A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 39
It’s August the second. I get to hold my first Euros, get my first feeling for the north west of Ireland, visit Ballyshannon and Sligo, suffer yet another disaster and need help. I speak to hardly anyone but don’t lack for company. The geography is magical and I get to meet two fellas on the way by the names of Gallagher and Yeats. We’ve met before in passing but today I get to know them both a proper deal better and I come away wanting to become friends.
Cycling is a time when your mind goes on its own spirals. I was heading towards Ballyshannon, birthplace of Rory Gallagher, and my mind was galloping back to when the name first began to mean something to me. 1973 was a year of change for those of us who were young. Our hair was growing longer and our admiration of glamour was changing from Bolan to Bowie and our admiration for sideboards was changing from Noddy to Rory. We were also coming under the spell of a late night comedy programme called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was also about this time that I heard a version of Down by the Salley Gardens and fell for the lyrical beauty of Yeats.
There was plenty I encountered and fell in love with, that has lost its first flush. Lindisfarne now sound homely and local, but sounded universal back then. I was half in love with Julie Felix and felt myself more than half in love with a girl in my class who knew cleverer things than I did. I probably did well not to tell her of my feelings. She had more words to decline my affections than I had to promote them.
Some of the cleverer boys were becoming unhealthily attracted to what intelligent interlopers were doing to pop music; making it clever…it was already far cleverer than progressive rock would make it but they didn’t seem to understand this. I wasn’t in any way drawn to Jethro Tull or King Crimson or Genesis. I was thirteen years old and already looking back with longing to the golden age that had happened when I was between five and eleven. I was developing a liking for American West Coast music from the sixties and I was a Beatles fan through and through.
We bought guitars and learned enough chords to be able to play, first Eleanor Rigby and then Rocky Raccoon. I earned a pound a week for delivering papers. Eight weeks bought the worst guitar I have ever seen and a further 6 weeks got me a Beatles Complete Songbook. It was the only guitar tutor I ever had.
More ambitious friends went electric and were soon expounding the virtues of their two guitar heroes. Jimi Hendrix was big all over the world. Rory Gallagher was huge in the southern lakes. He is the only one of the white blues musicians from these islands who convinced me that he was playing for the sheer pleasure of playing. His work on the Fender Stratocaster was inspiring, even to a non blues fan like me. It was his acoustic work though, that made me stop and listen. (One of those electric friends from forty years ago has just Facebooked me a message to say that his new band have Bullfrog Blues in their setlist.)
Everyone back then claimed Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy as influences. The difference between experts and amateurs was often whether they had heard any Muddy Waters. You didn’t have to have heard these fellows if you heard Rory Gallagher. His sound was very different but it contained the honesty and admiration of a true disciple. He’d heard it, understood it, absorbed it and reproduced it in his own distinct sound.
We also liked his look of distressed jeans, lumberjack shirt streaked with sweat and great cascading waves of hair with the most tremendous mutton chop sidies. He had a genuine and cherubic smile. His appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test (a weekly television programme that played music from beyond the top 50) was introduced by Stanley Unwin; what more could you want? His battered and paint stripped strat was the best looking well used guitar since Willie Nelson’s Trigger.
Because the bookshop in Sligo was getting ready to close, I grabbed the first readable book I saw. It was Inishowen by Joseph O’Connor. The hero, Martin Aitken, was a big Rory Gallagher fan, had followed him in his formative years up the west from Cork to Galway, Galway to Spiddal and on to Donegal. The book is a belting read and should be interspersed with the playing of Hands Off and Messing with the Kid. I read it in a deep filled Sligo bath tub smug with the coincidence and laughing every other page. I’d turned south and the book was beginning to make me regret my choice.
The statue of Rory in the middle of Ballyshannon is not the greatest tribute ever cast in bronze but it does capture the sleeves rolled up no messing working class gutsiness of much of his playing. Much of this meditation wanders around my head as a sit opposite it and drink coffee. Rory Gallagher died in 1995 at the age of 47. He spent much of his life on the road and played as often for the fun of playing as he did for money. He was one of the good guys.
I like Ballyshannon. It is just about as perfectly situated as it is possible for town to be. It has river and lake, estuary and sea. You can be in Donegal or Sligo in less than half and hour or you can be on your way to solitude and the elements. The Donegal culture is strong; there is no need to ask around here about What’s so Funny ’bout Peace Love and Understanding? I want to head north into Donegal proper and the town of that name. To continue going north and west towards Malin Head where I had an invitation to stay with friends of friends who had sought and found a life that answered just about every alternative they had ever wished for.
It would be a huge journey on its own and not one for someone who may already be too ill to get home. My chest has continued to rattle and wheeze and I take my time where I am. I wander to the very top where the church stands sentinel to the town and the graveyard has the loftiness of an eagles nest. William Allingham came from Ballyshannon and his line ‘Up the airy mountain’ has a resonance up here.
I have a decision to make and take my time before setting out towards the distant shape of one of the British Isles most remarkable geographical features. Benbulben presents a fierce face to the Atlantic gales and is spectacular in any weather. Beneath it’s shadow lies a far greater poet and my day’s ride is to get a little closer to the man and his works.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Yeats is always referred to formally. Never Bill Yeats or William Yeats; always WB or William Butler. The first Irish poet to be awarded the Nobel Prize and possibly the only poet to write his best work after the prize had been awarded. A Nationalist but not a Catholic. The man who, with Lady Gregory, established serious Irish Theatre, revived Irish Literature and the man who sent JM Synge off to the Aran Islands to learn the poetry of local dialect.
My father in law was a learned man and a huge admirer of Yeats. I liked what I knew but was becoming more aware by each slowly pedalled windswept mile, just how little I did know.
There are plenty of signs pointing out his grave. It is only one stone though, and that isn’t enough to hold the trickle of tourists who enter the churchyard and stare briefly at the slab and seek ways of making it hold their attention for more than a minute. Most fail. I’ve brought along a battered copy of his selected poems. An enterprising fellow has set up a mobile coffee stall. The coffee is good and goes well with the words.
There is a difficulty. Yeats died in France. His body was buried, disinterred and placed in an ossuary before being re-interred, dug up again according to his wishes and brought back to Sligo. The authorities in France gave due warning. Thousands visit Yeats grave every year. Hundreds came and went while I sat and read and sketched and sipped coffee cup by cup. He had been dead for nine years when his remains were repatriated to Ireland. There is no certainty that the body brought from France and buried here was that of the poet.
I’m not sure how he would have felt about that.