July 17 1998
The drinkers in the front of the pub were dregged and drained towards midnight, the porter had run out, all of it, out of the dark bottles of earlier joy, and the emptied Guinness kegs were a silvery regiment outside the darkened doorways that were staggering out into the post-carnival street of the West of
Ireland town. It was raining slightly and the crowds were being thinned out by the cars that were sleeking and slicking along the streets leading home after it all. And I was drinking a cloved hot whiskey, tangy against my throat. I don't like to see carnival times coming down to their butt ends in the midsummer rain as yet another
sliver of my lifetime burns away.
But at the rear of the pub this bright doorway led out across a shadowed yard. And I walked across this yard to the beat of a lively bongo drum and a jumping fiddle coming from somewhere. And I found myself in a marquee compressed in the back yard, a high canvas roof drumming under the warm young fingers of the July rain falling down from
under the moon and maybe twenty stars, the bright ones you can see even when it's misted high above. And a rock band was playing that kind of Celticated rock that is guitarred and bassed around a singing rocking fiddle. The fiddler was a young woman wearing one of those tops that showed her belly button. She was knocking out the music
with such fire, and I was so close to her and her sweating gyrating band, that I could actually see the navel opening and closing like an extra small eye. Her colleagues wore the kind of hats that old countrymen used wear, jammed down over long locks and there were maybe two hundred young people there, a cosmopolitan and cheerful and
slightly boozy gathering, dancing in their rooted footsteps to the hypnotic beat. Bongos, a rock drum, a tom tom thing too, all in time to the drumming rain outside. One young woman, lean, bejeaned, was lost in the music, a longneck beer in her hand, violently rotating her head in perfect time to the beat, her fair curls lashing
themselves together like racehorse manes in a Curragh wind. A Hell's Angel, his leather suit two sizes too big for his bulk, like a suit of armour that would stand alone, stood out from the others, his head jerking up and down, the eyes rolling in bongo time.
"We'll have the juggler", said the bandleader. The drum beat heavied and solidified and the juggler came from the shadows with first two, then three flaming torches. They killed the lights and the torches, flaring like fractions of Hell, gargoyled all the shadows on the canvas roof. The juggler was an elasticated young man, in his
twenties, sometimes throwing his torches high, sometimes, in perfect time, swallowing the fire, the blue vapours flaring up from his simian jaw. There was the reek of kerosene, of excitement, of the heartbeat of youth, of the pulsebeat of another generation. And the drums hammered it all up a notch of excitement or two as the juggler
finished his act, as a Spanish looking lady went through the crowd with a cap for offerings in his honour, as the band struck up again, the navel opening and closing, the fiddle bow jerking up and down, guitars thrumming, the singers singing some kind of foreign rock sound with a repetitive lyric to it, drinks flowing, the empty pub a few
yards away a mile and a world away.. quite suddenly... something quite universal, a bit pagan, totally young and uninhibited rocking and dancing on the rough floor, seven or eight races represented certainly, if not more, all bonded together by the music of the young.
I stood, along with another man of my generation, against one of the marquee poles. We looked at each other and said nothing but we both knew what we meant. Last time we would have leaned against a pole in a marquee with music playing it would have been in the Sixties and the music was probably being provided by Big Tom and the
Mainliners. Or Joe Dolan. Or Dickie Rock. And there were certainly no navels opening and closing like a little eye right before ours.
I went out into the brief drench of rain between the marquee and the pub. I went out on to the streets and I went up to my car. It was, would you believe, the last night of that famous traditional Irish music festival named after the piper Willie Clancy. This was Miltown Malbay '98 and the pub was The Players Club, the new one operated by
Martin Flynn and Mike Mitchell.
Times change a bit, don't they?
Cormac's unique perspective on other aspects of Irish life can be found in
Earlier articles are available on the Ireland At Home website:
You will find them under Saturday's feature.