Michael Harding: On my travels, Turlough O’Carolan turns up a lot

I suppose it’s because he too was a wandering poet, drifting through the country to perform for crowds

Turlough O’Carolan on the old £50 note

Turlough O’Carolan on the old £50 note

 

I really enjoy my life on the road, travelling from town to town giving readings. I feel like an adventurer, a nomadic troubadour. And it gives me a chance to have long conversations with imaginary characters.

I leave home early, depending on the distance, so that I can check into a hotel by noon. Then I rest for the afternoon and head towards the local arts centre around 6pm to check the lights and sound equipment for the gig.

Turlough O’Carolan turns up a lot, I suppose because he too was a wandering poet, drifting through the country to perform for crowds in big houses, which were, in a way, the arts centres of their day. He’s buried on the shores of Lough Meelagh, but no matter where I’m heading, I always pass the little cemetery and imagine him hopping into the passenger seat. I like to think some guardian angel is minding me on the road, although Turlough is a grumpy kind of ghost or angel.

Last week I almost arrived late at a venue for my reading, and I had nothing to eat before the show. When the show was over I went to the hotel and asked the barman if he could make me a sandwich.

He said he’d need to ask the night porter, but the night porter was busy keeping people away from the front door, so I said I’d just have a brandy and a few peanuts. He gave me the peanuts for free, and off I went with the drink and the nuts towards the lift.

Familiar face

The Late Late Show

Then there was a knock on the door. I opened it and she was standing before me like a beautiful angel, a tall woman with long hair and high boots, and I recognised her immediately from long ago.

“Are you alone?” she asked. “We were just wondering if you’d like to join us.”

I said, “It’s fantastic to see you again but I’m really too tired and I need to sleep.”

“Okay,” she said, and we exchanged a few memories and smiles and a peck on the cheek before she walked away. When I closed the door and turned around, O’Carolan was lying on the bed.

“I can’t believe you did that,” he said.

A lively old man

“This will be a good day,” he declared.

I agreed.

“It’s quiet in the pool this morning,” he said. I agreed again.

“I usually come at 7am,” he said. “But I’ve started going to Mass for Lent so I’m a bit late this morning.”

“What do you work at?” I wondered.

“I’m retired,” he said. “But I still like to get up early, exercise and then have a good breakfast.”

He was wearing a wedding band.

“And I suppose the good wife is cooking the sausages as we speak,” I joked.

“Wife is long dead,” he said.

And through the steam I could see his face droop and his body lose its zest, and what sat across from me now was a lonely old man.

“But I talk to her,” he said. “Sometimes when I’m making breakfast I still chat away as if she were sitting at the table.”

He closed his eyes and sat as motionless as a monk, and I could feel the lightness of a long-ago love glowing inside him.

“I’ll go,” he said suddenly. “I’m done.”

I step in and out of so many hotel lifts that I recognise the voice. It’s the same voice in most hotels. And I have developed the habit of speaking the words in harmony with the talking escalators. “Third Floor; doors closing; going down.”

And as the doors opened on the ground floor, I saw the beautiful woman from the previous night wheeling her case out the door and I had a strange sense of regret.

O’Carolan was already in the passenger seat of the Mitsubishi as I stuffed my cases in the boot. We said nothing until we got as far as Birr.

“We all need angels,” he whispered. But I didn’t reply.

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