God, I love Ireland. And I don’t think it’s just because I have an emotional and historical connection to the country. I think if I was from Kazakhstan, Tahiti or the Central African Republic, I would still fall in love with Ireland – its landscape, its people and its culture.
So it was with a wistful smile that I headed off to Stansted Airport in Essex with the request of Oh Mercy Records label boss Pete Thompson ringing in my ears: “Why don’t you go over to Ireland and film a video for the new EP Restless Celtic Heart?”
As it happens, my nephew, Sam, runs a media company; he and his business partner were easily talked in to a long weekend traversing Erin’s sacred isle. Was it the culture, the landscape or the history that drew them over the Irish Sea? “I hear the Guinness tastes so much better over here,” said producer Alex, as we drove into Dublin city centre. We had barely checked in before I was whisked off to the first pub we could find. It just so happened to be Mother Reilly’s – the bar I was playing in that evening.
That first pint did taste bloody good. Actually, so did the second and the third. I realised that I was going to have to be the sensible one on this trip – which was a new departure for me. I insisted we eat and freshen up before the show. We all ate but I was the only one to return to the hotel; the other two decided they could wait no longer to try out the 18-year-old whisky they had spotted earlier in the bar.
The gig went well. My songs were well-received, particularly Restless Celtic Heart. The song is a personal celebration of all the Irish who have left home to travel the world. It alludes to events in history which the mere mention of (and I didn’t realise this when I wrote the song) would cause such a swell of patriotism when played to an Irish audience.
Sam captured my performance to use in the video, as well as lots of shots of me drinking and chatting with other performers on the bill. Our first evening in Ireland ended sometime around 1.30am
The next morning, we headed into the city centre’s Temple Bar district and filmed me performing the song to an audio track. Faced with bemused stares from passers-by, I had to put any inhibitions I had to one side and just go for it. It was actually a lot of fun. Unfortunately, rain stopped play and we had to take refuge in a bar. Where there was Guinness.
Suitably refreshed, we braced the cold weather and filmed me walking along the banks of the River Liffey and over the iconic Harp Bridge. We ended up in the grounds of Trinity College, whereupon a rain of biblical proportions forced us to find shelter – in a nearby pub. Where there was Guinness.
Sometime later, we headed west for the town of Nenagh in County Tipperary (and yes, it was a long way). I was hoping to hook up with Damian, whom I knew years ago when he was a barman at an Irish pub in Ipswich.
At Clare St B&B we were welcomed by James and his wife Bernie who cemented their bid to win the award for ‘Best B&B in Ireland’ with tea and biscuits on arrival, and when James heard we were planning a visit to Figgerty’s (Damian’s pub) insisting on driving us there.
It was great to catch up with Damian; the Guinness flowed and the craic followed shortly after. We got talking with two female London black cab drivers visiting the area (Alex ruefully remarked “We could have done this in Fulham and saved ourselves a lot of time and effort”). Once the guitar came out, the locals joined in the fun. Once again Restless Celtic Heart was given the thumbs up. At 2.30am Damian called a taxi for us but not before offering me a gig in the summer.
Next morning, we sampled our first fried breakfast before heading off to the rugged west coast known as the Wild Atlantic Way. We stopped to film at the stunning Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Ignoring warning signs concerning the precariousness of the cliff edge, Sam set up the camera close to the edge and asked me to stand even closer to the edge. I played along to the track. The second take was interrupted when a sudden gust of wind threatened to send my guitar case off into the cold Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, my heroic body-dive onto the fast-moving case while masterfully holding my Martin acoustic up out of harm’s way – was just out of shot and won’t make the final cut! Take three was curtailed when the expected precipitation arrived, er, unexpectedly.
We took refuge in a café in the small enclave of Doolin. Just after we ordered food, the rain stopped and the sun shone. “Can we get that to go?”
Once we felt we had enough stunning backdrops of cliffs, coastlines and castles we headed for the town of Castlebar in County Mayo.
Sam and Alex couldn’t wait to head into the town centre and sample the hustle and bustle of a Saturday night in rural Ireland. The first bar we came across was called the Irish House. It’ll be great craic we told ourselves. The bar was empty. It seems the whole town was at a nearby GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) match between Mayo and Dublin. If you forced me to describe to those who are not familiar with GAA how it is played, I would probably say, it’s as if a football team – ‘soccer’ for my US readers – and a rugby team turned up on the same pitch and decided they’d give it a go, anyway. We watched on a large TV screen and tried to figure out the rules of the game. The more Guinness we drank, the more it seemed to make sense.
Within minutes of the final whistle being blown, the pub filled up with people who had been at the game (they were the ones soaked or suffering from mild hypothermia). Whether they were supporters of Mayo or Dublin it did not matter – they were up for the craic. I had been joined by my young cousin Doreen who lives and works in Castlebar whom I hadn’t seen in years. Doreen is a lovely, friendly young woman; she chatted away with Sam and Alex like they were old friends. This took the lads a little by surprise and they bathed in the warmth this charming colleen brought to the proceedings. The fact that Doreen is drop-dead gorgeous didn’t hinder the situation, either.
I would have been quite happy to sit and chat all night but Alex was on a mission. He wanted a sing-song. He asked the landlord if he would turn off the juke-box and would he mind if his friend got his guitar out and sang some songs. “Alright, no bother,” came the reply. I perched on a stool and sang my heart out. The Dubliners (that’s the people who were from Dublin – not the band) were quick to come over and join in. When their self-appointed leader, Tom, heard the words to Restless Celtic Heart, he cajoled his friends over to our corner of the bar and made me sing it again. “Isn’t that feckin’ great?” he asked of no-one in particular. His friends nodded their agreement. Each and every one of them bought me a pint of Guinness. I was starting to think that song royalties in Ireland might be paid in the black stuff.
Next morning (after another fry-up) we headed further into Mayo. Both Sam and Alex are seasoned world travellers so it was with great relish and pride that I enjoyed their vocal appreciation of the scenic Mayo countryside. I always have an emotional response whenever I’m home.
Why home? I didn’t visit Ireland until I was an adult. It was something of an epiphany. So many things from my childhood suddenly made sense; among them were sayings, attitudes and humour. It was like a missing piece from the jigsaw puzzle of my DNA was slotted into place and I found out who I was. Someone asked me on that visit, “how long are ye home for?” It took me a moment to realise that the ‘home’ being talked about was Ireland. Yes, I thought, I’m home.
Just before the small town of Bangor Erris, there is a small collection of houses known as Brisca where my father was raised in the 1920s. He had often told stories to me and my siblings of the happy times he spent running wild in the surrounding hills.
Sam filmed me walking past my Dad’s house. I smiled to myself and wondered what the auld fella would make of me making a music video in his home town.
We headed out to the coast, to the town of Dohooma. On arrival we were greeted by my cousin Edmund, brother of Doreen and his mother, May (whom I also refer to as my cousin – one day I will have to work out the exact lineage of our dynasty but for now I just refer to all my Irish relations as cousins). Edmund is the original Irish scallywag; a sharp wit, a wicked sense of humour and a garrulous gift of the gab. My crew of two were once again amazed at the warm welcome and the ability to make strangers feel at ease. Whilst Edmund regaled us with wondrous tales of life in Mayo, May prepared enough food to feed a small army. It is an Irish mother’s mission in life to first fill those around them with tea, sandwiches, biscuits and cake, and then to follow this with a huge meal – normally a roast of some kind.
We left May cooking, and Edmund took us down to Holmes’s pub. I walked into the bar to find myself singing and playing guitar on a huge TV screen. “When we heard ye were coming we thought we’d check you out on YouTube,” said Seamus the barman, cheerfully. “Have ye bought your guitar with ye?” Proper introductions were made and drink was partaken of. We met Michaell the landlord, artist and ex-policeman. His credentials were enthused upon with: “He was the best Garda ever – he never arrested anyone!”
We also met the legend that is Pat. The fittest 70-year-old you will ever meet. He tried to convince us that he designed the local golf course and had caught the huge fish that hung over the pub fireplace. The golf course bit was true. We drank some Guinness.
I promised to return an hour later with my guitar and sing some songs. “I’ll be waiting,” assured Pat.
After a 3 course meal, I decided to put on my diva parts and insist that if I was to be the evening’s entertainment that I be allowed to sleep for half-an-hour. The lads acquiesced and I put my head down. They let me sleep for an hour, bless them.
Time waits for no man but Pat had waited for us. The fact that we were three hours late was not mentioned. Time is different in Ireland.
About another hour later, it was suggested that I pull the guitar from its case and issue in the craic. Pat was an enthusiastic listener with a comprehensive knowledge of popular music from the 1960s and 1970s. I took great delight in having him mention an artist or a song and then being able to play it. Pat, Edmund and Michaell all contributed songs. The latter sang some very old traditional Irish songs and yet all the young people present knew the words and sang along; that the younger generations in Ireland have such a good grasp of their musical history never fails to amaze me.
Sam intimated that he would like to film me playing Restless Celtic Heart so I moved from jukebox mode into independent artist mode. The song got the best response of the weekend, so far. Every time a new group of people entered the bar, I was asked to repeat the song: “Listen to this song, will ye. He wrote it!” It became the most requested song of the night. And it was a long night. Pat left at 2.30am but only because his wife came to take him home. She was good-humoured despite having to get up for work at 7am. Pat had been in the bar for 15 hours and still walked out unaided – what a legend!
At 3.30am I called time. I had no more songs and too much Guinness in me. I do recall being offered a gig there later on in the year. Our leaving did not put a dent in the enthusiasm of the rest of the assembly to carry on the craic.
Our 9am breakfast became a 10am breakfast but May didn’t bat an eyelid. We had plans to visit the beautiful Achill Island but we spent far too long in the company of Edmund, May, and popping in on Pat for a cup of tea. None of which I regret.
The car was dropped off at the tiny airport at Knock. I could see that Sam and Alex were sad to be leaving. These two London boys had lost their hearts to Ireland. By the time we landed in the UK they were already planning a return visit.
I’m always sad to leave Ireland, too. Perhaps I can pop in on my way back from the US later this year. Or is that just my restless Celtic heart talking?
Tony’s new EP Restless Celtic Heart will be released on Oh Mercy! Records and all the usual digital platforms such as itunes etc on Thursday 17th March