There’s a tall lamp standing on the stone quayside at a lock in rural Co Carlow on a warm and clear evening. Beside it, a cream and green barge is moored, with a mixing desk on the bow and a few cables trailing on to the bank up towards the lamp.
The Carlow folk duo Ye Vagabonds sailed down the River Barrow earlier in the day on their All Boats Rise tour – a month-long trip on the country’s inland waterways with free outdoor gigs for small audiences along the Royal Canal, Grand Canal and River Barrow.
Clashganny Lock, about 7km outside Graiguenamanagh on the Carlow-Kilkenny border, is Wednesday's venue. After touring a number of islands off the coast in 2018, the band's crew member Myles O'Reilly planted the boat idea in the minds of brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn.
We love the hands-on and doing-everything-ourselves thing, and bringing a boat around the midlands and exploring places we've never heard of even in our own county was a really exciting prospect
“[Myles] said, seeing as we’re from the midlands, wouldn’t it be great to do something like the islands tour but on the inland waterways?” says Diarmuid.
The idea cropped up again after the pandemic brought live events to a sudden halt last year, and “it was a series of yeses that seemed to be responding to the right idea at the right time”.
The trip has been funded predominantly by the Arts Council, with the remainder made up by Waterways Ireland and Carlow County Council.
“It made sense to do it in the Covid environment,” Brían says.
“Two or three years ago it might not have made as much sense to people who funded it in the end,” Diarmuid adds. “We love the hands-on and doing-everything-ourselves thing, and bringing a boat around the midlands and exploring places we’ve never heard of even in our own county was a really exciting prospect.”
“It turned out to be a revelation,” says Brían. “We enjoyed the challenge and the freedom of it.”
The band are totally self-sufficient, using battery and solar power for the amplifiers and PA system, their "rambling festival" leaving no trace of their events after they leave.
On Wednesday people begin to arrive before the gig kicks off around 7.30pm. The lamp on the quayside is soon joined by multiple instruments, including several made by the Dublin luthier Frank Tate, with a minimal microphone and speaker set-up.
Families, campers, walkers, groups of friends and a few dogs sitting on walls, blankets and camping chairs make up the crowd of about 80 people. Each group, consciously or otherwise, leaves plenty of space between it and the next one in the makeshift outdoor venue.
The folk and trad show, including new, yet-to-be recorded material from the band, feels entirely appropriate for the idyllic surroundings. As the sun slips below the tree line of the field behind the river, babbling water and birdsong becomes a natural backing track to a set list spanning songs from Arranmore, Scotland and even the old bargemen of Carlow.
“It’s sustainable and closer to home,” Brían says. “What we’re doing now, it just feels a bit more natural for what we like doing ... playing in outdoor spaces ... It just feels right.”
“[The tour] has evolved naturally to fill the space that we’ve created for it ... We haven’t fallen back on any old habits,” Diarmuid says.
It was a lovely evening. To be sitting out by the river, by the Barrow at Clashganny, it's really nice to be able to come together as a group and enjoy something
The brothers are joined by two guests, Laura Quirke of Lemoncello and Joshua Burnside, with the artists sharing the performance time together.
The audience is small but enthusiastic, hanging on the words of every song and story. Despite the distance between groups and the open setting, the soft glow of the boat lights and the lamp give the lock an intimate feel.
“It was a lovely evening,” says Colm O’Byrne, who is in the audience. “To be sitting out by the river, by the Barrow at Clashganny … It’s really nice to be able to come together as a group and enjoy something.”
“If more artists did something like this it would be a lovely thing to be able to go to on a regular basis,” says Carmel Keegan, who is sitting next to him. “It’s something different.”
“It’s beautiful,” says Fiach Walker, who is here with a group to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “I’ve been coming here for years, and to have the music here is unbelievable.”
The brothers end a brilliant night appropriately – with an acappella song about a roving journeyman from Carlow, the lamplight flickering on the now dark quayside before they call it a night, leaving a satisfied crowd to make their ways home.
Ye Vagabonds' website has details of remaining dates and locations for the All Boats Rise tour