A Story for Our Time: Musical Routes

Even Jesus only spent forty days alone in the wilderness

We didn’t mean to go to sea. It is a new year, or at least I think it is, it’s so hard to tell. One minute it was 2020 and the next 2021, a sort of arbitrary moment occurred and suddenly the past is set aside and we look forward to a new load of, of, of what exactly? What can we expect? What can we plan? It’s all so weird, I wonder is there any point in making plans that may never come to fruition? Actually that’s silly; there is always a chance that plans won’t come to fruition.

Anyway it might not be the New Year, I could have got my calculations wrong, and out here there is nobody to ask, no parties, no raucous emotional singing, no fireworks, nothing. If I were a different person I’d tell you now about some wonderful, magical new year’s event from my unconventional past, but I can’t because there isn’t one. New year has always been a sort of non-event for me, I have never been able to understand how a date that seems so randomly chosen can represent anything really significant. If we were celebrating the end of Winter and the start of Spring, a time full of hope, I could get on board. But a weird date constructed by people in the middle of winter to represent a new start just doesn’t inspire me. The only New Year I can actually remember is one when I was a child and my mum let me stay up and drink a tiny bit of champagne with her at midnight, I expect that stayed with me because it was fun with my mum and not because it was a Happy New Year.

I remember stories about people who dedicated their lives to solitude and spent fifty years living alone in a cave or in the bottom of a deep hole (that could be a false Monty Python memory though). They must have been so bored. After you have done everything and there is nothing left to do and nobody to talk to or to be inspired by it is nothing but boring and lonely.

I am officially bored and lonely. I don’t even care that I’m missing the point about taking a vow of solitude, maybe that is because I didn’t take one! Even Jesus only spent forty days alone in the wilderness, and after that even the devil was so bored that he gave up trying to tempt Jesus and went home, and Jesus decided that he’d been out there long enough. (By the way I’m not religious, I just included this story about Jesus because most people know the story, and I found it amusing).

Anyway Jesus wasn’t exactly alone was he, he had the devil there to entertain him and he was super busy resisting temptation. That’s what I need, a bit of temptation to keep me on my toes. I’m not having much trouble, or any at all, resisting the temptation of swimming in a frozen ocean, and seeing as there is nowt else to do round here, again I am at a loss.  I could write a story. I’d call it where is the devil when you need him? Perhaps that would be tempting fate a little too much, and I have had more than my fair share of drama. Although I suppose it is all relative.

I was twiddling my thumbs and wondering what to do when I noticed that the ends of my fingers on my right hand have gone flat with thick patches of hard skin, this skin is so tough that when I tap it on a hard surface it makes a really loud thunk! This is from playing the guitar, I usually play for about two hours a day while my children fall asleep, sometimes I almost fall asleep too, and this way I have achieved what I desired many years ago, to be able to play with my eyes shut.

I remember when I first played music with other people, I think I was about sixteen or seventeen, and I played penny whistle outside on a traveller site around a fire. I was pretty rubbish, but could hold a tune. I’m not one of those musicians who was a child genius or even learned as a child (even though I would have loved to have been) since babyhood I always sang a lot (but I still feel that singing is somehow different to playing an instrument, more natural, perhaps innate and therefore seems less skilled although I’m sure there are many who would disagree with me). I don’t know when my passion for music began, but it was in childhood, music always seemed to me to be the best reason, if not the only real reason to be on planet earth. I cannot imagine life without it. During my times of deepest depression I have stopped making music and then something would always make me do it and I would feel a giant wave of relief sweeping over me, a great ‘Of Course’ and a ‘How could I have gone so long without it?’ and I would remember that my life makes sense with music.

Musically I would say that I have got where I am today through determination and hard work, I wouldn’t say that I am a natural, or gifted and when others have said it I have always felt a bit unseen and irked, gifted to me sounds as if one has had it handed to them on a plate, which musically I certainly have not. Gifted I suppose is intended as a compliment perhaps, but I have never been much good at spotting praise.

At first around the fire I only knew a few tunes, but then I hitch hiked to Ireland, to Galway and learned a few more!

I lived in a van on a traveller site on a spit of land that went right into the sea near Oranmore. To begin with there were only about fifteen of us living there, and together with one of my greatest friends, I set about learning as many tunes and songs as I could. We played music together pretty much every night, interspersed with a few backgammon nights. One of my fondest memories is of us all squeezing into Abi’s bus to laugh, drink, sing and play until dawn and then to stagger exhausted and happy back across the field to bed in my tiny home.

The next morning I would get up and start practising the tunes and songs I had learned and played the night before, I wanted more than anything to be really ‘good’ at music, specifically folk music, which has and probably always will be my favourite music. Folk music speaks to my heart on so many levels, it connects me with the past, with the ancestors, it carries great stories of so many kinds and the tunes dance their way deep into my soul.

I was always disappointed if nobody was up for playing music in the evening, although it was a fairly rare occurrence around Galway. I often hitch hiked into town and got my musical fix at the sessions in the pubs or through busking. I didn’t earn much, just enough for dinner and a few hot rum and blackcurrants in Monroe’s, but I was content.

It bothers me that memories from a particular time and place seem to merge into one, I can only distinguish separate music playing memories by their settings, or perhaps by the people who were there. One thing that I loved about living on traveller sites was that there was rarely a shortage of musicians, and most were the type who could adapt to playing any music. That is one major appeal about folk music for me is that anyone with a mind to can join in, the music is generally fairly simple, it has a definite structure and tunes repeat a lot so they can be picked up even if you don’t know them. Later in life I discovered that when not at sea I still meet people today who know the same traditional tunes I learned in my late teens, those tunes are still relevant, they are fun to play and they continue to speak to my heart. We may know different variations but we share something without even needing to make a connection through speech or body language; something that I love deeply: Music!  

Claddagh Quay Galway photo by Chan Hyuk Moon on Unsplash

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