HOCKNEY High in the Hollywood hills In the shadows of Sunset Boulevard Hockney is dabbling again. A copy of Mulholland Drive rests against the studio wall; Outside, the land drops away; A jungle of exotic palms and ferns With a swimming pool at the bottom Not much used anymore. He doesn’t go out much these days, he says; ‘I go to the dentist , the doctor, the bookstore And the marijuana store And that’s about it. I’m much too deaf to go out I don’t really have a social life Because socialising is talking and listening And I can’t really listen any more’. Okay David, But really, the marijuana store! I wonder if it’s the one on Venice beach Where the aged musculatorians of Muscle beach Tramp with regularity to the nearby marijuana clinic To see the marijuana doctors, In their neat green cross uniforms, Who will prescribe some medical marijuana For forty bucks Or thereabouts To anybody who needs it. When I’m working again I feel thirty, And when I smoke I feel like Picasso, he says Yeah, David, okay But that’s not the work That’s the fucking weed
This is from chapter one of my book about growing up in Ireland in the 1950/60’s. ( available to buy on Amazon)
THE SHINY RED HONDA
I was thirteen tall and gangly when I first pulled on long trousers. What a relief that was; I was the longest streak of misery you were ever likely to see in the short ones. It was my last year at the National school in Newtown and the Master used every opportunity to drag me around the classroom shouting “just because you wear long trousers now O’ Brien, don’t think it makes you any smarter”. I wasn’t and it didn’t, but the Master was a law unto himself so I just kept my gob shut. There were discussions about what, if any, further education I was to get. Dungarvan was out I heard my father say; it was too far away and the fares were too expensive. That only left the ‘Tech in Portlaw – and that seemed to totter from one financial crisis to the next.
We were poor I guess; no running water, no toilets, to TV, no car…you name it we didn’t have it. But then, money wasn’t as important as it is nowadays. If you had enough to live on you were doing well. If you didn’t you wouldn’t starve because the countryside was abundant in most of the things needed to survive. Even the poorest cottage had half an acre of land attached, and enough spuds, cabbage and other vegetables could be grown to keep a family from the poorhouse. Hens provided eggs every day, a pig could be fattened and killed; and if you couldn’t afford turf or coal, well, there was plenty of wood scattered about…
My father worked in the Tannery in Portlaw, a Dickensian sprawl that tried to hide itself in the dense woodlands that ringed the town. It was fronted by massive wrought iron gates and had a lodge that was occupied by a gateman called Foskin and his buck-toothed daughters. A large square, bigger than the town itself it seemed, separated it from the streets that ran away from its outer rim. With names likes Georges Street, Brown Street and William Street the English influence was clear, and the only thing that differentiated one house from another was the colour of the doors. But then, it was a company town and they were company houses.
The first time I ever visited the Tannery was in our ass and cart with my father, to collect some empty barrels he had permission to remove. He took me to see the tanning department and showed me the bench where he worked. Here, he trimmed the hides prior to tanning, standing at a wooden table all day with his friend Bobby Haughton, dragging hides from a nearby pile, chopping the bad bits off. The place stank of dead meat and the pile of skins was crawling with maggots. They could have been abattoir workers; gowned up in their long aprons and wellingtons, constantly sharpening their hooked, wooden-handled knives.
Hew was up at six every morning, breakfasted and gone by seven. The six mile journey was negotiated on his high Nellie, which had only one gear and had to be pushed uphill. He always wore bicycle clips and carried a pump and a repair kit in his lunch bag. Occasionally, when snow and ice made the road treacherous, he walked to work. A day off was unthinkable.
Portlaw had a bad reputation, like that of a loose woman. Although he worked there all his life he never socialised or mixed with the locals. He certainly never drank there. And mother would never dream of doing her weekly shopping there. People talked about Portlaw behind its back, yet on reflection it wasn’t any worse than Kilmac. Perhaps it was envy; it had the Tannery, the biggest employer in the region; it was surrounded by the magnificent estate of Curraghmore; it had the patronage of the titled gentry like the Marquis of Waterford. And of course it boasted hurling and football teams that invariably kicked the shit out of the lumbering hopefuls of Newtown, Ballydurn and the outlying areas.. Mostly though it was the ‘townie’ culture that got up the country-folks noses; it was only a few miles from the city and ‘city-ways’ had rubbed off to some extent.
Its reputation never bothered me. I did manage to secure a place at the ‘Tech there and for eighteen months cycled daily, free-wheeling the last few miles from the Five Cross Roads down into the valley that housed it. The ’Tech consisted of a couple of rooms in a large house on the edge of the Square, where Mr Timmons taught us carpentry, ( we made shoe-boxes by the dozen, learned all about dove-tail joints, and made glue from boiled cow-hooves) and a tall, willowy lady taught us the rudiments of book-keeping. Neither pastime subsequently did me much good.
We put our free time to good use, invading the forbidden territory of the Tannery, watching from behind bushes and trees, the activities going on in the distance. One large shed was stacked with bales of various-coloured rubber and was ideal for playing the games of cowboys and Indians that we favoured. This rubber (I subsequently learnt ) was the raw material that was used in the moulding of the shoe-soles that were churned out by the thousand in the rubber department. The Tannery itself produced no shoes, just soles, insoles and rolls of coloured leather.
Sometimes we sat on the banks of the river Clodagh, reading our Kit Carson and Johnny Mack Brown comics, or practised our fast draws in the crouched style favoured by our heroes. My favourite weapon was a long-barrelled Colt 44 with ivory handles and a proper revolving chamber, which I had saved for nearly a year to buy. I took to wearing it to school, tucked inside the waistband of my trousers, until the day Miley Moore took it off me and broke it demonstrating his prowess as an outlaw. Attempting to side-swipe me, he missed and clubbed a rock instead. One half of it landed in the river, never to be seen again.
There were other diversions. Portlaw girls were supposed to be fast, something we discovered to be true, for no matter how hard we chased them we never managed to catch up. Sometimes when the weather was nice the girls from the bakery sat sunning themselves on the opposite bank. We admired their muscular arms and their floury faces, for very little else was visible beneath the long white coats and the elasticised head-coverings.
Our learning curve may not have been very steep but the road home certainly was. The homeward journey was hell; the long climb back to the Five Roads couldn’t have been more tiring if it had been up the face of the Comeragh Mountains themselves. Portlaw wasn’t in a valley I had often heard my father mutter, it was at the bottom of a bloody pit.
There was also the little matter of getting safely past a particular farm. A seventh son of a seventh son lived there and all sorts of peculiar happenings went on inside. Sick animals and sick people traipsed in and out at all hours, ringworm was cured, and one woman who hadn’t said a word for twenty years suddenly started talking so much that her neighbours threatened to take her back and get the cure reversed. It was best to bless oneself and cycle quickly past.
The Five Roads was a kind of staging post, where we all recovered our breaths before going our different ways. A little whitewashed shop stood in the vee of two of the roads, where sweets and lemonade could be had over the half-door. Miley Moore called it a shebeen and said you could get bottles of Porter and poteen there too if you were that way inclined. We tried this once and the old woman who owned the shop chased us out, with her besom swinging. As we all took different routes she didn’t know which of us to follow, so she just stood in the middle of the road shaking her broom at us.
I eventually followed in my father’s footsteps. My name had been down in the Tannery for years and as soon as I was old enough, and a vacancy occurred, I was summoned. I never gave it a second thought. It was expected of me, and I suppose my father had pulled a few strings to get me in.
I guess Ballyhussa was much the same as any other cross-section of countryside out in the middle of nowhere. But to me it didn’t seem like that. It was home and it possessed my young soul and my growing body. I grew up there – and bits of me stayed there. In the hedges and furze bushes; in the groves and ploughed fields; in the streams and ponds. In the mass-path, in Newtown school, and in ‘The Bungalow’, with its patches of stony ground that we raked and raked but never could quite rid of stones.
On some mornings the Comeragh Mountains seemed to be in our back garden, on others they had retreated to another county. A mystery never fathomed by us youngsters. Did all mountains move we wondered? Their nearness signalled rain according to father; the further away they appeared the more settled the weather would be. Like most country-folk he was an expert weather-forecaster – in his own eyes anyhow – and he cast his eyes heavenwards with the same frequency that people nowadays look at their watches. For my own part, I always found the animals more reliable. Cattle, sheep and dogs were no fools when it came to the weather, and could be seen scurrying for cover long before the storm-clouds appeared.
Sometimes the tops of the Comeraghs were capped in a layer of snow so white it hurt your eyes to look at them, a sight that had the Master urging us to describe the view in poetic terms.
The Himalayas never looked so bright
As the Comeraghs do tonight
Their new overcoats bespoke,
Eight miles in the other direction lay the sea. The Atlantic Ocean gnawing away at Ireland’s coastline like a hungry beast, according to the Master, sending currents of bracing air to collide with those sweeping down from the Comeraghs. The result was a fertile plain fit for both man and beast.
Most nights you could see light twinkling in the distance. The bright city lights of Waterford, and, further away, the dimmer glow of Tramore. Here, the Metal Man could be seen, sweeping the Atlantic with a raking beam every ten seconds or so. Further along the coast lay Boatstrand, Bonmahon, Stradbally and Dungarvan, the latter just about discernible on a clear night.
Ballyhussa boreen was long and winding and Newtown village lay a mile and a half distant by road. By the mass-path, however, it was less than half that journey. The mass-path was our regular route to the village and we had used it for going to school and mass for as long as I could remember. It began about a hundred yards from our cottage at the stile (a couple of stepping-stones leading into the field) and was a clearly defined path across the land until it reached the road just outside the village. I suppose that the cows who grazed there, and who quite often followed the path in our wake, helped to preserve it. However, even in later years, when much of the land was tilled, it could still be seen scything its way through shimmering corn. Its origin was never quite clear; it may have been a legacy of the penal times, or it may merely have been a long-established short-cut to the church in Newtown.
Going to school never took more than fifteen minutes, coming home could take hours. The first couple of fields formed part of Michael Cummins’ farm, and this halfway stage was our usual stopping point. This was mainly because it contained a small pond and was surrounded by clumps of bushes. Depending on the season, there would be frogs’ eggs to inspect, birds’ nests to look at, Ice to be tested with belly-slides. Then there were all those games of cowboys and Indians to be played, our bows made from young sallys sprung with binder twine, our arrows carved from ash twigs. Tom Cummins, who was in the same class as me, was usually the one tied to the tree as we danced and whooped around him. Well, it was his tree…
The two other fields that comprised the mass-path were fairly uninteresting, although the last one, which bordered Power’s half-acre, had us stepping lively across it. Pat Power’s plot, with its remains of an old building, was haunted. It was overgrown and dank in there, surrounded by twisted and tangled trees and undergrowth. On windy nights you could hear the banshee wailing from deep within, and on a number of occasions we had witnessed several ghostly figures dancing among the ruins.
These sightings were seen on our return from attending the Lenten Devotions with mother. Despite being fortified with her bout of prayer, she, nevertheless, lengthened her stride as we approached, blessing herself as she dragged us youngsters with her in an undignified scramble down Cummins’ hill. On one occasion a pair of ghosts shot past us on bicycles, their white robes billowing behind them like sail-cloths as they disappeared into the night. I had never seen ghosts on bicycles before, and when mother found one of her best linen sheets shoved in the hedge near Galvin’s pump, relations with our next-door neighbours were cool for a while. Dick Galvin, who sometimes fetched our milk from Cummins, wasn’t seen around our house for some time after that.
The mass-path deposited us at Newtown Cross, a dark tree-lined junction which rarely saw sunlight, and was used as a giant umbrella when it rained. Motor transport, when it appeared, blew long and hard at this intersection – more than ever since the day a wandering ass almost spread-eagled itself across the bonnet of Paddy Nugent’s nearly-new car. His shiny black Morris Minor, which only infrequently broke into anything quicker than a trot, slowed to an almost permanent walking pace after that.
Most of the land around the Newtown Cross belonged to Jamsie Wall, and the farmyard was almost as dark and foreboding as Power’s half acre. It wasn’t haunted, least not by conventional ghosts, but Jamsie’s scowling countenance was enough to ensure we youngsters steered well clear of the place. Wall’s was a ‘grab farm’, its original owners, the O’Callaghans, having being evicted from it before it came into the ownership of the Walls. There was still bad feeling in the neighbourhood about the whole affair, and local farm workers would have nothing to do with the farm. My grandfather, Tom O’Brien, had worked there at one stage, though he could hardly be described as local, having come from Ballyduff some eight miles away. In the ploughing and tilling season Walls hired in men from outside, mainly from the Nire Valley. These men didn’t care too much about the sensibilities of the locals, and could be seen in the early morning marching along the road as a body, banging their shovels and sprongs on the road surface as they went.
There wasn’t much of Newtown; the church, the school, two pubs and Lenihen’s grocery shop. Behind it, in the shadows of the Comeraghs, the land rose to wooded pastures and isolated groves of fir and pine. In front, the fields were barer and sloped down to Dunphy’s Cross and the New Line. It was here that the Master alighted from the Dungarvan bus each morning, before striding across the intervening fields to try and knock some sense into us in classrooms forever smelling of chalk.
‘There are nine Newtowns in Waterford’, he would boom, ‘and eight of them are imposters. Can anybody tell me why?’ We couldn’t, of course. When someone suggested it might be the original site for the city of Waterford he laughed – a rare occurrence.
‘And why, tell me, would the Danes build their city in the middle of the country? How would they get their ships up the Suir?’
On one occasion he took the whole class to the playing field at the back of the school and pointed to the two rows of gnarled ash trees that ran parallel through Walls farm as far as Newtown Cross.
‘This avenue of ash is several hundred years old and was probably planted by a man called William Greatorix. He intended to build a new town here alright, but not to replace Waterford. He intended to replace Kilmac. And that is how we got our name’.
‘Greatorix was, or had been, a wealthy man who travelled Ireland making up potions to cure all sorts of afflictions and ailments. A kind of early medicine-man, one might say. His fame spread to such an extent that he was summoned by the King of England to try and cure his sick son. He wasn’t successful and from then on his fortunes deteriorated, one of the consequences being that ‘ Newtown’ never got built’.
Local history was the Master’s pet subject. On foraging expeditions to the church we searched the graveyard for traces of old ruins. He informed us that there was evidence of some sort of church on the site going back 900 years, and asked John Mullins, the local gravedigger, to keep an eye out for these ruins.
‘Sure isn’t the place full of ould ruins’, John replied, ‘mostly human ones’.
The graveyard’s most famous resident was Donncha Rua MacConnamara, an itinerant Irish poet originally from County Clare. He had travelled as far as Newfoundland and lived in West Waterford before ending his days on the Shanahan farm at Whitestown Cross, a couple of miles away. A woman’s man and a heavy drinker, he was reputed to have frequented Cullinane’s pub, directly across the road from where he now lay buried.
As a young man he was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood, but he never completed his studies, being expelled for drunkenness and other ‘inappropriate behavior’.
After that, he led a wandering life, (this wanderlust remained with him all his life), and he seldom settled long anywhere. ‘Ban Chnoic Eireann O’ (The Fair Hills Of Eire), his classic lyric of exile, was written while in Hamburg.
Take a blessing from my heart to the land of my birth
And the fair hills of Eire O’
And all that yet survive of Eibhear’s tribe on earth…
When he did return to Ireland it was to Waterford he came, and he traveled around the countryside as a teacher, the fate of the ‘spoilt priest’, as his like were known in those days. In 1741 he was appointed assistant master at famous classical school at Seskinane, Tournaneena, Co Waterford, where he remained for several years. Of course Ireland was still in the grip of the Penal Laws in those days, but the Cromwellian diktat that all native Irish had tails, and that no Catholic could own land or be a civil servant or teach or own a horse worth more than five pounds wasn’t pursued as vigorously as previously, so Donncha survived.
As well as the drink, Donncha also liked the women, and in 1743 he had to make a hasty departure from Waterford to escape the wrath of a family whose daughter he had made pregnant. He traveled by fishing boat to Newfoundland, where he lay low until things quietened down.
A subsequent second trip to Newfoundland, where he was said to have written his famous long poem ‘Eachtra Giolla an Amarain’ (The adventures of an unfortunate man) now seems likely to have been a hoax. It appears he got no further than Waterford city, where, instead of boarding his ship he spent his time drinking and womanizing until all his money was gone. Afterwards, in an effort to convince people he really had been there, he wrote the long poem (360 verses) which tells how the emigrant ship was attacked and captured by French pirates, before eventually making it safely to Newfoundland.
Shortly after this he changed his religion and became the church clerk at the Church Of Ireland in Rossmire, just outside Newtown. However, his rakish way of life once again found him out and he was dismissed.
He was a happy-go-lucky individual whose poems and songs were part of the folklore in County Waterford . Unfortunately, a lot of them died with the Irish language
One of Donncha’s last pieces of writing was an inscription in Latin on the headstone of one of his contemporaries, the Irish poet Tadgh Gaeleach O’Sulleabhain, who is buried just a few miles away in Ballylaneen.
Tadgh is put here…
Who will sing the praises of the Irish?
Who the deeds of men?
With Gaelic Tadgh dead the Irish muses are silent….
The same could be written of Donncha Rua. He died in 1810 in Newtown, where he had been a temporary protestant, but is now very much a permanent Catholic in an unmarked grave to the rear of the church.. The inscription on the commemorative headstone (inside front entrance) ends with these lines
‘If whatever sins he committed have been wiped out by penance, give him, oh Lord, eternal rest in the true motherland’.
John Mullins, who also dabbled in local history, liked to create the impression that he was an expert on Donncha Rua. To this extent he claimed that Maggie Bluett, who lived in one of the cottages up our boreen , was a direct descendant of Donncha. This was something Maggie neither confirmed or denied. He also took tourists on guided tours of the graveyard and to the farm in Whitestown, presumably being paid for his trouble. Finally there came his piece-de-resistance, a large stone by the side of the road, no more than a hundred yards from his own cottage, with the initials DM carved on it. These, he claimed, were carved by Donncha’s own hand.
Many years later I learned it was John’s own hand. The best days work he ever done; it kept him in drink for most of his life.
Does anybody have any pictures/photos/posters of the above band, who were active in the Waterford area in the mid 1960’s?
The band members were myself/bass guitar, Seamie O’Brien/Lead giutar, PJ Kirwan/rythm guitar, Tony Regan/trombone, Paul Gorman/sax, David Hallissey/trumpet, Brendan O’Shea/drums.
We played around Waterford for a couple of years, at marquees, festivals etc, our biggest claim to fame being that we played at Barry’s Hotel in Dublin once
The following is an extract from my book THE SHINY RED HONDA, which covers the period
For my eighteenth birthday I got a union card, a crash helmet and the news that I was to start shift work in the rubber department in the Tannery. The rubber department was as different from the leather-board shop as a milking parlour from a bakery. Rows of machines lined the floor, looking, for all the world, like something out of a Marvel comic, their short, squat bodies festooned with pulleys and handles.
In here, shoe-soles of all shapes and sizes were turned out in their thousands. Bales of rubber were brought in, cut into thin slabs then delivered in bins to the machine operators. The slabs were then placed in the moulds and the machines set in motion. When the moulding process was complete, the moulds were emptied, and the filled bins carted away for despatch to some English shoe manufacturer.
The union card was compulsory on reaching the age of eighteen. For the payment of a shilling a week you got the privilege of voting in the shop-steward election once a year, and going on strike with no union pay when a dispute had to be settled.
The crash helmet wasn’t compulsory, but mother said I should wear it all the same. I did so when I remembered.
On the music front, a new era had begun. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones had broken new ground, were changing all the rules, and we wanted to be part of it. Gone were the staid and strait-laced days of the foxtrot and the waltz; new dances were springing up all over the world; fashion was becoming outlandish and outrageous; Mods and Rockers were fighting over girls in Brighton and Clacton, Beatle-mania was sweeping the world. We wanted to be part of the revolution.
There was no apartheid in the rubber department; girls as well as boys operated the machines, and it was clear that they, too, wanted to break the mould. Bee-hive hair-dos’ appeared, skirts began to creep upward, and it slowly dawned on us that girls did have legs above their knees.
It was no secret that we were trying to put a band together. And when Paul Gorman confessed that he, too, was trying to do the same, the germ of an idea was born. Why didn’t we join forces? Kilmac and Portlaw come together in some venture? It couldn’t work, would it? The only time they came together was on the sports field – when they usually kicked the shite out of each other.
Our first meetings were exploratory, but they turned out more productive than we expected; We all wanted a band with a brass section, and when we found that Paul played the saxophone and David Hallissey the trumpet…well, that was the brass section taken care of. The next problem was the drummer; they had Brendan O’Shea and we had PJ. Then we saw Brendan perform on the drums and that was the drummer problem solved. That meant me becoming the bass guitarist and PJ the rhythm guitarist. Neither of us minded too much; I had been experimenting with the bass already and PJ was already an accomplished guitar player. That only left Tony Regan. What could he play? After some discussion we decided we would buy a trombone and he could learn to play it.
Seamie solved the problem of where to rehearse with our now-expanded group. Michael Baron, the owner of the Rainbow Hall, also owned a joinery firm and Seamie worked for him. When he heard of our predicament, he offered us the use of the Rainbow on the nights it wasn’t in use, usually Tuesday and Thursday nights.
The name was less easy. Many were thought up and discarded. The Young Ones, The Young Devils. However, when the parish priest heard this last name being mentioned he came to see us and told us to find something more fitting. The Young Shadows was one we all liked but there was a group in Dublin already called that. The name ‘Royal’ was very popular with bands, and when someone came up with the word ‘Duke’, we thought it had a certain ring to it. We became The Royal Dukes.
Practice was hard work – especially for those not too acquainted with their instruments. I didn’t have much of an ear for music- tone deaf would be putting it mildly – so my bass notes depended on what chords Seamie was playing at any given time. This meant keeping one eye on his fingers, and one on my own playing – a practice from which anybody watching would conclude that I was cross-eyed. Then we discovered a sheet-music shop in Dungarvan. Buying the sheets at least stopped me from developing a squint, for, although I couldn’t read music, the guitar chords were clearly indicated.
We also needed microphones and amplifiers, and here Pat Barron, Michael’s brother, helped out. Pat was lead guitarist with the Pat Irwin band and he passed us on some amplification they no longer used.
Listening to ourselves in those early days was painful. We recorded some of our efforts and then played them back. One of the first was’ Send Me The Pillow That You Dreamed On’, a song made popular by Johnny Tillotson. We murdered it; off note, off key, out of tune, out of time, you name it, we did it. We played it back a second time; it sounded even worse. Seamie was tearing his hair out; never mind the same key, boys, could we all try and play the same tune!
Gradually we got better. Slowly, the realisation dawned that we were beginning to sound like a coherent unit. A band that now needed an audience, for a band that merely played behind closed doors was as useful as a car without wheels.
Michael Barron proved to be our saviour once again. He booked us as relief band at a forthcoming dance at The Rainbow. The date was a couple of months off so we had plenty of time for preperation. Or so we thought. We weren’t half ready. We never would be. We had to get jackets made, learn a dance routine, get ourselves better equipment. And Tony must learn to play his trombone. He couldn’t blow a note yet.
Slowly but surely the problems sorted themselves out. We went to a tailor in Dungarvan and he measured us up for our new jackets. We choose a broad blue-and-grey striped material, and picked a design similar to that worn by the Beatle. We worked on the dance routine, and found a supplier of hired amplification equipment in Town.
That only left Tony and his trombone. By now it was abundantly clear that he would never play the trombone. His best efforts so far had resembled a couple of jackasses bawling in unison. In the end we decided he should mime playing his instrument. This he did, moving with the rest of us in the dance routines, blowing silent notes on the trombone. It worked a treat; who was going to know what a trombone sounded anyhow with a saxophone and a trumpet blasting away?
The big night drew ever nearer. Posters had gone up all over the locality; RAINBOW HALL, SUNDAY. Music by the DAVITT BROTHERS. Supported by new local sensations THE ROYAL DUKES. This was heady stuff, and every time I passed a poster I stopped to read it – just to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming.
There was still no sign of our jackets. All sort of excuses were trotted out; the material had to come from England, the machinist had flu, the buttons hadn’t yet arrived. We intensified our practicing. As soon as a new song appeared we rushed out to get the sheet music. ‘It’s Been A Hard Day’s Night’ was rehearsed over and over, trying to capture some of the essence of the Beatles sound. But it was’ I Can Get No Satisfaction’ that was our trump card. Tum-tum –ta-ta –da-da-da –da –tum-tum…I practiced the bass notes incessantly. ‘I can get no – sat-is-fac-tion,’ sang Seamie in reply.
The song was causing much rage throughout the establishment. Radio Eireann was refusing to play it; the parish priest condemned it from the pulpit, but the youngsters were glued to their transistors, listening to it on Radio Luxemburg. Fr. Sinnott came to our rehearsals and heard us play it. The devil’s music, he called it, and said it was a mortal sin.
What…like adultery or murder? My soul could be forever damned for singing a song? I doubted it, somehow. By now my relationship with the church was changing. Gone were my altar-boy fancies for the priesthood, gone my implicit belief in the all-embracing goodness of the Catholic Church. I had now read up on historical events like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition – where people were imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake, all in the name of religion. It didn’t seem like a particularly religious activity to me. Oh, I still went to Mass on a Sunday, but that was only because it was expected and not because I wanted to. What sort of hypocrisy was that? I had begun to question our fundamental beliefs; The Holy Trinity, The Virgin Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, even the story of Adam and Eve. If the latter was true then Cain must have committed incest, mustn’t he?
I felt anger about the priest’s visit to our rehearsals; what right had he to tell us what music we could play. Later that night I wrote some verse about it.
Son, the priest said, put that guitar away
And get your hair cut, right
And don’t play I Can Get No Satisfaction
It’s a sin to call yourselves
The Red Devils, he said
And in the distance
I could see mother nodding her head
So we became The Royal Dukes
And played Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown instead
Saturday came and no jackets. We resigned to appearing jacket-less. White shirts and dark pants would have to do.
Shortly after six on Sunday we all met up in the Rainbow to set up our equipment before the Davitt Brothers arrived. Seamie came direct from Town, having picked up the amplifiers and other bits and pieces. He also brought seven jackets. The tailor had brought them round to his house earlier that day.
Christ, they were beautiful, those jackets. You could die happy in them. There was an old full-length mirror backstage and we strutted about in front of this for ages, admiring ourselves from every angle. Eventually, we reluctantly took them off and got on with setting up our gear.
The Rainbow was bursting at the seams that night. Curiosity, I suppose. The Davitt Brothers seemed bemused by it all. They were a competent outfit who had been playing the country venues for a number of years, and were used to sedate Macra Na Feirme and Muintir Na Tire supporters; nothing like the high excitement that was in evidence here. As the dance began and we listened to them play, we realised how much better than us they sounded.
It didn’t seem to matter. As they took their break and we replaced them. The crowd went wild. You would think we were The Beatles; they solidified into one heaving mass, packing the dance area. It was obvious there would be no dancing; they only wanted to listen and watch.
Looking out into the sea of faces I could see many I recognised; Jim Kiersey, his black hair slicked back, a crease on one side that would split timber; Vince Power, giving me the thumbs up; Shirley Mulcahy, on shoes so high she must have used a step-ladder; Tony Casey, Elvis quiff dripping oil. I closed my eyes briefly and said a prayer.
I needn’t have worried. We could have banged tin cans together and they would have cheered. ‘I Can Get No Satisfaction’ was our opening number and it nearly brought the house down. After that it was plain sailing; a few Beatles numbers, Jim Reeves, Jumbalaya, You Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Hound-Dog. Paul did a bit of Yakety –Sax, Seamie did ‘Apache’. We closed with Tony singing ‘Take These Chains From My Heart.’
Or thought we did. They wouldn’t let us finish. We had to run through several of the songs again. It was almost an hour before the Davitts came back on stage again. The Royal Dukes were in business!
Nothing ever quite matched that first night. We practiced with more determination now; building up our repertoire, determined to improve, but we had learned an important lesson that first night; looking good was at least as important as being good musicians. We looked the part on stage; good musicianship would either come with practice or not at all.
Bookings began to come in; more and more as we became known. We were usually playing somewhere every week, sometimes twice a week, rushing home in the early hours to snatch a few hours sleep before dashing out to work again. New Ross, Kilmore Quay, Dunhill, Tallow, Cahir, we played them all. When we played the Ormond Hall in Carrick I found myself making eyes at a dark-haired girl who had parked herself near the front of the bandstand. During the interval we got chatting, and she agreed that I could walk her home afterwards. I knew the others would wait, there being a tacit agreement to do so if anyone ‘shifted’. Getting your hole was of paramount importance.
‘Where does she live?’ One of the others asked.
‘Tracy Park,’ I replied.
He laughed. ‘Rather you than me, then. They eat their young there.’
I should have listened. I hadn’t even got round to a feel before they jumped me. The girl was sent packing, and I was thumped, kicked and propelled in the direction I had come from. I got back to the van minus my wallet, but otherwise relatively unscathed.
We were booked for the sheep-breeders annual dance at the Rainbow. This was usually a wild occasion, attended by many mountain farmers, many who probably hadn’t seen a woman for months. Some were on the look-out for a wife, others for a woman – any woman – and some of the antics made for hilarious watching. It never got as bad as the Ram Dance though; a yearly dance held at Clonea Strand, where a live ram was dragged on stage and crowned king of something-or –other. It was supposed to have its origins in some pagan fertility rite but as far as I could see the only thing that was fertile was the ram’s arse, shitting and pissing on stage as it stared, wild-eyed, at the throng.
Our finest hour came when we played at Barry’s Hotel in Dublin, on the same bill as Brian Rock and the Boys. Barry’s was the ‘culchie’ Mecca in Dublin, and Brian was in a different league to us. Nobody seemed to notice, however – not even when Tony took it upon himself to let rip with his trombone during our playing of the National Anthem. Trombone raised heavenwards, he blew a series of notes that sounded like a bull bawling with a wellington stuck down its throat. Which goes to show that you can fool all of the people all of the time…even Jackeens!