The sean-nós singer continued, verse after slow verse. Then a phone rang
Michael Harding: If he had flung the thing out the window, we would have applauded
When you put a couple of uileann pipers together, ‘they sound like a swarm of bees’.
It was great to have the camper van all summer, especially for the Mooney School in Drumshanbo, where the sun shone for a week in July and I was able to have a few drinks each evening and sleep over in the van.
I had a friend from Kent with me one day and she was hugely impressed with the heat on the high street; a traffic-free promenade, where people stood outside pubs in sunshine, eating burgers, pizzas, ice-creams, and drinking pints as the music wafted out from various pubs.
“Global warming has been good to Kent,” my friend declared. “We now enjoy a climate more like France. But today my husband tells me it’s raining over there, while the sun is shining here in Leitrim. How wonderful.”
There were two uileann pipers playing reels in Monica’s bar.
“When you put a couple of pipers together,” I said, “they sound like a swarm of bees. Did you ever notice that?”
“No,” she said, “but then I’m not a poet. You are; and your imagination exaggerates everything.”
We went into the bar and sat with the listening crowd, as two members of the Mulligan family played furiously.
At one stage, after a long sequence of jigs and reels, there came a lull. A big pool of silence opened up, and into it a sean-nós singer stuck his head and began to intone the first notes of An Bonnan Bui.
“Sean-nós singing is like a currach moving across the ocean,” I whispered into the ear of the lady from Kent.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed.
The singer continued, slow verse after slow verse, and all I could see was a little black currach on a turquoise ocean; falling up and down with every wave, in every line of the song.
Then a phone rang and an elderly woman began rummaging in her handbag as if she was trying to lift a living fish from a net.
It took a long time but she finally got a grip on it and the offending phone emerged. The room willed her to turn the f***ing thing off. But she answered it.
“I can’t hear you,” she roared.
The singer kept singing.
The person calling her phone may have been wondering where she was.
“I’m in the pub,” she said. “One of the Mulligan boys is singing.”
The pipers were Mulligans. But the singer wasn’t. And if he had taken the phone from her hand and flung it out the window, we would have applauded him, but he just struggled on in his little boat across the waves; verse after verse until the song landed on the shore.
“That was a terrible thing to happen,” the woman from Kent whispered.
“It was beautiful,” I said. “His voice never faltered. He kept rowing his little oars through a storm.”
“You poets are all alike,” she said. “You can’t accept reality.”
Which is probably true.
The following day I drove her to the blessing of the graves in a midland town where she comes from. I went into a restaurant just beforehand to use the bathroom and coming out I bumped into an old man in the doorway as he too was coming out.
He was very thin and stood erect and his face was wrinkled but I could see the trace of laughter in every muscle.
“Don’t apologise,” he said, “it’s lovely to walk into your space.”
“That’s an odd thing to say,” I replied.
“Well,” he said, “there are some people about, and I wouldn’t want to walk into them. I’d want to walk backwards away from them. But you’re different.”
As he spoke he moved to illustrate what he meant; it was like watching a t’ai chi master.
“In fact I do t’ai chi,” he admitted. “And Reiki. And water divining.”
“You must have a fierce amount of spare time,” I suggested.
“My life began at 80,” he said with glee. He looked me in the eye as if he could read my thoughts.
“I’m a druid,” he declared and walked away. I felt there was something in him I wanted to emulate. I wanted to follow him.
But I didn’t because the lady from Kent was waiting in the van.
“Did you see that man I was talking to at the door?” I wondered
But she saw nothing.
Then I looked around the car park and there was no sign of him. So we drove off to the cemetery in silence and I decided to say nothing else about him, to the lady from Kent.