Cohen serene under Ben Bulben


PEOPLE OF all ages gathered, carefully corralled, to walk along a path through the woods. They walked towards the light reflecting off the water in the shadow of a great house. They came to hear a poet sing his songs in a place still associated with another, earlier poet, long dead and revered, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

Under the shadow of Ben Bulben’s distinctive flat profile, made famous by Yeats, the faithful waited for Leonard Cohen, veteran Canadian singer songwriter, a poet who has pursued personal experience to its limits. His meditations on life and love, the spiritual and the sexual, the hunted and the haunted appeal to all ages for their strange beauty, the gentle melodies; their romance and their solitude. Bittersweet romance, subtle observation and humour run through the songs; there is also the jaunty courage of his odyssey as an artist, a lover, a man and as a performer.

Many of the faces waiting for the music to begin seemed thoughtful as if remembering their younger selves, the people they had been when Cohen first began his career. For others, who had not even been born when Cohen was young, he is an icon, an influence. Girls in their 20s corrected their parents as to the titles of some of the songs. A father and son stood together, singing the opening lines of Famous Blue Raincoatand left the mother poised to photograph them, on her own figuring out how the camera worked. An older woman, her own raincoat at the ready, looked around and sighed, “The State should have bought this place.”

She was not alone, aside from the eulogies offered as to the enduring genius of Cohen, the most common topic of overheard conversation was that this magical part of Sligo should have been secured for the people of Ireland.

Leonard Cohen, serene and smiling, dark grey fedora firmly on his head, took the stage, along with his smartly suited band of musicians and singers. From the distance his figure seemed small against the flowing fabric backdrop of changing colours, but the huge TV screens provided close-up views of his wonderful face with its expression of benign irony. Here is a man who has seen most things and pondered them deeply. He knows about despair but he also sees the jokes. His repertoire includes many of the most distinctive songs written anywhere since the late 1960s. Along with Bob Dylan and the great Paul Simon, Cohen inhabits a sacred place. His songs are poems; the lyrics live off the page. As a performer he is generous; his band is his family, his audience his friends, and “friends” was the word he used to address the thousands who came to hear him.

Several of the gardaí on duty looked wistfully, assuring us that they would be up at the concert if they weren’t on duty. It was that kind of night; that kind of place, even the police seemed happy. It was obvious that the combined musical talent was overwhelming; Cohen showed them off like a proud parent, although the great Spanish guitarist, Javier Mas, is not all that much younger than Cohen, who was born in Montreal in 1934. We knew the songs, and the musicians did too, but when you’re that good and the atmosphere is perfect, it is easy to improvise further. The show, now on its way to Copenhagen, is terrific, no doubt about it, possessing an intriguingly European quality, yet at times, particularly with classics such as Suzanne, Famous Blue Raincoat, Sisters of Mercyand So Long, Marianne, it would have been even more satisfying just to hear Cohen’s tender, softly growling baritone. As a singer he is alert to every nuance; every word counts and with Cohen, every word is sung clear and emphatic. He is a lively, engaged performer but the wonder of his songs is best enjoyed in a more intimate setting because his songs are like poems and deserve pauses and space and time to absorb them fully.

Earlier on Saturday he had visited Drumcliff churchyard and paid his respects at the grave of Yeats, a poet whose work he had first read, as Cohen told his audience, “at home in Montreal, about 50 years ago”. He smiled his wry, rueful smile.

In the visitors’ book at Drumcliff church he wrote Leonard Cohen, Montreal, with a simple comment “Sublime”. Some four of five songs into the concert he looked into the crowd and spoke of how privileged he felt to be at “this most historic setting”. His humility and calm demeanour gave new life to those most evocative lines. “The light of evening, Lissadell,/ Great windows open to the south,/ Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful, one a gazelle.” (From In Memory of Eva Gore-Both and Con Markievicz; The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933.)

Cohen began the concert saying that he did not know if he would pass this way again, but promised to give “everything we have” on behalf of his band and himself and his backing singers, Hattie and Charley Webb, whose ethereal voices are ideal for Cohen’s songs, and his collaborator, Sharon Robinson. They did and more.

Cohen at 75, singing his much-covered Hallelujah, on a drizzly Saturday evening in historic Lissadell outperformed the current version by opera singer Renée Fleming, such is his art and kindly humanity. The audience, growing in confidence, thundered its appreciation singing along with more and more songs. Each time Cohen skipped – and skip he does – off stage, the applause brought him back. His generosity as a performer is well known, he graced Lissadell. Yeats, a life-long presence for this singer of songs, would have approved.

Lissadell House to reopen to public for two months

LISSADELL HOUSE is to reopen exhibitions and gardens to the public after closure for 18 months.

The owners have decided the estate in Sligo will reopen as a tourist operation later this week after Leonard Cohen and Westlife played to 30,000 people there at the weekend.

The estate has been closed to the public since a rights-of-way dispute flared between the owners and Sligo County Council. A decision is awaited from the High Court in the Autumn. Estate manager Isobel Cassidy, said: “After all the effort and energy we put into making it look fantastic for the concerts, it will be reopened for August and September.”

Lissadell has been closed to the public following a decision by Sligo County Council to amend the county development plan to provide for preservation of a public right of way at Lissadell. The owners insist they were assured there was no public right of way when they bought the estate in 2003. They set about a multi-million euro project to restore the property to its original state and claimed before closure in January 2009 an increase in the number of visitors from 4,000 to 40,000 annually without public funds. PADDY CLANCY