told her about our band.
We passed the big steel sign that said ‘Cork Harbour’ and walked our stuff into the centre of town. In a bar named the Oliver Plunkett, we waited for Hank Wedel to show up.
None of us had ever met Hank, however, we had a few friends in common and after Alicia had reached out to him online, he offered to meet and show us around. We knew he played in Cork and New York and we had really dug his music but really, we had no idea what we were in for.
Hank was running late, I was restless so I got up to do some busking. On my way out of the pub, I stopped to peer at the photos that covered the wall.
Depicted in almost every one, on stage, rubbing shoulders with Rory Gallagher was a familiar stocky bloke with white hair and a guitar.
It was Hank.
I had played two songs on the corner of the high street when Isaac came strolling over to tell me Hank had arrived.
“Hi” a smile and a warm handshake.
He talked with a soft accent, an even blend of American and Irish. He talked about Cork and about the bars in town, about his wife and his parents, about New York and Queens. We talked about the music industry and about the challenges that an artist faces when trying to make a living out of their passion.
We walked to his car, the red passenger door had been replaced with a black one. “I see a red door and I want to paint it black” he said with a grin.
“We’ll take you to John’s place”.
John’s house was empty but the TV was on, playing a game of Gaelic football.
(If you have never seen Gaelic football then I advise you to check it out, it’s like football, rugby, basketball and boxing, all rolled into one.)
We put our bags down and Hank made us tea.
It was time to go.
“I’ll take you to Sin é now”
Sin é is a traditional venue with a good reputation, two floors of seating and as well as having a bunch of music loving locals, it attracts many a tourist.
The stage is under a staircase and resembles harry potter’s bedroom.
The three of us squeezed into the tiny space and after sound check, we began to play.
The audience was almost on top of us in the dark bar room and they were right there in the heart of every song, nodding at the lyrics, swaying to the melodies and raucously applauding us at the end of each number.
We played late into the night and then started walking back to John’s house.
John is the kind of guy you feel like you have known your whole life, yet he somehow manages to constantly surprise you.
He is warm and hilarious and has a truly awesome Cork accent.
“I’m going to show you my favourite tree” He said on our way home and pointed to a plant that looked like a small bush by the side of the road.
“That’s been my favourite tree for a long time now and then they went and cut it down…” He had written a letter to the council about it. “I said to them: all that tree wanted to do was to live and you took that one thing away. But the fucker just won’t give up. It keeps on going.” He laughed with a husky bounce that was both infectious and a little concerning. “I’ve known Hank since he moved here when we were boys, ‘Hank the Yank’ we called him. He used to play rugby, then started playing music you know and we ended being friends.” John paused to take a long drag on his cigarette. “I got something to show you now”.
If you had told me we were going to watch a three hour nature documentary about the west coast of Ireland right there and then at 3am in the morning, then I wouldn’t have believed you.
But we did.
And it was magnificent.
The wildlife and natural beauty that this small country has to offer is staggering and the documentary had us all in a trance until the sun came up.
The next day, Hank had sent out the invitation to a few other people who had turned up with instruments. Illuminated by the low afternoon sun, we all sat around the table in a pub called Charlie's and passed songs around as the crowd applauded and looked over at the circle of musicians with appreciation and empathy in their eyes. From the wall above us, a painting of Rory Gallagher looked off into the distance.
On our last night in town, Hank had a show with his Rock and Roll band at Charlies and he invited us to play a few songs to open the night.
We sang and danced and listened and embraced until it was time again to wander back to Johns for our final rest in Cork before we took the coach back to Dublin.
Cork’s influence on us was great and we will certainly be heading back there in the future. Hank was more help than we could have asked for and it feels that we have made a true friend in him and the others that he introduced us to.
When it came to saying goodbye, he gave each of us a 45 single he recorded with the band ‘Princes Street’ as a farewell gift before we boarded our coach back to dublin.
I turned the record over in my hands and peered at the text on the back.
‘Recorded in 1989’ the year I was born.
“Execuse me sir, you can go this way now” One of the clean up team had beckoned me towards a starcase marked ‘EXIT’.
Isaac and I walked from the ferry terminal up a hill to where the van was parked. We drove back to Lichfield, along the coast past Bangor and Colwyn Bay and eventually through Stoke on Trent with the sunset biting at our heels and the full moon heavy and huge on the horizon all the way home.
I thought about Alicia, had she already arrived in Belfast?
We had all spent last night playing our final show in Dublin, and Alicia’s Canadian friend, Legs, had put us up for the night but I wasn’t sure when exactly we would see Alicia again…
(Over to you, Alicia)
I have often explained that emotions are deeper in Ireland.
That my first trip to Ireland was ‘an entire lifetime’ I experienced love and loss and everything in between.
I had grown.
I met Robert in Galway, and here we are still exploring and creating music together.
I connected and reconnected with people from different walks of life, and this trip was no different.
If anything, this trip dug deeper still. See, I met Legs at a punk show in St. Louis MO maybe four years ago, they had on short overalls and (as the british would say) a “bum bag”…and as fate would have it, so did I.
They have leg tattoos, I have legs tattoos.
We both had kinda messy dyed blond hair.
Oh yeah, and we’re both right around six feet tall.
It may come to no surprise that we were mistaken for each other from the back, there is a photo, somewhere, to prove it.
By the end of that night I was singing a Murder Ballad to Legs on the curbstone at about 3am.
Since that night we’ve kept in touch via Facebook and Legs was a superhero in setting us up with the gig at The Hut! After a year and some change in Dublin I could tell that the irish-isms had made their way into Leg’s vernacular, it was great to see them walk into the sun soaked upstairs room at The Hut and grin a familiar grin, and greater yet to hear them ask “What’s the craic?” and bring me a Guinness (as if it was a given that I’d want one) as we set up for our line check. Eofa (pronounced Ee-fah, of course) was running our sound, she had a good ear and was excited to run a more nuanced and mellow show than the punk gigs she usually puts on in that space.
“It’s nice to have a bit of a change” she said as we finished our sound check, “you guys are sound.” I couldn’t help but mutter a pun: “No, you’re sound, man!” but l think it might have been lost in the arrival of The Vulture Collective (or at least a portion of The Vulture Collective) there were squeals and hugs hello, I could already see how strong the community was.
People started to arrive and fill the space, sitting around the short tables and in front on the floor and up on the unused bar in the back.
Linda’s Parent’s (Hugh and Adrienne) and a family friend of their’s showed up and sat around a small table in the front, it was great to see them again, and they even sang along to the songs from the EP during our set!
It was a beautiful evening of music and community, The Vulture Collective was jazzy, Garreth (the guitar player) made up for the missing trumpet player with soulful solos on his mouth trumpet, and Ruth’s voice rang out sweetly delivering originals and old songs alike with a clear yet humble tambour that gave me chills at least twice! They were followed by Sam who sang in three different languages, originals and covers (including one cover he had translated from Portuguese to French!) When Sam was done and Legs was gearing up for their set I could feel a little buzz in the room, I could tell that some people had come especially to hear Legs’ original solo stuff, and they were not disappointed! I was transported by the story telling and honesty in Legs’ music. I was reminded of how much I love that place in music where punk and folk collide!
We were up after Legs and we gave it our all.
The energy in the room was great, it had been great all evening, and I, for one, wanted to savor our last show in Ireland.
I was tired by the end of the gig, but at the same time I was up for anything, so when Legs suggested that we go to the studio space for some cans and after hours craic, I was all in!
We walked the three or so blocks over to the rehearsal space - an old Do Jo turned punk paradise.
Posters plastered the walls, familiar political slogans and mantras scattered about.
The music and conversation flowed as easily as the cans of Guinness.
It was so nice to be enveloped by a new community, welcomed with open arms.
We tumbled into borrowed beds filled to bursting with the generosity of Leg’s and the folks who had made the evening so perfect.
“Brunch burgers!” was the wakeup call from the hall in the morning, I wash’t sure exactly what a brunch burger was, but my stomach didn’t care as long as it was greasy.
Robert and I followed Legs down the block to a place called 'Bang Bang' where we had a delicious mid-morning meal of eggs, bacon, tomato, avocado and garlic mayo all on a brioche.
They even had hot sauce to sooth my southern soul.
The three of us had our long day of travel ahead of us.
We hugged Legs’ and their housemates goodbye (everyone was exceptionally good at hugging, and man did I need the hugs!) and went to catch the bus into the City Center. ...
When I knew we were going to tour in Ireland I had reached out to my dear friend Connor Browne, I had stayed with Connor several times up in Bangor (a short train ride from Belfast) and I had thrived off our clever conversation and the museums we had gone to and long walks we had gone to - and quality live music at the pubs! Two months ago when I was talking with Connor he said he might be able to set us up a little gig, we could all come and crash in his living room, and my heart soared knowing I would reconnect with this kindred spirit!
I had started writing Connor a song last summer, and picked it up again when we were talking about the visit, I had this idea that Connor would sing along to the song, or maybe it would be a duet
(I had heard that Connor was a great singer, but he had been too shy to sing for me, and fair enough, because I had been to self-conscious to play my fiddle for him, it had only been a few weeks into rediscovering the fiddle when I’d stayed with him, and I wasn’t confident in playing solo…)
I worked and reworked the song but it still wasn’t where I wanted it to be.
I got a message last month from a mutual friend of ours.
Connor had been taken into the hospital and was "gravely ill”.
I sent him an encouraging message, having no idea that he was in a coma, and I set to working on the song some more, it still wasn’t where I wanted it to be.
A week ago his father informed me that “the Doctors can do nothing more for him” and that they were taking him off life support after 33 days. "It’s a matter of days or weeks, but it’s death.” He said.
I asked if I could see him to say goodbye, but his father said that only family could see him and that I should “remember him how he was” he sent me a picture of Connor smiling and waving. I kept collapsing into tears. Disbelief and grief taking turns.
I took the trip up to Bangor anyways.
I went to say my goodbye.
Even if it wasn’t going to be face to face, it made sense to be there, to go back to the places he had shown me.
It was the same waitress at the restaurant down by the bay. Something about that was comforting.
I played my fiddle for him in the tall walled garden: an improvisation that I hope to turn into a tune for him, or maybe it is the song I’ve been trying to write.
I worked on the song again, it still isn’t where I wanted it to be.
I wrote him a poem:
The afternoon sun glints the same off the tile detail on the corner pub
If I close my eyes I can see you telling me “I know you will wander, but you are always welcome here, you can always come back”
And you weren’t lying but it was only part true …
The train can still take me to the end of the line
I can still walk through the garden
The eucalyptus trees look the same but I can’t ride the ferris wheel you were going to take me on down by the docks because neither it nor you are here
If I close my eyes I can see you Smiling in the afternoon sun telling me not goodbye but “see you next time”
And I am not ready
I am not ready for the sun to set
On this perfect day