To the Waters and the Wild

Spiddal, County Galway

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Photo of The Waterboys, Open East, 2013 by Nick, licensed under Creative Commons

In the winter of 1987-88, Mike Scott was looking for inspiration. His band, the Waterboys,  had started out as a rock band, but fiddler Steve Wickham was bringing a traditional Irish influence on their music. Scott and Wickham wanted to tap into some primeval Celtic spirit for their next project, and so they drove westwards from Dublin.

The full majestic expanse of Galway Bay now opened on our left, while to our right lay a strange, rocky land of hills and ancient stone walls. I began to get goosebumps. The wildness of the land and the light on the bay did something fateful to me and I turned and said to Dunford, with a sudden certainty ‘This is the land of my soul!’

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

They found the perfect place at Spiddal House: the wood-paneled lounge became the control room with the mixing desk, while the dining room was transformed into a recording studio.

The core Waterboys at that stage sounded like the lineup for a joke: an Englishman (Anthony Thistlethwaite), a Scotsman (the aptly-surnamed Scott), a Dubliner (Wickham), and a Northern Irishman (Trevor Hutchinson). Other musicians were drafted in as needed, the huge kitchen table accommodating the rotating bunch. On fine days, the front lawn became a football pitch. In the evenings, the band played sessions with locals in Hughes’ pub.

To avoid cabin fever, the band lived in holiday homes throughout the village. That spring, Mike Scott started each day with a deep breath of clear Atlantic air before hopping on his bike and pedaling to Spiddal House. As he entered the doors, he heard his bandmates playing drums and fiddles. There was no phone or TV in the house, and they kept to a strict timetable. In this atmosphere, the Waterboys produced tracks like When Ye Go Away and A Bang on the Ear.

It was not all magical dreamtime. The cook was a local gay man named Bandy Donovan, and  his unrequited passion for these leather-trousered troubadours finally turned his head. When he got his first wages, he downed several drinks along with his anti-depressant pills and marched on the house with a double-barrelled shotgun. Producer John Dunford tackled him to the ground and broke the loaded gun across his knee. Scott emerged from the recording studio to find Dunford dragging Donovan from the house, the hapless cook asking “should I go in and make the dinner now?”

As we approached the end of the sessions, spring gave way to summer and a spell of gorgeous weather enfolded the west of Ireland. This and the long light evenings impacted on us like a draught of magic and turned us what in older, more innocent times would have been termed fey.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

Perhaps the most ambitious number was a recording of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child. They recruited Scottish musician Colin Blakey of We Free Kings to play the flute. The expected drummer failed to appear, but fortunately Padraig Stevens of the Sawdoctors was in the area. Stevens couldn’t make the drums work with the tune, so he borrowed some little brass bells from the neighbours to evoke the fairy feeling.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

— The Stolen Child, W.B. Yeats (1889)

Scott sang the chorus of The Stolen Child, but he didn’t like the way his voice sounded in the spoken verses. A few months earlier, he’d bought a cassette by local sean-nos singer Tomás Mac Eoin, and now he sent Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite up the coast to Carraroe to persuade the old man to perform on the track.

We went into the studio, the rock ‘n’roller and the sean-nós singer, and sat facing each other across the gulf between our different worlds… When the music started playing I gave Tomás a gentle signal with my hand a split-second in advance of where I imagined each line of the poem falling. And he responded, his giant of a voice rolling out the rich syllables on cue like an old god pouring wine down a mountainside.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

On their penultimate night in Spiddal House, the Waterboys held a jam session until 8am, when the roadies arrived from Galway to haul away the mixing desk and other gear. The next evening a party began in Hughes’ bar and finished up at Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite’s bungalow. At the end of the night, a chorus line of musicians and Spiddal folk smoked reefers and kicked their legs up in a can-can.

The Waterboys’ third album, Fisherman’s Blues, was released that October. Critics were divided, some bemoaning the band’s change of direction, others proclaiming it their best work yet. But the air of Spiddal had done its magic;  Fisherman’s Blues  would be their biggest selling album, and their next tour was a sellout.

The Waterboys themselves would never be the same after the summer of 1988. A young accordionist called Sharon Shannon joined them for a while, but after a disagreement in the direction of the band, she left along with Wickham. Hutchinson eventually became a full-time trad musician, while Thistlethwaite returned to Galway to join The Sawdoctors and raise a family.

By 1993, the Waterboys were no more, although Scott re-recruited Wickham and resurrected the name with new members in 2000. The Spiddal sessions had been so productive that, in 2001, he was able to release a new album (Too Close to Heaven) with the leftover material. The band returned to their favourite Sligo poet as an inspiration for their 10th album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.

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Galway City

By Aisling Keogh

Photo of Galway scene by P.J. McKenna

Nicola put me on the bus that day. Dublin makes me tired, and I was glad at her insistence.

“It’s no trouble,” she said. And she must have said it a half dozen times before I agreed to let her take me. That’s us Irish for you, we say “no” when what we really mean is “That would be great, thank you.”

Whiny air-conditioning, children with twitchy legs kicking the back of my seat, and the pure lack of consideration from the sun — who insisted on shining in a head splittingly bright fashion — meant I could not sleep. But there’s still something about heading west at the end of a day, something about driving towards the light. It makes a soul feel hopeful again.

Soon. I’d be home soon.

And good ol’ Galway, she welcomed me back with a solid two fingers to Dublin’s purposeful stride. Outside Logue’s shoe shop, two young ones were singing alongside a busker with a guitar and a fold out fishing stool. I couldn’t say what they were singing, but it sounded good to me. Even better was the fella who stood in the shadows opposite Eason’s bookstore, his sweet voice ringing out on the chorus — “this years love it better last.” Above his head, seagulls circled, swooped and hovered, waiting to scream him down — while I did my best to capture the setting sun peeking through the gap between Deeley’s Menswear and St. Nicholas’ Church.

While I was on the bus it occurred to me, the best way to get Dublin off me was to do the most Galway thing possible, so I was on my way to McDonaghs for fish and chips. In hindsight, Supermacs on Eyre Square might have been a better bet.

The lad on the counter in McDonaghs looked at me like he was asking something far more important than “what drink?” He handed me my cutlery — actually put it in my hand, instead of leaving it on the counter for me to take — and our fingers touched. The warmth of his skin, and our awkwardness, made me smile.

In among the wooden tables and low stools, and the scraping of wood on tile, an American lady talked in a particularly strident tone about a new acquaintance she had dinner with recently. She talked through her nose and her arse about that other woman, who had “cold parents,” picked “the wrong man” who “left her and took all her money.” Cliche bingo, and I was on the bus. I played along for a short while, then wandered off into old memories, about how important I felt once considered old enough to stay up late and watch “Dallas.” And how happy I was then, in our brown and beige sitting room, drinking tea and eating biscuits with Mam and Dad while my little sister slept in her little pink bed.

I sat in the window while I ate, and sorted passerbys into two categories, “from here” and “not from here.” Yellow trouser suit? Definitely not from here. Fuschia pink garland of fake flowers? Also not from here. Mother of the Bride, I concluded, and an unwilling participant in some hen night shenanigans. Good luck to her.

Hunger sated, I steered for the Spanish Arch, then on across Wolfe Tone Bridge, and feck, the breeze that came down the river fairly bit at my nose and cheeks. I shivered and quickened my pace. Around past The Salthouse, I gave a nod and a wink to Monroe’s, and to Vinnie’s takeaway — some other time, lads! They belong to some other night, and dancing until 3am.

On Dominick Street, some woman stopped me, and asked “Where’s La Tosca?” and I was so lost in my own city, I couldn’t say.

The Sports ground was up-hill all the way from there, a gentle enough incline, and not without its highlights. A hen party stopped in the middle of the street, debating what direction to take, and the doorman on “Taafes” pub called to them and told them “The Kings Head” was two doors down, if that’s what they were looking for? I cracked a smile, he went back to his cup of tea. Galway folk are fierce helpful like that.

It had its lows too. Photos of two young men, unknown to each other, stuck to lampposts,asking passersby “Have you seen this man?” I wished for all I was worth that I had. I was playing at being missing from my life. They were for real. Most likely, the tide would bring them home.

The thought might have crushed me, but a waxing moon, snow white in a deep lavender sky, promised something good. “Hold on,” she whispered, “all will be well.”

I was past the coach station and city hall, when the town suddenly roared. “Connacht 25, Munster 14,” a mid-Atlantic drawl stated. Another roar, subsided to a hiss like an old steam engine, bounced off the walls of buildings along College Road, and inside those buildings, through their windows, I could see television screens showing the green pitch that was only metres away from any of them. “The Fields of Athenry” sounded like a battle cry.

Nose and lips already numb from the cold, I chose a seat on a wall outside the ground to wait for my lift. “Go on in,” a steward on the gate beckoned me over, then pointed, “there’s a wall there you can stand on, get a view.”

At first, I shrugged. The Clan stand was shaking with the stamping feet of supporters baying for the oppositions blood, but a light hand on my shoulder ushered me towards that wall. “Keep moving,” the owner of the hand said, “otherwise you’ll freeze.” And that’s what I love about Galway, she doesn’t just invite you in, she insists you accept the invitation.

Originally posted at medium.com

Let Love and Friendship Reign

The Claddagh, Galway

Photo of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Galway by P.J. McKenna

Angel: My people — before I was changed — they exchanged this as a sign of devotion. It’s a Claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty… and the heart… Well, you know…

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2

In the late 17th century, many Irish were leaving their home for a new life in the New World. Among them was young Richard Joyce, a native of Galway city. But he never reached the Americas; instead his fate would be a lot stranger. En route, the ship that carried him was attacked by Barbary pirates.

The sea held many terrors, but the Barbary pirates of North Africa ranked highly. They ransacked European ships, claiming their crew and passengers as well as their cargo as booty. Sometimes they even raided on land, as they had in Baltimore, County Cork. For there was a thriving trade in slaves on the Barbary Coast.

Like many before him, Richard was brought to Algiers and sold. But he was more fortunate than most, because he was taken in by a goldsmith and taught his trade.

On his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk, who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and who, observing his slave, Joyce, to be tractable and ingenious, instructed him in his trade, in which he speedily became an adept.

— History of the Town and County of Galway, James Hardiman (1820)

Under this master, Richard created a new design, a ring. The design was most likely influenced by the existing “fede rings”, which showed two hands clasping each other, but it added two new elements: a heart being held by the hands, and a crown topping the heart. These three items together symbolized the motto, “Let Love and Friendship Reign“.

When William of Orange came to the throne, he negotiated for the return of all British slaves in Algiers, and among these was Richard Joyce. His master had evidently grown fond of him, for he offered Richard freedom and the hand of his daughter in marriage.

Richard declined the offer, and returned to Galway. Legend says that he returned to the sweetheart he’d left behind.

*****

No-one knows exactly when the ring became associated with the Claddagh, a fishing village just outside Galway City. The Irish-speaking Claddagh people kept themselves separate to the mostly English-speaking city, except when they crossed the river to sell their fish. They elected their own king, who sailed a Galway hooker with a special white sail and negotiated on disputes between locals.

By the 19th century, Claddagh mothers were handing down Claddagh rings to their daughters. Sadly, many were forced to pawn these rings during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

The cottages of the Claddagh village were condemned as unsafe in the 1930s, and razed for a housing scheme. Today, the Claddagh is mostly a residential area and part of Galway city, although they do still have their own king.

*****

The ring itself has grown in popularity since it was created. It can be used as a wedding and engagement ring, and is often passed down within families. Queen Victoria wore one, as did that famous slayer of vampires, Buffy Summers.

The Old Claddagh Ring, it was my grandmother’s
She wore it a lifetime, and gave it to me

— The Old Claddagh Ring, traditional song

My own grandmother bought me a Claddagh ring for my 21st birthday.  When I first wore the ring, the heart was turned outwards from my finger, to show I was single; but nowadays the heart is turned inwards to show it has been taken. That was the last gift my grandmother gave me, because she died the following year.

On my finger is a link to the past: to my grandmother, who was born in the early years of the 20th century, lived through the war of Irish independence, and raised seven children while her husband worked in England; to those Claddagh women, selling the rings their mothers gave them to get the fare to America; and to Richard Joyce, slave and goldsmith, who created such a lovely symbol of friendship, loyalty, and love.

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