Around Ireland in 80 Tunes – July

This week on my tour, I had company. My cousin Emma, who has until now been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make all my music videos, joined me in Dublin to get some field experience.

Well, after three days of walking, carrying, hitching, (and in her case limping), she tells me that she’s not too tired. But she doesn’t look in a hurry to get off that couch she’s sitting on either.

Every week of touring has brought with it new and unique challenges and this week was no different.

Tour lesson no. 7 – Coordinating two people is 3x more work than coordinating one person.

Wednesday morning, I hit the road at half past six. I caught an Aircoach up to Dublin, arrived at ten am and walked over to Busáras to collect Emma.

Her bus was over an hour late.

Not wanting to waste the time, I took out my harp and practised my tunes for that day, garnering more than a few curious looks and one free cup of tea from a listener. It was a nice little interlude, but eventually Emma’s bus did arrive and we got to work.

Starting in the city centre, we trotted up and down the Liffey filming bridges and statues and dodging shoals of tourists. You may question my use of the word shoal. Surely a herd would be a better descriptor, I hear you say. But I argue that only fish and birds can move as erratically as tourists and it was raining. So shoals.

Also, as you will notice, I forgot to take any pictures on this week of touring. Having a videographer was both a blessing and a curse as I barely touched my phone the whole time. So if you like the look of any of these pictures, head over to Emma’s Youtube channel to see them moving about in a video like format as they are mostly screenshots from her blog.

We actually had two locations to film in Dublin city itself. So we trotted around the city centre, filmed a few landmarks, and then caught a bus to Donnybrook.

Donnybrook is… an area. I’m afraid there isn’t much to say about it. But they did have a lovely sign for me to sit next to.

Donnybrook, Dublin

Next on the list were Fingal and Drogheda. Fingal, it turns out, is a sub-county of Dublin so I nominated Swords to represent it.

It’s funny finally getting to visit all of these places. I’ve heard about them but I’ve never really had any occasion to go to Dublin and environs. I was pleasantly surprised with both towns. I thought Dublin commuter towns would feel a bit soulless but they’re both quite pretty. We finished filming in Drogheda and then turned north towards Carrickmacross and our bed for the night.

This was the moment Emma had been waiting for. Hitchhiking #101. For all those who are similarly curious and have never hitched before, I will be writing an extensive blog about this, but here are a few things to know beforehand:

  1. Hitching involves a lot more walking than you think. Like, a lot more.
  2. A sign and whiteboard marker are your best friends.
  3. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions a lot of times. At this point I pretty much have a script for hitching.

So we walked out to the first good spot we found, made a sign, stuck out our thumbs and hoped for the best. I think we were there for about five minutes before someone pulled up.

Our driver, John, drove us all the way to Carrickmacross and delivered us to Kate, our host for the night.

We weren’t quite done for the night and Kate drove us out to visit a man called Finnian, who had a tune for me for Carrickmacross. Finnian, if you are reading this, I’m sorry but I didn’t actually get a chance to film it. I will come back. Promise.

The generosity of people is truly astounding. After feeding us, housing us, plying us with wine and good conversation all night, Kate then drove myself and Emma to Monaghan town the next morning. She waited patiently for us to finish our filming, helpfully pointing out local monuments and showing us where the museum was, before bundling us back in to the car and driving us to Cavan. Here’s a little flavour and a sneaky shot of the wonderful Kate.

The bells on my waistcoat were indeed a bit of a liability in the reverent silence of the churches. What can I say, I’m just not a quiet person.

We waved goodbye to Kate in Cavan and after hiding from a brief but brutal rain shower we headed out towards Mullagh.

Tour lessson #8: If it looks interesting, stop and ask.

In all honesty, I didn’t have high hopes for Mullagh. It looked like a pretty small place on the maps and I thought we’d be done and dusted in forty-five minutes. How wrong I was.

As we were walking into the town, we happened to pass a very beautiful cast iron gate that I thought might look nice in the video. It was next to a workshop area that appeared to make cast iron things and a man was just walking in. So we crossed the road and asked if it would be ok to film the gate. The man said: “Well it’s not my gate but we can ask Alan. ” Well here he is:

Alan Clarke, artist blacksmith

We did indeed get permission to film his gate. We also got a short history of Mullagh, the gates of Mullagh (they were well known toll gates) and how the current town of Mullagh was built by the local estate owner to bypass said tolls. It’s always good to get a bit of local history. At this point, the man who had shown us in piped up and asked if we were interested in local artists and artwork for the video. We answered that we were. And that’s how we met Don. He doesn’t sell his work, he just makes it for the love of making things. His house was a treasure trove of metalwork, painting and stained glass. It will be in the video, so you will all get to see a little bit of the amazing artwork that is hiding in a nondescript terraced house in a small town in Cavan.

After a thorough perusal of the art, we waved goodbye and walked to the other end of the town to hitch a lift to Ballinlough Castle, some 30km south. We made a sign for Kells and we waited.

And we waited.

There’s always a moment, on every tour, when I am stop and wonder how on earth I got to where I am standing and whether I will ever get to where I am going. This was that moment.

And then a taxi pulled in to give us a lift to Kells, free of charge.

Ballinlough Castle was the last stop for the day. When I did my (admittedly) limited research for this week, I found Ballinlough Castle and Garden on the map and decided that would be worth a visit. I thought it would be like Blarney Castle and Garden. It was not.

Tour lesson #9: Do your research!

We strolled up the beautiful lane way and found the castle strangely devoid of people and signage and the usual things you would expect at a castle expecting visitors.

Instead we found one man sitting on the pond jetty who was not the owner, but in fact a garden designer who had asked permission to view the grounds. I asked him who he had asked permission from and he pointed to the car pulling up the lane.

After a brief chat with the manager of the castle estate (the owner was on holiday at the time) we established that the castle is no longer open to visitors so we couldn’t film in it. We did, however, get permission to have a look around the gardens, seeing as we’d come all that way.

We might have done some filming on the sly. It was late and I wasn’t about to go looking for another Ballinlough. In case you’re wondering, this is the castle.

Ballinlough Castle, Westmeath

By now it was getting on for six o’clock. Emma was limping quite badly, having developed a blister on the sole of her foot, and we were both hungry. We walked back out to the road and got a lift to Mullingar.

The thing I love most about hitchhiking is the mad stories and this is a good example. The man who picked us up was on his way to participate in the Celtic Knot 1000, a cycling challenge, for fun on his weekend.

The challenge is to cycle 1000km in seventy five hours. 1000km. 75 hours. We did not complain about our long day on the way to Mullingar. We didn’t dare.

Now, originally the plan for Friday had been to start in Mullingar, get to the hill of Tara, then to Kildare and from Kildare it was a short hop to Blessington and the Knockanstockan festival we would be attending for the weekend. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a mix up with cars and bags and tents and we ended up booking another night in Dublin City for Friday night. Had I known this in advance I might have planed my route a little differently, but there was nothing for it now so we got up Friday morning and went to film Mullingar. After a quick stop into Oxfam to get Emma some new shoes and to a pharmacy to buy all of their blister plasters, we hit the road.

The hill of Tara is in County Meath and looks out over the Boyne, the M3 and a whole lot of fields. Here it is on a map:

Hill of Tara, County Meath

As with all of these places, my plan for getting to them is ‘stick your thumb out and hope for the best’. So of course we got a lift all the way from Mullingar to the car park at the bottom of the hill. We thanked our driver and clambered out of the car just as the sun broke through the clouds.

I have a list of my favourite places on this tour. So far it goes:

  1. Castle Oliver, Limerick
  2. Conor Pass, Kerry
  3. Hill of Tara, Meath

I think I just like being on top of hills.

The view from Tara was quite stunning. As the sun burned away the lingering clouds, the entire valley came into view. I spotted at least three ruined castles that I was sorely tempted to try and find. I could see the smoke plume from a house fire that we had driven past, thankfully dissipating as the blaze died down. We had driven past the house on our way to the hill and although all the people seemed to be calm and unharmed- the house itself was an inferno. My heart goes out to the owners.

There were remarkably few tourists on the hill so Emma and I managed to get some good clean footage. We stood on the hill, took in the view and enjoyed the sunshine after three days of grey skies and drizzle. It felt like a gift from the old kings themselves.

But there is no rest for the travelling musician and we still had to reach Kildare. This is where it got a little tricky.

There is a bus from near the hill into Dublin, and from there we could have gotten a bus out to Kildare. But to take the buses would actually have taken us between two and a half and three and a half hours. To drive between the two should only take an hour. So we shouldered the bags again and headed out towards what looked like the best road to hitch from.

In the end it took us four hours.

Cross-country is difficult, especially near Dublin. It’s like trying to sit on the edge of a trampoline with a heavy weight in the center. Every road leads to Dublin and it’s constantly trying to pull you back in. We criss-crossed along different roads, abandoned one good hitching spot due to the cloud of horse flies (I still have the bite marks on my legs!), and with great effort managed to reach Kildare just as the Tourist Office was closing.

Dunsany Cross, Co. Meath aka ‘Horsefly HELL’

We missed the tower in Kildare, it was shut by the time we got there, but the man from the Tourist Office pointed out a few things even though he was trying to close so we wandered up to the church and did our filming. He actually came up to find us afterwards and to hear the story and gave us a little bit of information about the church and the fire pit where the sacred fire of Brigid was kept from pre-Christian times until the suppression of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. It is now perpetually lit in a sculpture in the town square.

We also shook hands with a church door. It was a bit weird.

Then finally, at about half past seven, we got on a bus and made our way back to Dublin.

This blog has taken me a week longer than usual to write, despite the tour only being three days in total. But I have been distracted with Emma’s vlogs. It’s fascinating to see the tour from someone else’s perspective and I didn’t want to finish my blog until I had seen the last one, which I watched today. If you haven’t seen them, I really can’t recommend them highly enough.

So many of the little interactions get lost in the mayhem of travel and filming. I’m grateful that many of them were saved this time around. I had actually forgotten about the forklift truck blocking a mile of traffic on the backroad to Tara. I hadn’t forgotten about the horsefly disaster, but it’s nice to have proof. You can see them zipping about in the video- tiny flying harbingers of pain and irritation.

But mostly I’m just happy to have another person who now understands what this tour is like. We were sitting on that bus back to Dublin, driving through the Curragh which is just fascinating in it’s own right, and Emma turned to me.

“There’s just no way to explain this experience,” she said. “I thought I understood from watching the videos and from reading your blog, but it’s so different in real life.”

And it’s true. There is no substitute for experience. There is no way to document every little thing, even with a vlog and a blog and every social media platform at your disposal.

I wanted to use this tour to bring people together. To show that we are all connected through music and to reach out and connect an entire country in this narrative I’ve created. And while I have connected with people in passing, and made new friends along the way, there is a special joy in shared experience.

Emma’s thoughts

As Conni has already said, although I have been editing the music videos the past few months, and hearing what this tour has been like, I massively underestimated how much she could fit into one day of touring. The distance we covered walking around each town, learning to hitchhike and then hitching to all the locations, and the sheer exhaustion at the end of each day astounded me.

But even though I think I died for a couple of days after we finished, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The experience was one of a kind. The interesting people we met, stories we heard, and the places I would have never seen otherwise were worth it.

As Conni has already quoted me saying, I can now fully understand how impossible it is to fully explain to anyone what it is that we did, and Conni continues to do, with this tour. Sometimes first hand experience really is the only way. But reading this blog and getting to create the vlogs for that week have at least given a good glimpse of what it’s like touring with this mad woman.

Selfie at Ballinlough Castle, Westmeath

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