Commonwealth of songsters – An Irishman’s Diary on The Lost Brothers

On an autumnal evening last September I returned to the Meath village my mother had left in the 1930s to work and settle in Dublin. The purpose of that journey back to Wilkinstown was to present a talk about the poet Francis Ledwidge and his relationship with a woman who lived there in 1914/15. For me, this was an emotional revisiting of a familiar scene: the village and its nearby fields and woods and bog became my childhood and adolescent idyll in the 1950s and 60s. I was the city child sent to spend his summers with a grandmother and aunt on a country farm.

It was harvest time and, in a sense, I was gathering in my own harvest of voices that would last a lifetime

I particularly associate those summers of the Sixties with the beginnings of a lifelong passion for music – especially the remarkable and long-lasting troubadours of that era: Dylan, Morrison, Cohen, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell. For those summer months I was allowed take the kitchen transistor to my bedroom at night where, sometimes until dawn light, I would listen to whatever was coming in on the wavelengths. It was harvest time and, in a sense, I was gathering in my own harvest of voices that would last a lifetime. Those were the days, or rather the nights, of Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline. As I later depicted it in a poem, “I was the boy who listened for hours/to radio broadcasts from a ship in the night...” In fact, that was the time and place I first began to try my hand at writing poetry – I don’t discount the connection.

On that September evening last year I was joined on the stage of Wilkinstown’s community hall by Meath’s own 21st-century troubadour, Oisin Leech, and a few of his musician friends. Oisin, a Navan man, is one half of The Lost Brothers (his partner-in-song is Mark McCausland from Omagh, the pair having first come together 10 years ago in Liverpool, which was the wellspring of some of the game-changer music that kept my ear to the late night radio).

Before meeting Oisin I had been an admirer of their ethereal vocal harmonies, their blend of country-tinged ballads, folk and blues had an immediately appealing quality in the ears of a veteran of "Sixties music". In a sense they relocated me back to those long-ago Meath nights when my nocturnal companions included early Simon and Garfunkel (with whom comparison are frequently made ) and The Byrds, whose version of Mr Tambourine Man was the jangling sound of my summer of 1965.

At home and abroad, the Losties have been building up a dedicated fan-base for some years now. Aficionados include some serious names not only in the music business but also, I have noted, among poets.

I did not say it but feared the outcome might be a shift too far, a distortion of the haunting qualities that are a characteristic of the Lost Brothers' sound

I had become aware, too, that Oisin Leech is something of a local hero – turning up to perform in his native county as much as he can, as he did that night in Wilkinstown when the commodious hall was full, no doubt thanks to his name appearing on the posters rather than this scribe from Dublin.

Since the occasion was to remember the soldier-poet Ledwidge I put in one request: that he perform the resonant and relevant Soldier's Song from the album New Songs of Dawn and Dust. He kindly obliged by including it, a ballad with a sharply defined statement: I was a soldier in that old war, they never told me what I killed for...

He happened to mention that he and Mark had been recording in Arizona and with a new producer. I did not say it but feared the outcome might be a shift too far, a distortion of the haunting qualities that are a characteristic of the Lost Brothers’ sound.

The fear was unnecessary, their musical roots have not been abandoned but enhanced. The result of those recordings is now in my hands in the form of Halfway Towards a Healing – a sequence of beautifully crafted reflective songs that cruise along in an admirably unshowy way . The undertow of melancholy and yearning ("another road, another town, another song, another echo in the wind..."), a quality associated with their songs and singing, has been refreshed and perhaps the Arizonan landscape – so unlike the lush lands of Meath – in which these songs were recorded provided an added authentic flavour.

The other added flavour is the input of Glen Hansard with whom three of the new songs were co-written ( most Lost Brothers material is written by Leech and McCausland ). Hansard's contribution is perhaps particularly discernible on Iron Road.

It is now 50 years since I tuned in to my “ship in the night” and heard those bards and their musings that would magically dispel youthful anxieties.

But I hardly imagined back then that the Royal County would one day produce its own artist who seems to fit perfectly among my first commonwealth of songsters.