It was the summer of 1993. On a Sunday morning in July a friend and I took a bus from Dublin to Waterford. We were bound for the Fleadh Mór in Tramore, a rock music festival with a line-up for the ages that included Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Joan Baez and Jerry Lee Lewis.
At a stop-off in Carlow we got chatting to a fellow passenger, a young American woman who was travelling alone to the Fleadh. Our twosome became a group of three.
I would like to blame the passage of time for the fact my recollection of the day is somewhat hazy but other factors may have been involved. At that time I wrote a music-focused column for the Evening Press, so we had VIP passes that gave us access to a bar, where we commandeered an outdoor table in the afternoon sunshine.
Striking as sober a pose as we could manage, we told the porter we weren't residents but would be grateful if he would overlook this inconvenient fact and let us in to the bar
As the hours passed the merits of the bar began to prevail over the lure of the music. We agreed that, hey, we were never fans of Jerry Lee Lewis anyway.
By the time we boarded a bus back to Waterford city, long after nightfall, it had become apparent that the American woman had not considered it necessary to book accommodation. Our own arrangement was precarious: we were to make our way to the Airmount maternity hospital to meet a nurse on the night shift, a friend of a friend who had kindly agreed to put us up.
On the crowded bus, my friend added to the already joyful mood when he rose from his seat and shouted up to the driver that we would be obliged if he could drop us off at the maternity hospital.
Ignoring this singular request, the driver let us out at the door of the Tower Hotel. It was by now well past closing time but we thought, nothing ventured . . .
Striking as sober a pose as we could manage, we told the porter we weren’t residents but would be grateful if he would overlook this inconvenient fact and let us in to the bar.
He eyed us a moment. “Well, I admire yer honesty, lads. Follow me.”
We found ourselves in a room with seven or eight people.
Perhaps I had a near-private audience with John Prine singing Sam Stone, his song about a Vietnam war veteran battling drug addiction
A session was in progress, but not of the drinking sort. Crouched over a piano in the corner, in mid-tune, his head so low that his long hair was brushing the keyboards, was Liam Ó Maonlaí. One or two other members of the Hothouse Flowers were there too. And look, we said, there was Matt Molloy of the Chieftains.
Then, as we were handed our pints by the best hotel night porter in the world, I nudged my friend. The guy with the guitar . . . wasn’t that John Prine? It was. The Fleadh had taken place over two days, and Prine had played on the Saturday.
For the next hour or so we sat in blissful silence as Ó Maonlaí and Prine took turns to sing. I knew how lucky we were to find ourselves in that place at that time, and yet I didn’t know. It would be many years later before I really got to know Prine’s work and appreciate his greatness as a writer and performer.
To my regret, deepened since his death this month from coronavirus, I can’t recall what he sang that night. Perhaps I had a near-private audience with John Prine singing Sam Stone, his song about a Vietnam war veteran battling drug addiction – “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes” – or Hello In There, his cry of solidarity with old people that could be an anthem for our troubled times, written with astonishing maturity and empathy when he was 24.
The truth is that while I was sitting in a room with John Prine perhaps going through his repertoire of classics, my mind was less occupied with his songs than how I was going to explain the American woman to the nurse when we got to the maternity hospital.
If I could go back to that room I’d change my focus, just a bit.
But life is messy, and you have to be grateful for the good things you get.
Nobody was more aware of that, or explained it better to his audience, than John Prine.