There's truth and fiction in this story. My visit to both Irelands last year was a revelation. As always, my thanks to ErikThread for his helpful and expert editing. Any errors are entirely my own.
I was sitting in a bar in Sligo, a town on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. I had just finished another ordinary evening meal. The Irish specialize in ordinary meals, I think. Anyhow, I am savoring a very nice Hennessey's VSOP while the hired singer tunes his acoustic guitar. He had finished setting up his electronic synthesizers to reproduce the necessary background sounds of a five piece band, or something like it. I'm not really paying much attention to him other than to record that he has a passing resemblance to Paul McCartney. He only had a few years to go to catch up to Sir Paul's age.
After a bit he began his set, and I almost fell off my chair. I recognize his opening number as John Prine's The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness. Now, I didn't know if anyone on this side of the Atlantic had ever heard of John Prine. Perhaps his Illegal Smile might have made it this far, but Speed of the Sound is truly obscure. It struck me as more than slightly odd that he would open with it. I knew I was going to have to learn where this bit of inspiration came from. I intended to ask him when he took his first break.
After two numbers, he was accosted by an aging, fat man in a white dress shirt and ridiculously short tie. I thought at first he was making a request, but I was sadly mistaken. He apparently had decided it was Karaoke Night, and he was entitled to ruin a perfectly good performance with his imperfect voice. While he was able to carry a tune, he was unable to maintain a recognizable key. His opening rendition of Danny Boy was painful in the extreme.
I had hoped he would recognize his limitations at that point, but again I was wrong. He launched into an even more off-key version of some little known Irish ballad and butchered it with the same wanton disregard that he had exhibited on the first number. Happily, he ran out of breath about the same time that he ran out of song.
I gazed in wonder at the audience as they applauded him for what they apparently thought was a virtuoso performance. All this time, I had held the belief that the Irish were a nation of song and singing. Famous tenors! World acclaimed groups! Surely they weren't really saluting his talent. It must have been some kindness they bestowed on the old man.
It wasn't long before the now well-lubricated crowd decided it was time for another performance by another local. This one, an Elvis impersonator in his own mind, was handicapped by his inability to remember the lyrics to most of the songs and his inability to find when to enter and exit the melody. It was another disaster and final evidence that the evening was going to hell in a handcart in rapid fashion. I switched my brandy for a Murphy's Stout and hung on for the inevitable conclusion.
I was frozen in place by the sheer dreadfulness of the performances. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I did neither, and that was probably just as well for the crowd was getting a bit rowdy. The last thing I needed was some local taking umbrage at my attitude and deciding to go a few rounds in the traditional Irish fashion.
Finally, the musician that had begun the set gave up and decided on a break. He put down his guitar, and headed for the bar. I got up and walked over to the bar to see if I could talk to him.
"Excuse me," I began. "I was curious about your first song. I didn't ever expect to hear it here."
He turned and looked at me with a weary expression. Then, as he absorbed the question, a knowing smile crossed his face.
"It's not a very well known piece. John Prine wrote it. He's an American, as you probably guessed."
"Yes, I know the piece and I know John Prine. But he's pretty obscure for this part of the world. How did you come to discover him?" I asked.
He thought for a moment and then turned fully around to face me. "Someone gave me a CD of his '70's music. I ignored it and then one day, when I didn't have anything else to do, I played it. I found it fascinating. He had these strangely serious but comic ideas. The topics were serious, but the songs all had this odd sense of humour."
"Do you have any more of his music in your repertoire?" I asked.
"Yes ... a couple of tunes I really like. Unwed Fathers and The Torch Singer. He wrote so many, but only a few fit what I do."
"Well, my compliments. It's unfortunate that you didn't get a chance to perform. The dreaded Karaoke curse fell upon you," I smiled ruefully.
"They're gonna pay me anyway," he said absently. "I guess at my age, I should be grateful." He didn't sound like he was grateful.
"You've got a good voice, handy with the six-string, and some original or at least different music," I suggested. "Maybe there's somewhere else you can perform."
"Yah ... probably is, but Sligo is home, and I'm getting' too old for the road, son." His watery eyes flicked back to the stage and we both noticed a quiet in the crowd. The unsponsored singers had disappeared.
"I'd like to hear Unwed Fathers and maybe Fish and Whistle if you can," I asked.
He smiled at no one in particular and turned back to me. "Are we the only two in Ireland who know this stuff?"
"Probably ... but who gives a shit?" I huffed.
"Yah ... who indeed?" He put down his beer and walked back to the little stage, picking up his guitar as he stepped up. He checked the tuning, closed his eyes for a moment, and then began to play.
If we had been playing "Name that Tune", I would have been able to call out Unwed Fathers by the fourth note. I didn't, of course, but I leaned back on my stool and let the bar support my back. I sipped my Murphy's and listened. He wasn't trying to sound like John Prine, but his voice was clean and clear. It had that unmistakable Indiana-Kentucky cut that was perfect. I don't think he knew how good he was, or maybe if he did, it didn't matter any more.
I made him to be close to mid-fifties and according to the poster behind the stage, his name was Adam Newmoon. I doubted it was his given name, but it was one you could remember easily. That was always handy when you were trying to get noticed. He was lean and in a rough sort of way, handsome, I guess. I imagined the ladies might be drawn to him — the older ones at least. I nursed my stout through the set and waited until he came back to the bar.
"Allow me," I offered.
The bartender knew him well, because he didn't pull a pint, but filled a drinking glass with soda water, and then poured a shot of Jamieson's, sliding them expertly down the bar toward him.
"Cheers," he said softly.
"Cheers. That was a nice set. I liked the mix. You've got a lot of different stuff in your repertoire," I suggested.
"Yah. Comes from bein' in the business for a while," he said simply.
"Off and on ... thirty years." He had turned to me and was looking at me with a wrinkled forehead to match his wrinkled smile.
I stuck out my hand. "Lee North."
"Terry O'Hannrahan," answering the unspoken question.
I looked over at the poster and smiled.
"I'm in disguise," he offered with a grin.
"Works for me," I grinned back.
"I wish it worked better for me," he said wistfully.
"Can you make a steady living at this?"
"Yah ... today I can. For a few more years ... as long as the voice holds out. It wasn't so easy back in the day."
"The Republic was an economic basket case. We had never recovered from the nineteenth century when we either left, or died of starvation. Took us two hundred years to get to here."
I was getting my own personal history lesson. I knew of the Irish Potato Famine, but I never thought of what it had meant to this small, verdant country. Its beauty was obvious, but its history was dark.
"What changed?" I finally asked.
"The E.U.," he said simply. "When Ireland got its economics fixed, it got an invitation to join, and we've never looked back."
"I noticed all the new houses and ... well ... not much sign of poverty. That kind of surprised me," I confessed.
"Where are you from?"
"Canada ... Vancouver," I answered.
"Lovely place. One of my favorite memories," he smiled.
"Oh ... you've been there?"
"Aye. Spent some time in the British Merchant Navy."
"British? Isn't that ... I mean you being Irish?" I stammered.
He looked at me and grinned. "Yah ... not exactly popular at the time. But it was a job where I got to see a goodly part of this planet," he said succinctly.
"What do you do?" he asked after a pause, and a sip of the Jamieson's.
"I'm a writer."
"And what are you writing about?"
"The New Republic ... the new Ireland. It's a tourism thing for a company in Boston," I concluded.
"Ah ... well ... how long have you been here? In Ireland, I mean."
"This is week two. I started in Waterford when I got off the ferry from Wales, and I've been working my way around the island."
"Strange ... not what I expected. I wondered about ... you know ... the 'troubles, '" I confessed.
"Yah ... well ... things are pretty quiet these days. Just hope it stays that way," he mused.
"You get involved?" I asked.
"No ... bloody fools, the lot of them. Killin' each other for reasons that died eighty years ago," he spat.
"Not everyone feels that way, I gather."
He looked at me again with a blank stare, and then turned back to his soda and whiskey. "No ... I suppose not.
"Where are you headed from here?" he asked, brightening up.
"The Giant's Causeway, Londonderry, Belfast," I answered. "I wanted to get a feel for Northern Ireland, too."