All posts by The Street Harpist

A Harpists Guide to Hitchhiking

It seems almost a faux pas to be writing this blog now, as though this already somewhat taboo subject has just become more so.

But then, maybe that’s the perfect time to write about it.

Hitchhiking is one of those things that people seem to be equal parts fascinated and horrified by on, even on a normal day.

In this time of social distancing, with our newfound fear of handshakes and hugs, it feels almost unthinkable that as recently as three months ago I was happily climbing into passenger seats of unknown people, sitting next to their children, balancing dogs on my lap, and never once worrying about whether or not I might catch plague.

I started hitching when I was nineteen. Well, that’s perhaps not entirely true. I suppose it would be more accurate to say I started hitching solo at nineteen. Until then I’d always had a friend with me, or a parent even, and I’d never gone particularly far.

But then I started college and I had to get buses and I lived thirty km away from the nearest bus station and there wasn’t always someone around who could give me a lift.

So I thought I’d give it a go.

My dad dropped me as far as the main road, and I stuck out my thumb. I think I waited less than five minutes before someone stopped for me.

And that was the beginning. I got a lift off a lovely woman, who dropped me all the way to the bus station, and then I got my bus to Cork. Easy.

Everything is scary the first few times. First time I went busking I was shaking like a leaf. But you get used to it. You find your own rhythm. And so it was with hitching.

If I could get a lift, I would, and if no-one was available I would go to the main road, stick out my thumb, and usually be there in about the same amount of time.

Some days I would hitch just for the fun of it. Because I fancied talking to someone new and didn’t want to just sit on a bus, staring out the window.

Other times there just wasn’t any other option. Like the time I had to play at a wedding at St. Finbar’s oratory in Gougane Barra one cold November morning. In my defense, bus eireann claimed to have a bus route out to it, but when I presented my ticket to the driver he informed me that service hadn’t run in over five years. But he could drop me at the turning if I liked? Well, I had a wedding to be at so I said yes and he left me at the Coolcower Court turning, a neat 30km from my destination, with my harp, and wished me good luck.

I made it. The last lift was two young lads from the nearby village who stopped out of sheer curiosity and nearly died laughing at my predicament. They drove ten miles out of their way to drop me to the door.

And that is probably my very favourite thing about hitching. Sometimes the sheer generosity of strangers really does blow me away.

I should be used to it really. After all, my livelihood is entirely based on the generosity of others, but with busking there is a trade. You provide them with amusement, some pleasant music to brighten their day, and in exchange they give you a few coins and maybe a nice compliment to brighten yours.

With hitching the exchange is quite different. You reach out and not only ask for someone’s generosity, but also their trust. Their space. Their company. All rare and valuable commodities these days. And yet, I have never been left empty-handed.

I don’t remember every lift I’ve ever had, but I remember quite a few. Where bus journeys and Ryanair flights all blur into one long, impersonal haze of uncomfortable chairs and hoping no-one would try and strike up a conversation, hitchhiking journeys have flavour.

As a rule the people who pick you up will at the very least want to know the basics. Where are you going? Where have you come from? Who are you? And of course the most important one, why are you hitching?

These four questions, I find, are enough to fill a journey between five and fifty miles long. Sometimes I’ll hop out at my destination, wave goodbye to the person I’ve spent the last half hour talking to, and realize that at no point did we exchange names. It is a strangely intimate and yet utterly ephemeral connection.

Some of my more memorable journeys would be the woman who took me from Charleville to Cork who worked in a company that leases aircraft to airline companies, the woman who took me from CastleIsland to Rathmore during my tour (a journey where we both discovered that Rathmore has two towns a few miles apart and we were both very confused by this), and the man who pulled over in his artic lorry to pick up myself and Emma somewhere outside of Kells to drop us off near Ballinlough castle which turned out to neither be a castle, nor to be open to the public, nor to be on any kind of main road to …well… anywhere.

I was hitching once from Gort to Whitegate, over the Derrybrien backroads. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the Clare/Galway border these backroads are the real deal.

There are no people.

none

Well… there was one, I suppose.

I mean, I was there.

Now, it just so happened that I was carrying a pair of crutches at the time. I didn’t need crutches, but I had been seeing a friend to the bus and she had borrowed the crutches off us, and I had, on a whim, decided to take a different route home and visit a friend along the way.

So there’s me, walking along this road, with a pair of crutches slung over my shoulder. It was blisteringly hot that day and I had no water with me, but the walk was pleasant enough.

In an hour, one car passed me. I stuck out my thumb, but they didn’t stop. So I shrugged my shoulders and kept walking.

Eventually, and inexplicably, I came to a pub. It was open and I wandered in to ask for a glass of water. Duly refreshed I set off again.

About five minutes later the same car from before passed me again. Going in the same direction as before. It pulled over and waited for me.

It turned out that the man driving it had driven ten miles or so after passing me before the guilt had become so strong that he had turned around and driven back, missed me because I had stopped in for that glass of water, thought he had somehow managed to miss me along this one single stretch of road, or that I had vanished, turned around again and then finally found me on a stretch of road he had already covered.

And that is actually an incredibly common theme in my hitching journeys. Here’s a phrase I hear about one journey in five:

“I couldn’t just leave you there. You’ll never get a lift out here.”

No-one ever seems to see the irony in this and I never point it out. Wouldn’t want to jinx it.

In fact, there is only one other stock phrase that I hear more and it is this one:

“I used to hitch myself, when I was your age. We all did. Wouldn’t do it now though. Far too dangerous.”

And this is by far simultaneously the most understandable and most baffling conversation I have while hitching.

People seem to be afraid to pick up hitchers, because they fear that they might pick up a dangerous psychopath. But they pick me up, because I might get picked up by a dangerous psychopath. Whereupon they proceed to tell me how when they were younger everybody hitched and nobody ever got picked up by a dangerous psychopath, but it was different back then.

Yes, I agree. Back then nobody had a mobile phone, or satellite tracking, or gps built into their cars. Nobody was updating their progress on Instagram so if you went missing on a journey from Cork to Belfast it was anybody’s guess where along the road you went missing.

Back in the good old days when people didn’t insist you buckle your seatbelt.

Back in the days when it was perfectly acceptable to smoke with a passenger in the car.

Yes, I’m sure it was a lot safer. Back then.

I really do try not to get annoyed about this, but I’ve never been good at being told I shouldn’t do something because it isn’t safe, or because I’m a woman, or because it isn’t safe because I’m a woman. Especially when I’m being told not to do the thing by another woman, who did the thing herself at my age and suffered no ill consequence from it, but that was then and it was safer then, as we have discussed.

It was in fact, not safer then. It is not safe now. I have done my reading and looked at my facts, and the most dangerous part of getting into a car with a stranger is in fact getting into a car. People die in car crashes every year. Cars are dangerous. Things were a lot safer before we had cars.

Unless you got run over by a horse and cart of course.

Which happened a surprising amount. Horses are very large and heavy and spook a lot easier than your average Ford Fiesta.

And now we finally reach the ‘Guide’ part of this guide. Honestly, it is mostly just common sense.

When I hitch, I do so in the daylight. There is one route I will hitch in dusk and it’s the road back to my dad’s house because I am almost invariably picked up by someone I know. Or who knows my brother/mother/father/dog. Such is rural Ireland. Other than that, if it is getting dark out, I find another way.

Don’t hitch at night.

Keep your stuff with you as much as is possible.

This is perhaps a slight paranoia of mine, but I like to keep my belongings where I can see them if at all possible.

Sometimes, when you have a bag and a harp and an amp and you’re squashing into a car with three children you just have to put your luggage in the boot, but I personally feel more comfortable if there isn’t a possibility of me getting out and the driver just taking off with my stuff.

That might just be me though.

When a car pulls up I look who’s in it and ask where they are going. I stay friendly and open, but I take a good look at the person/persons in that car and I get a vibe for them. Usually it’s fine, but sometimes people stop and I just don’t like the look of them, or their car, or something, and I will make up an excuse. Change my destination. Decide that they are going a different route to where I want to go. Or simply decline their offer. If they are decent people they will take it well, and if they don’t then you made the right call not getting in the car.

Everybody has a vibe. If it is a bad vibe, don’t get in the car.

In all my time hitching I have had exactly three lifts that I was less than ecstatic about.

Twice the man in the car decided I needed to hear about Jesus for the duration of the trip, and once a woman decided to chain smoke the entire time.

That is it.

On the flip side, I have met incredibly interesting and generous people. I have been given excellent advice and hilarious stories. I have learned local knowledge and passed on some of my own. And I have made what would otherwise be long, lonely, expensive journeys into experiences that give me joy to relate and to relive. After all, good company on the road is the shortest cut.

The Comedown

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to write about. I feel a little lost.

I imagine every performer feels this. I suppose I should ask a few. After a big gig, or a tour, or a launch. Any event you’ve psyched yourself up for and poured yourself into.

At the beginning it’s so daunting. You stand at the bottom of a mountain of work and wonder why you’re doing it. And then you start.

I, personally, love the beginning stages of a new project. Everything is a clean slate, no idea is off the cards, you can just wallow in the deepest pools of your imagination. Then at some point- reality starts to kick in.

You make calls. You print flyers. You record music. You start doing whatever jobs there are to be done. At this point you might have a nice little bullet-pointed to-do list. If you’re like me, you go through reams of paper writing everything down. If you’re sensible, you do it on a computer or something. Save the trees and all that.

At this point you’ve told all your friends and family. You talk about your project with the doe-eyed awe of an expecting parent.

“Look,” you say. “Look at this thing I am creating. When it is finished, it will be beautiful.”

And then it starts. You get into the meat of the work and you start to get a little tired. Things get crossed off your list and new things get added as you crest one hill only to find another one behind it. You learn lessons. You adapt.

And then at some point, a little after the middle but before the final act, you maybe have a moment like I did. Where you look at the mountain you’ve climbed, now behind and below you, and you turn and look at the mountain in front of you and think: “I should have stayed in the office.” Every plate is up in the air. Every part of the project needs attention all at the same time and your brain starts turning into pudding. If you’re lucky, you have a team behind you to take some of the weight.

One of the greatest moments of the tour was sitting watching Emma research locations for the August week of the tour. At that point I honest to God couldn’t make one more decision. I think this is where the body takes over.

Now you’re running on auto-pilot. If you had a good day, or a particularly strong coffee, maybe you’ve rewritten your to do list on a clean sheet of paper. You put your head down and you work.

The August week of touring occupies a similar place in my head as my final few weeks of college. Everything was due, there was a mountain of work to be done, so I just put my head down and worked through it till it was done and damn the consequences on the other side.

And then you’ve broken the back of it. You can see some kind of finish line on the horizon. It’s a good feeling. At this point you are probably running on caffeine, or adrenalin, or something equally wonderful and unhealthy.

You make more calls, do more promotion. On some level you realize that you are nearly done and you actually cannot wait to be free of this thing. The doe-eyes are gone, replaced with exhaustion, but there’s no stopping now so you keep going.

And then you’re done.

You play your gig, you release your album or book, you finish your tour and go home.

And life just kind of… goes on.

There’s still stuff to do. There’s probably loads of little pieces to pick up. For me, there’s a seemingly endless number of videos to put out. But I can do that from my bedroom, drinking tea and watching the rain.

I get this at the end of every big project. When I finished college, when I released my second and third album, and now the tour. I spent the first week just sort of wandering around the house. Too tired to do anything, but too used to doing stuff to sit still. I thought about writing a blog and my brain nearly shut down.

And here I am, writing these thoughts down for you.

I’ve never had a blog before. Not because I don’t like writing, or talking, or telling people about things. Anyone who knows me will agree I enjoy all of these things. It was more a case of I didn’t really know what to write. I didn’t think people would be interested in my ramblings. But then I realized, this is my blog and I can ramble if I like.

So there you have it. The come down off the tour. If you’re a fellow performer I would love to hear if you have a similar experience with big projects. And if you’re reading this and considering embarking on a big project I can only say this:

JUST DO IT

Around Ireland in 80 Tunes – September

And then there were eight. Eight locations left to visit on my five month journey of Ireland. For once past me did present me a solid and after I’d planned out my route I realised I would only need three days to finish of the tour. With a prayer of gratitude to past me I set my alarm and got an early night.

The day didn’t start as well as I would have liked. After packing my bag that morning I walked up to the bus stop and waited for half an hour for a bus that just didn’t seem to want to come. As I was waiting I realised I had forgotten to pack my tripod, my tour sign and my house keys. Grumbling vociferously I walked back to the house, hammered on the door, and nearly frightened the life out of my housemate as I stomped back up to my room to collect the missing items. The second go went a bit better and I was on a bus to Middleton by half past ten.

My first stop for the day was Clonmel. When planning the tour I actually made the decision to go out to Middleton and hitch up and over the mountains so I could see the Vee, a viewing point in Tipperary. Here’s what I saw:

The Vee, Co. Tipperary

I’d say it was worth it. There was also a sheep, sitting calm as you please in the middle of the road. He wouldn’t move for the car, we had to drive around him. Unfortunately, I was too busy laughing at it to take a photo.

Tour Lesson 11: Take the scenic route

I got to Clonmel at about half past one. It took the me the same amount of time as a bus would have but I got to meet four new people and see a fantastic view rather than a boring old motorway. Waving goodbye to my lift I set off through the town.

I dropped into the Old Guard building for a quick history lesson on the Ormond family who ruled a lot of the area I was visiting on this trip. Then, after getting my footage I started walking out the main road towards Carrick-on-Suir.

After about twenty minutes of walking, in the blazing sunshine, a lad named Chad pulled up beside me and asked if I needed a lift. As he put it, I clearly had my life on my back and somewhere to be. After yet another explanation of what I was doing and why he dropped me of in Carrick with a smile and a good luck.

I wasn’t actually filming the town of Carrick-on-Suir. Rather, I was filming the Suir valley. So I finished my filming in record time, played a quick tune for a curious bystander, and set off for my third location of the day, Mooncoin.

I’ve been excited about Mooncoin ever since I started the tour. I cannot explain why. The name actually means Coyne’s Bogland in Gaelic. The town has a population of about a thousand people, no town square, and almost nothing in it. And yet, it was charming. It’s the kind of place you would never conceive of just going to, which makes it all the more special that I can say I’ve been there. These things make me happy.

Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny

And that was the end of my first day. I caught a ride to Waterford city and checked into my hostel by about five pm. I don’t know if I’m getting better at this, or if I just managed to plan a really easy route, but honestly the day went so well I was almost suspicious.

Seeing as I had plans for the next morning I walked around Waterford that evening to get most of my footage. That’s when I learned about the Waterford Walls. Started in 2015 the Walls project is aimed at creating beautiful art for everyone to enjoy. All around Waterford city, often in the less visited side streets and back ways, you will find stunning graffiti works stretching over entire building. Sometimes up whole streets. I did not find all of them but here’s a little sample for you:

The next morning I went into town and did a little spot of busking before joining in the FridaysforFuture climate strike. There was a good turn out and it’s clear that Waterford people really care for their town. Children, parents, activist groups, buskers, we all set off marching through the town. In August I wrote that nothing comes before the tour. This is the one exception.

I only had two locations for that day, so after the march I caught a ride to Kilkenny and arrived in time to enjoy the warm September sunshine in the castle gardens, and catch a good bit of the Culture Night festivities. I got a tour of the castle and went to a local Ceoltas performance, before turning in for the night.

Saturday morning I packed my bag up for the very last time. I checked out of the hostel and walked for what felt like forever to get to a good hitching spot out of Kilkenny. I caught a lift to Durrow, where I was met by several members of the Durow Development Forum. With their help I got permission to film at Durow Castle, now a privately owned hotel, and was given a short history and tour of the town itself. It was a wonderful.

Durrow is a small town. It has a population of less than a thousand people and was bypassed by the M8 motorway in 2010.

Bypassing a town certainly speeds up a commute, but it can sound the death knell for small towns who rely on passing trade for their existence. Talking with Emer from the DDF she told me how the town struggled, shops closed, the town was dying. But the people of Durrow are proud of their little town, and they have every right to be. It’s a lovely little spot with it’s own history and it’s own distinct feel. So the people fought back.

Durrow hosts an annual scarecrow festival. It’s community run, manned by volunteers, and the proceeds go back into the development fund which is used on projects in the town. Where most of the towns I visited have the usual Tourist Information signs, Durrow has a lovingly hand-painted version made by one of the Forums members.

Durrow, Co. Laois

Having seen a broad spectrum of Ireland at this point it is genuinely wonderful to visit a town with real pride. Their enthusiasm was infectious, as you can tell from the picture. In an act of real kindness Emer went to fetch her car to drive me to my next location as she didn’t think I’d ever manage to get there hitching. All in all, Durrow has joined the short list of favourite places I’ve been on this tour.

Lisheen on the other hand…

I swear it’s on the map. Emers satnav couldn’t find it, but I swear it’s there! Eventually we found a marker for Lisheen Castle and decided that would probably do.

Lisheen Castle, Co. Tipperary

Well here it is.

Lisheen Castle is in fact a privately owned hotel. It’s quite exclusive. It has a big gate. But as luck would have it, we arrived at the entrance just as the owner was leaving to get his lunch. After a quick chat to explain what I was doing, and why I needed to get into his castle to film, he waved me through the gate with a slightly confused look. Honestly, I think he just wanted me gone so he could go get his food.

But I was through, so I trotted up the lane and made my video. As you can see in the photo, the weather was turning on me, so I had to move quickly. I walked round the back of the castle and bumped into some of the cleaning crew who let me in, also with a slightly confused look, and I got to take a quick peek at the beautiful decor. I may have sneakily taken a little footage as well. Packing up my gear I headed back down the lane and hit a slight snag in my plan.

The gate.

The owner had let me in, but the gate was electric and obviously needed a code. But the wall and hedge next to it looked fairly climbable. I threw my bag over, put my harp on top of the hedge, and hopped the wall. Only then did I notice the parked car on the other side.

Inside were two lovely Americans, fresh of their flight from Dublin, patiently waiting to be let into their hotel. We had a quick chat and I told them what I was doing and where I was going and assured them I wasn’t a burglar. They seemed to take it all in their stride. Time was pressing though so I bade them goodbye and headed off in what I hoped was the direction of a main road.

About five minutes later they pulled up next to me and gave me a lift.

Jetlagged and weary, they’d made space in their car and come after me because, -now say it with me-, “I’d never get a lift out here.”

They dropped me off in Thurles after a nice little jaunt through the countryside and a little bit of local information from myself. I think they actually went to have a look at Thurles, but I couldn’t hang around. So, pack on my back, I walked out the old road to Cashel to catch my next ride.

And then I was in Cashel. Number eighty. The last one.

It was raining.

I have never, EVER, been in Cashel and it not been raining. I have seen pictures of the Rock of Cashel against a beautiful blue sky. I can only guess that the photographer camped out for several months waiting for that five minute window of opportunity.

But even the rain wasn’t going to dampen my spirits. I walked down to the old Abbey ruins first as it looked quieter down there, and filmed my footage sitting on wet grass under a grey and stormy sky. Then I went and climbed all over the Abbey, because I could.

Cashel, Co. Tipperary

Now, I had originally hoped to arrive in Cashel to some kind of welcome. That after five months of travelling the country I might be welcomed to my last stop, give a little performance, maybe get to sit up on the Rock and play my final tune which was, fittingly, Carolans Ramble to Cashel. But it was not to be.

In the same way that I have had wonderful welcomes in some of the smaller places like Tuamgraney, Ballydehob and Durrow, many of the larger towns have been completely unresponsive and uninterested in what I am doing. If you’ve seen the vlogs from July and August, or spoken to me at all, you will have picked up that I don’t get on very well with the national body known as the OPW. They own many of the larger monuments in Ireland and have been entirely unhelpful with regards to my tour. In one email, which still rankles, I was told that my project was deemed ‘an unsuitable use of a national monument’. So with very little hope of success I climbed the hill to the Rock, and was turned away.

That may seem like a poor way to end such a massive project, but I disagree.

In my room I have a map of Ireland. Every time I come back from my trips I cross off all the places I’ve visited. I have been to, or through, almost every county in Ireland (Wexford, Wicklow, Carlow, Mayo and Tyrone… your time will come).

I have told my story to hundreds of people and been met with much confusion, but also a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement. People have given me places to sleep, snacks and presents and driven miles out of their way to help me reach my goal. Many of the people I’ve met now follow me on social media and seeing their names pop up means much more to me than having a thousand faceless ‘likes’ ever could.

I was turned away from a national park because they don’t allow filming ‘for profit’. I tried to explain that I don’t make any money from these videos. That the tour is not for profit. It is a labour of love. An institution cannot understand that, but people can and it has moved them to kindness on my behalf.

The beauty of Ireland is not in its institutions. It isn’t even in its grand monuments, though they are certainly beautiful.

The real beauty of Ireland is its people. People who have welcomed me, helped me, given me the benefit of the doubt and often thanked me for it afterwards.

The work isn’t finished. I still have a lot of music to record. There are still over sixty videos to put together and post. I’m working on a show that will bring together stories and music and images of the tour and hoping to bring that back to some of the best places I visited. But the tour itself is over. My sign has been packed away, my hat is sitting on the wardrobe waiting for next summer, and I only have one thing left to say;

Thank you.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to every single person who has helped me. To every person who stopped to chat, who asked for my story and listened to it. To everyone who gave me a lift, whether it was five miles or fifty. Thank you to my family and friends who have supported me and encouraged me when I was flagging. Thank you to Emma, for whom there are simply no words great enough.

I will leave you with this collection of my favourite moments from the tour. Enjoy.

Around Ireland in 80 Tunes – August

The longer this tour goes on the harder it becomes to sit down and write this blog. The August week was really the thick of it with three weeks in Northern Ireland visiting family, touring, going to gigs, doing surprise gigs myself and filming a music video that I’ve been planning for months and still managed to be behind schedule on. I have now visited and recorded in 72 locations in Ireland. I have hitched, bussed, driven, been driven and walked the literal length and breadth of this beautiful country. Needless to say, it’s all becoming a bit of a blur.

But you’re here and I’m here and I have stories to tell, so tell them I shall. One order of scrambled brain and word salad coming right up!

Le Poer Trench Memorial, Dunlo Hill, Ballinasloe, County Galway

First of all I must admit that I actually did a little bit of touring without telling you all. After convincing Emma to drive from Fermanagh to Cork to collect me I then also managed to get her to drive home through the middle of the country so I could stop off in Ballinasloe and Athlone along the way.

Here is a photo of me standing atop the Le Poer Trench memorial in Ballinasloe. I remember when I was little I always wanted to climb on everything. Take your eyes off me for a second and I’d be attempting to scale the nearest wall, fountain, tree or vaguely climbable person. Things haven’t changed much. Emma let me off the lead for a moment and I proceeded to scramble gleefully up the masonry.

We covered Ballinasloe and Athlone and then headed home. I think we got in at about half past eleven at night. Poor Emma had been driving since eight that morning, so I gave her a week off while I plotted the tour.

I say I plotted the tour. I am not too proud to admit that Emma, after having experienced “the Conni method” of travel planning, sat down the next day and planned the tour for me. I set out the order of the tunes and where we were going and she actually researched all the places and what we might like to have a look at in each one. She made a list and everything. It was very organised.

Tour Lesson 10: Work to your strengths and allow others to do the same.

That being said I still had to do one bit alone. That weekend I set off for Belfast to go to a gig and to film the city. And that’s where this happened…

I don’t know how but Eileen has a crack on her backboard now. I swear she was bundled up the whole way to Belfast but somehow she got damaged. I was distressed to say the least. Realistically though it’s kind of amazing that she doesn’t have more scars considering how far she’s travelled. Anyway, I have been reassured that it can be fixed. Just another souvenir from the road. Such is life.

After Belfast the tour proper started. I met up with Emma in Newry and from there we set off towards Portaferry. For those who don’t know, Portaferry is on the far side of Strangford Loch and as such can only be reached by either driving all the way around the peninsula (it’s a REALLY long way), or by catching the car ferry which takes about ten minutes. So we boarded the ferry, hopped up onto the deck, and I promptly got seasick on the shortest sea voyage I’ve ever been on. I would at this point like to point out that Emma, compassionate soul that she is, pointed her camera at me and proceeded to mock me the whole way across. Vloggers are a truly cruel breed of human.

Portaferry was beautiful. It was sunny, the ladies at the tourist office were wonderfully receptive and, aside from the ferry, it was definitely a favourite. After suitably enjoying it we got back on the boat and headed to Lisburn where we learned all about linen.

Making linen is a ridiculously involved process that seemed to take up every waking moment of peoples lives. I tried my hand at spinning a bit of yarn and made a complete pigs ear of it. Honestly I have a new appreciation of the work that went into every piece of cloth. It makes sense now why people were willing to spend so much time making lace and embroidery to go with it.

Day two of the tour we set off in the complete opposite direction to visit Sligo, Ballisodare and Lough Allen. Here’s a photo of what we found in Sligo:

Garden gnomes in Sligo town

Do with that what you will. We were in awe. The whole garden was full, you’ll see it in the music video eventually.

After a brief stop in an antique shop to play with the pianos we moved on to Ballisodare. It was there that we found a sad remnant of the financial crash.

Ballisodare town is split into two parts. There’s the old village which is really just one main street with the shop and the pubs on it. Then, through a little alleyway, you enter the ghost estate. It’s been tidied up quite well, but there are streets of perfect houses, with the stickers still on the glass. Shop units stand empty. Car parks with no cars in them. A couple of kids went by on their scooters but there was an oppressive silence over the whole place. There have been many moments during this tour when I’ve been confronted with Ireland’s tragic past. The Famine, the Troubles, and now this. We filmed it and we left, somewhat subdued.

It was on to the bottom of Lough Allen that we had our most auspicious event. Emma was driving along a little back road (it may actually have been a main road, it can be hard to tell sometimes) when I caught a glimpse of a sign and yelled for Emma to stop the car. She executed a textbook emergency stop, skidding to a halt in seconds. Then she nearly killed me after I told her I wanted to go and look at something I’d spotted.

O’Carolans grave, Kilronan Burial Ground, Co. Roscommon

How could I not stop and pay homage to the great man himself? I sat down next to Carolans grave and played Carolans Dream, purportedly his favourite tune. I hope he liked it.

After this little pitstop we continued on to film Lough Allen. There were a few lakes in this week of touring and figuring out how to get the footage for them was interesting. We pulled in to a few different lanes and found a lovely little old church for one part of the tune. This is also the lake where I discovered that you can get seasick standing on a jetty. I walked out onto the jetty, looked at the water moving, and just crumpled. Emma was of course ready with her camera. She’s good like that. Eventually we had enough footage and we headed home for the night.

Wednesday dawned grey and rainy, but we were both still fairly fresh so we drove back the way we’d come the night before and went to visit Longford, Leitrim and Lough Gowna.

I don’t know why, but I expected Leitrim to be bigger. Thinking about it now I’m struggling to remember what Longford actually looked like. And Lough Gowna is splattered across the countryside like a strange watery Rorschach. As the day wore on the cloud cover grew heavier and more oppressive. There is footage of me standing alone in a field that slopes down until is meets the water and the field seamlessly becomes the lake. The boundaries of sky and water and land all blurred together. I call this fairy country. Not in the sense of fairy rings and nightly feasts, but in the Will O’ the Wisp sense. A traveler could get lost here and wander a lifetime looking for the way out.

Thursday brought with it a change in the air. The clouds had blown away in the night and we arrived in Enniskillen in good cheer. I sat down to do a spot of busking while Emma, the real hero of this tour, went off to film the town. She came and collected me an hour and a half later and we walked up to Cole’s monument.

Tour lesson number 4 was very evident for this day of the tour. For those who don’t remember:

Tour Lesson 4: Just because you’ve been there, doesn’t mean you know a place.

Though few believe me, I was actually born in Enniskillen. I lived in Fermanagh as a small child. I have been back nearly every single summer of my life. And yet, I had never seen Cole’s monument. Or Portora castle for that matter. Both are in the city, both are definitely worth visiting. Portora castle was especially fun as it’s in ruins and I got to climb all over it. We spent a pretty easy day in and around the town and also managed to visit Topped mountain (pronounced Top-ed) which is in fact a hill, if a very steep one. The view is worth it though:

Trig point, Topped Mountain, Co. Fermanagh

That night there was a big birthday party planned for a good friend of ours. There was food, music, singing. People had come from all over the country to be there. It was a great evening and I’m told it went on till four in the morning. Unfortunately, I had to go to bed by midnight. And this is the reality of the tour:

I started planning this journey in October 2018. I’ve been on tour since May. This project is so huge, it has already consumed my summer and is set to keep me busy till Christmas with all the videos. It has taken over my life. Nothing comes before it. Not even cake. Time and time again I’ve had to miss parties, festivals, friends and family get-togethers. Is this what they mean when they say art is sacrifice? If so, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Friday dawned and we set off for Donegal. On our way we stopped in Kesh, where we climbed over a wall to get some footage from the bridge and were halfway across it before we realised that it was in fact semi-collapsed from flood damage. We also took a quick detour to Boa Island to visit the Janus figure, which has fascinated me since I was a child. No-one actually knows if the statue is meant to represent Janus, or possibly the Celtic goddess Badb for whom the island is named. Either way I said hello and left a little offering. Neither god is one I would want to offend.

Boa island figure, Co. Fermanagh

Donegal town was one of the longer drives of the week, but it was definitely worth the effort. The town center itself is really beautifully laid out and we had a great time at the castle and the old priory. I got to climb on more things and managed to film a little bit of footage inside the castle (don’t tell anyone, we didn’t have permission 😉 ). Sufficiently windswept we got back into the car and drove to Ballyshannon.

Ballyshannon is the oldest inhabited town in Ireland. Or so Shane Toolan tells me, and he would know. We were walking through the town and we happened upon two men, sitting in front of a sign we wanted to film. They asked us what we were doing and after explaining ourselves Shane introduced himself as the chairperson of the Ballyshannon museum and promptly offered us a guided tour of the area.

We got a tour of the town and Shane shared with us one of Ballyshannons true hidden gems. Just out of town and down a little lane there is Irelands oldest standing bridge and the remains of the Cistercian monastery. And if you go past that, past the no entry sign, over the rickety planks that span the rushing river, and walk a little way upstream, you’ll come to a clearing with a cave where mass was held in secret during the Penal times. The sunlight was streaming down through the trees and the river was deafening, roaring with rainwater where usually it is apparently a peaceful stream.

Shane dropped us back into town and after a quick stop for some food we set off homewards. We decided to drive down the other side of Lough Erne so we could drive up to Lough Navar which has a fantastic view of the lake. After cursing the sat-nav for sending us on a wild goose chase we eventually found the way up.

Emma stood there for about five minutes just looking a little bit green. I asked her what was wrong and she turned to me as said: “I drove all the way up that lake, and I’m driving all the way down the other side. I’ve just realised how far that actually is. Why am I doing this?”

I left her to her contemplation. It seemed the kindest thing to do.

Carved tree, Antrim castle gardens

If by this point in the blog you are starting to wonder “how much more is there? This is going on forever,” try and imagine how we felt. we’re nearly there now.

Saturday morning we got up early and drove from Fermanagh to Carrickfergus and back via Antrim. I have to say I was less impressed with Carrickfergus than I thought I would be, but Antrim absolutely outdid itself. There was art everywhere and the old castle gardens are a beautiful place to just walk around. Like this guy:

We only had an hour in Antrim due to parking restrictions, but Emma and I agreed that it was one place we would definitely like to revisit.

And then there was one. One day left of the tour and, as it turned out, one ambition too many.

For the last day in the tour I had hope to visit Coleraine, Castlerock, Ballycastle and Rathlin Island. When making this plan I forgot one rather crucial detail.

Island. Cannot be reached by car.

In my planning I had completely overlooked the fact that we would need to get a boat to Rathlin. After looking at the timetables, and the fact that you have to book quite a bit in advance to be sure of getting the ferry you want, and the sheer amount of time it would take, I had to make the call and take Rathlin off the tour.

We still made it to all the other places though, which was an achievement in itself.

I feel like now is the time to tell you the story behind this particular photo. You see, I spotted this beautiful sign for Castlerock, and the sun was shining, and I though: “you know what I’ll do, I’ll take a lovely photo of me lying down in front of that sign, looking all alluring.” But I have really sensitive eyes and the sun was really strong. So after many failed attempts I eventually gave up and just flopped on my back in defeat.

Now you know.

Moving on, Castlerock was actually a neat little seaside town. There isn’t much to the town itself. It seems to have sprung up after a railroad was put in and I’m assuming people kept wanting to get off there to go to the beach so they just starting building houses. I went down onto the beach, got sand in my shoes, played my tune, and left a little calling card in the sand:

Eco-friendly marketing at Castlerock, Co. Derry

We also went up to see the Mussenden Temple which is perched precariously on a cliff edge just west of the town. Part of the Downhill Demesne it used to be possible to drive a carriage all the way around it, but erosion has worn away the cliff and now there’s really very little holding it up. I recommend going to see it, before it falls into the sea.

Next stop was Coleraine which was lovely, sunny, and over very quickly. We did linger a little while in a fantastic craft shop but it was full of puffin things because Rathlin has a puffin colony and it made us sad that we couldn’t see the real thing so we left again.

Finally, we visited Ballycastle.

I could Google Ballycastle and tell you about it, maybe pretend that I learned all these interesting facts from an ould fella leaning on a gate or from a local in the town. But that would be lying. I remember two things about Ballycastle.

The first is that as I was walking towards the church I saw an old lady fall over. Literally crashed to the ground. I dashed over and together with another person we made sure that she was ok. After being helped up and escorted carefully to her car, she assured us all she was fine and blithely drove away. Tough as nails, that one.

The second is that the church in Ballycastle has clearly just had new carpet and seats fitted and they’re really plush. We walked in and nearly collapsed onto the floor. I had to steer Emma out quickly. She looked like she would actually just lie down in the aisle and go to sleep.

And that was it. Twenty locations. Nine days. 950 miles. 1529 kilometers. Emma drove us home. I made us tea. We went to sleep.

The work wasn’t finished. We still had a music video to record as a separate project. I spent the next three days making the costumes and the set and recording the music for it. The tour still isn’t finished. The videos are long from done. But we’ve broken the back of it and the relief of that is just immense.

This blog has taken me three weeks to write. There seems to be a direct time correlation between how long I travel and how long it takes me to write it all down. I have written many things about this tour. I’ve called it a love-letter, I’ve called it a test. Now that I’m nearly finished with it I find myself at a loss for what to call it anymore. In two days I’m heading off to cover the last eight locations and then I’m done.

I might cry.

One more week. Wish me luck.

Emmas Thoughts

Reading the blog is a strange experience for me. On the one hand, I can’t believe just how much we got done in such a short space of time.

On the other hand, until I read this I think I had forgotten most of what we actually did. My brain seems to be treating the whole thing as some kind of traumatic event. I guess there really is such a thing as information overload.

Saying that, I would 100% go back and do it again. I’ve never driven as far as I did that week. I’ve visited so many new places I might never have bothered to go to otherwise. And, against all odds, I didn’t kill Conni and bury her by the roadside along the way. This tour has been an absolute adventure and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOS3QCjp4AB9DTn4fOf0Skw

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

Around Ireland in 80 Tunes – June

Conor’s Pass, Co. Kerry

Do you remember tour lesson 2? No? That’s ok, here’s a reminder:

Tour Lesson 2: It’s never that easy.

It’s amazing really how fast we forget these life lessons. I thought May was hard. The hardest week I was going to have. I thought June would be easy in comparison. I forgot lesson 2.

Last Monday I set off on my second week of tour feeling very prepared. I had spent an entire day the week before sending emails to almost every town I was going to visit. People knew I was coming, some people were even going to be there to greet me. As I was travelling in and around Cork county, I could go home most nights so my pack was considerably lighter than it had been in May. I had a new umbrella.

My first stops were Fermoy, Mitchelstown and Mallow. Monday morning I got a bus to Fermoy and stepped out into the glorious June drizzle. This was going to be a bit of a theme for the week.

Galtee mountains and site of former Mitchelstown Castle, Co. Cork

But the drizzle eased off and I made my way through Fermoy in good time. I did get a bit lost walking up the hill to find the old famine graveyard, but the view from the top was well worth the walk.

Next stop was Mitchelstown. I got a lift from a local lady and her mother who were more than happy to give me a potted history of the town. As we drove into Mitchelstown and rained speckled the windshield, she happily informed me that the mountains act as a cloudcatcher and Mitchelstown, as a result, tends to be a bit wet. She wasn’t wrong.

Thankfully it cleared up long enough for me to film myself playing in the town square. I did attract a bit of attention though and several very kind people came up to tell me I was in the wrong spot for busking. The concern was genuine and appreciated.

On my way out of town I passed by St. George’s Church and saw the door was open a crack. On a whim I stuck my head inside and that’s how I met Bill Power, a local historian who was more than happy to give me an extended history of the church, town and surrounding area. Thank you, Bill.

My last stop for the day was Mallow. Now, I went to college in Mallow for two years and mistakenly believed I knew the town reasonably well. Then my lift drove us into town on the other side and I realised I had only ever seen one half of the town. I hopped out of the car, over a fence, and went to take a look at the Spa House where I learned all about the history of the town and also about the tune “The Rakes of Mallow”. Fitting, considering that that was the tune I had picked out.

Tour Lesson 4: Just because you’ve been there, doesn’t mean you know a place.

Spa House information board, Mallow

On Tuesday I played at a wedding. What can I say, bills need paying.

Now, I’ll admit that my schedule for the rest of the week doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you read this and think “Surely there was a better way to do this? A shorter way?” then not only is your geographical knowledge of Ireland better than mine but you are also 100% correct. On account of the wedding, I had to reorganize my schedule and I made a bit of a mess of it. But it makes for a good story, so it all works out in the end.

On Wednesday I travelled to Bantry, Schull and Ballydehob. I got a bus as far as Bantry and was met with great enthusiasm at the tourist office. I was plied with tea and requests for music. It was lovely.

I covered the town fairly quickly before heading up to Bantry House. Eileen from the tourist office had apparently called ahead and they were happy to let me run around getting my footage.

In the back garden of Bantry House there is a long flight of stairs leading up to a terrace that overlooks the house and bay. There are over a hundred steps. When the video comes out, I would like you all to pause it at that part and appreciate the effort of climbing a hundred steps with a harp on your back. I suffer for my art.

In all honesty though, Bantry was gorgeous and I was sorry to go. I walked out along the coast road and caught a lift to Skibbereen and from there on to Ballydehob and Schull.

The alert reader will already have noticed what was wrong with that last sentence. Allow me to illustrate:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am an idiot.

Tour Lesson 5: Check the map twice.

I stuck my head into the tourist office in Ballydehob to say hi and to tell them that I would be back soon, but had to film Schull first. I got offered a lift, which was great, then I forgot my umbrella in the boot of the car, which was less great. Then it rained.

People think I’m paranoid about the weather. I will carry an umbrella on the sunniest of days. What they don’t understand is that it’s a weather totem. If I don’t carry it, it will rain. Without fail.

Anyway, Schull. I filmed. I got rained on. I left. I did see some really cute cygnets though, that was nice.

In Ballydehob, Deborah Beale of the tourist office was waiting for me. She sat me down, let me rest my weary feet, and I told her about the tour. While I was talking she was bustling around, arranging chairs. I didn’t really think about it too much.

Then people started wandering into the building and sitting down.

Suddenly I was playing a mini-concert to a room full of people.

I’m still not quite sure how it happened. That Deborah is a wily woman I tell you. One minute she’s lulling you into a false sense of security with her talk of tea and local news, the suddenly you have an audience looking at you expectantly. I think I was the only person who didn’t know I was meant to be playing a concert.

All joking aside though, it was really lovely and I would like to thank Deborah for arranging it for me. She’s a gem.

So, where are we now? Oh yes, Thursday and Friday. We might need another map for this one.

On Thursday I got the bus out to Tralee with the intention of busking, but the weather was poor and it was cold so I cancelled busking and was on the road to Killarney by one in the afternoon. I got a bit lost going out of town and walked 3km around the ringroad looking for the Killarney turn off, but I found it eventually and got a lift from there.

Killarney was my last stop for the day; so I went into town and set up again to do some more busking before finishing up my filming for the day. It was odd, only doing two towns in one day and I was at my friends house having dinner by about 6pm. Early for me on a tour day.

This is where we’re going to need the map. On Friday I travelled, exclusively through hitching, from Killarney to Dingle, to Brosna, to Rathmore, to Cork.

Cue the map:

Friday

I do not recommend this to anyone. During the day I told lots of people what I was doing and where I was going and every single one of them, upon hearing my route, laughed. Most of them didn’t think it was even possible. By seven pm I was starting to wonder if they might be right.

I left Killarney at half past nine in the morning. It was raining. I lost my whiteboard marker, which I need to write place names on my hitching sign.

Lack of sign not-with-standing, I still managed to get a lift and with a stop in Killorglin, and then again in Castlemain, I eventually made it to Dingle just as the sun broke through the clouds. It was beautiful.

I wish I’d got to spend more than an hour there.

As I have pointed out, I am an idiot, and due to my poor scheduling I ran around Dingle like a mad woman for an hour and fifteen minutes getting my footage together, before I had to leave. On my way out of town, I was stopped by a young man who had seen me in three different places in town and wanted to make sure I wasn’t lost. I told him what I was doing. He also laughed, but wished me good luck as I headed for the main road.

It is at this point I would like to thank the two gentlemen who picked me up and gave me a lift to Tralee. Upon hearing what I was doing they turned the car around and drove me up through Conor’s Pass so I could get some beautiful mountain footage. They were late for a meeting because of me. Thank you.

From Dingle to Tralee, on to CastleIsland and from there to Brosna.

What can I say about Brosna?

I mean, it’s tiny.

I’m told it has a wonderful music festival which I had missed by about two weeks. In that case I suppose it’s very much like my home town, Feakle. It even has a little dog. If you grew up in a rural village in Ireland you know exactly which dog I mean. It’s of the terrier variety and only nominally belongs to a single person. It’s the towns dog.

I petted the terrier of Brosna and walked for two miles back towards CastleIsland before I got a lift. It rained.

From CastleIsland I got a lift with a lady called Clare. She was going to Killarney but detoured to take me to Rathmore. Did you know that the town of Rathmore is divided into two towns? We didn’t. Wikipedia has this to say:

Rathmore is divided into two parts. One being the main commercial centre and the other being the administrative centre where the schools and churches are located.

Wikipedia

After some initial confusion, I was dropped in the second Rathmore. It didn’t have a church so I’ll assume it was the main commercial center. It also had a dog. You know the kind.

I got home at about half past nine having hitched 277km and essentially worked a twelve hour day. But I wasn’t done yet.

On Saturday I was booked to busk at Blarney Castle. This was the other reason my schedule looks a bit ridiculous, but again, bills need paying.

Sunday morning; I caught the first bus to Bandon for my last two towns.

I was in Bandon for five minutes before I broke my phone tripod. I would have bought a new one, but it was a Sunday morning so most of the shops were closed. Instead I bought a tube of superglue and set about reworking the tripod. I removed bits, snapped bits, stuck bits on upside-down. It held. I moved on.

Bandon has some beautiful buildings. I hope I did it justice in the video. You see there was a slight…. weather issue. Namely, it was raining.

I got a lift to Skibbereen. I don’t know why I thought Bandon and Skibbereen were near each other. Possibly because they are on the same bus route. More likely, because I am, as previously discussed, an idiot. The lovely lady who drove me had to stop at a shop for fresh dill (she was on her way to what sounded like the most amazing and extensive family barbecue ever) and bought me a snack bar. Possibly to apologize for describing the barbecue to me.

I won’t lie. By the time I got to Skibbereen I was ready to call it a day. I was cold, I was tired, I had blisters. I nearly asked if I could just come along to the barbecue and pretend to be some long lost cousin. Instead I got out and waved goodbye.

Tour Lesson 6: You are made of sterner stuff than you think.

This week of touring felt intensely different to my first week.

On the one hand I was much better prepared. People knew I was coming, I researched the towns I was going to, I knew my tunes much better.

On the other hand the weather was against me and coming home at the end of the day was a challenge in and of itself. It is hard to travel for a solid week, but once you’re in the zone you just put your head down and do it.

Getting up early every morning and leaving my own warm bed to head out into another day of cloudy skies and long distances was another story.

It seems to be that my last day is a test. In May, I climbed a mountain. In June, the mountain was in my own mind. I wanted to be lazy, to slack off and maybe do it another day. I wanted to turn around in Bandon after I broke my tripod. Then again when I got rained on. But I’m glad I didn’t.

It is easy to follow your dreams on a beautiful, sunny day in May.

It is an achievement to keep following them through a wet and windy Sunday in June.

That said, I was very glad to have a lie-in on Monday. And now, in order to end on a cheerful note, here are some fish puns from Killarney:

The Savage Pigs of Tulla

Folk tales really are as fascinating. One such tale is that of The Savage Pigs of Tulla.

I first read this story in Eddie Lenihans book by the same title. While I don’t claim to be as proficient a storyteller as Eddie I can at least give you the gist of the story. Bear in mind I’ve only read it once, so I may be a little shaky on a few of the finer details.

A man went from Tulla to the market, with his two prize pigs in the cart behind him. Big, fierce pigs and worth their weight they were, but the man failed to sell them at the market.

At the end of a long day, disheartened and with empty pockets, the man packed his pigs back into the cart and made his weary way home. Along the way he stopped at a Shibeen in Blacksticks for a quick sip. One pint turned to two and it was long dark by the time he climbed back up on his cart.

But the horse knew the way and so he set off and fell asleep. Swaying with the cart he toppled back into the cart.

Now anyone who has seen the movie Snatch may have an idea of what happened. If you’re squeamish, now is the time to look away.

The pigs had had a long day at the market. They were hungry. They ate the luckless farmer, leaving only his boots lying on the floor of the cart.

The horse was startled by the smell of blood from behind and bolted, running home and waking the mans wife as horse and cart clattered into the courtyard in a cloud of dust and sweat. The wife ran outside and seeing the cart with no rider was afraid that her husband lay somewhere in a ditch. She called for the neighbours.

They came and tried to calm her. Gearing up they got ready to set out and retrace the path to find her husband. Then someone looked into the cart and saw the boots…

In the commotion the wife came over and peered into the cart. She saw the blood, her husbands boots, and flew into hysterics.

One man ran for the priest, another for the guard. While the women consoled the poor mans wife, the men tried to decide what to do. The priest arrived and said that, as the man needed to be buried, and as he was inside the pigs, they should kill the pigs and bury them. That way at least all of the man would be in the same place.

They knew that the guard would not agree and would instigate an investigation so they set to work. Quickly slaughtering the pigs they set to work making a coffin to fit the two while some of the men ran ahead to begin the grave. The guard was on his way so the men put the pigs into the coffin, draped it in a cloth, and set of in funeral procession. They passed the guard on his way to the house.

Arriving at the churchyard they quickly buried the pigs, with the priest overseeing the funeral. The guard arrived as they were patting down the earth and demanded that they exhume the grave so that an investigation could be done. The priest refused to allow it.

And so the man was buried, in the stomachs of his pigs. And his gravestone commemorated his unusual situation in true countryside humour.

Pig gravestone

Around Ireland in 80 Tunes – May

Kilconnel Abby

I have been home from my first week of tour for four days. I’m only just starting to feel human again. So here goes. From the blur of travelling, filming and general madness I will try and extract a coherent story for you. I promise nothing…

I left Cork city on Monday the 13th with my usual level of preparedness for any major task I undertake; which is to say not very much. I didn’t know how to play most of the tunes I was setting out to play. I only had three nights of accommodation organized. And I still hadn’t decided on my video format. This is normal.

For the entire three hours on that bus I sent emails. I emailed radio stations, I emailed local newspapers, I emailed prominent tourist locations I was thinking of visiting. Some of them got back to me. I was featured in The Clare Champion that week and Shannon Heritage offered me free entry to film in King John’s Castle in Limerick. Three hours well spent, I think.

I reached Ennis feeling energized, accomplished and on my way to stardom. I stepped down from my bus and was greeted by a distinct lack of cheering fans but I didn’t let that get to me. Grabbing my bags I set off for the town with determination.

Tour Lesson 1: Musicians have roadies for a really good reason.

Turns out lugging a harp, an amp, a stool and a weeks worth of clothing and stuff around is really heavy. I have sprained interossei muscles (the little muscles at the base of your fingers). I didn’t even know I had interossei muscles ’till I managed to pull all of them.

Glor, Ennis

So I sat down in Ennis, busked for a few hours and then set off to record my first music video. I walked around town for a while and eventually decided that it was too windy to record outside so I went to Glor and asked if I could record my video in their atrium. They were happy to help me and I left half an hour later with my first video thinking “That was easy, this tour will be a breeze“.

Tour Lesson 2: It’s never that easy.

I hitched a lift to Tulla, where my dad picked me up and drove me home to Feakle. In the space of a fifteen minute drive he both vastly improved the quality of my tour and quadrupled my workload. Thank you, dad.

He pointed out, not unreasonably, that if all I was doing was taking a video of me playing a tune in each place people would get bored. That it would be much more interesting to make each video a little showcase of the place I was visiting. It made sense. So with this in mind we stopped off in Feakle to record “The Maid of Feakle“. Now, here’s the difference:

In Ennis I sat down, played my tune, and that was it. I have ten different pieces of footage for Feakle taken in three different locations. I still had twenty more tunes to film in twenty different towns across three counties. Suddenly, a week felt like a very short amount of time.

With dad’s help I managed to film Tulla and Maghera mountain without too much difficulty. I got to play my tune in Teddy Griffin’s bar in Tulla, Loudens brewery and I finally managed to find the pig grave I read about in Eddie Lenihan’s “The Pigs Of Tulla“. And suddenly it was Wednesday and dad was waving goodbye as he dropped me off in Tuamgraney. I was on my own.

St. Cronan's church was built in 964 AD and is the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland. Brian Boru himself passed through its doors over 1000 years ago.
St.Cronan’s church, Tuamgraney

I filmed the video for “Tuamgraney Castle” with the help of Elisabeth Affolter, organizer of the Tuamgraney Blossom Harp Festival.

She got me permission to film in St. Cronan’s church, which is the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland. Brian Boru himself passed through its doors over 1000 years ago!

After a lovely lunch at Nuala’s bar, I set off for Scarriff. I filmed my videos at the Community Garden and outside the remnants of the former Scarriff workhouse. The sun was beating down on me as I wrapped up for the day and made my way to Whitegate for the night.

Thursday morning, I stuck out my thumb and got a lift to Woodford. I still had a long way to go. I filmed my videos, stopped in Walsh’s bar for a cup of tea and a local history lesson, and then walked out towards the main road.

An hour later I was still walking. I believe I went live on Instagram to complain about the complete and utter lack of cars on that road. The scenery was lovely, but I had places to be! Eventually a car did pass. I hitched a ride to Aughrim with two elderly gentlemen who had come down to Woodford for a funeral. They drove out of their way just to drop me in Aughrim and spent the entire drive bickering about how many Lough Dergs there are in Ireland. I believe they concluded it was two.

Aughrim was… smaller than I expected. The battle center was closed (can you tell I planned this trip?) and the town appeared to be empty. I stopped a local to ask where Aughrim castle was. He laughed and pointed me down a little grassy track. “There isn’t much of it left,” he warned me as I trundled off down the road.

I crossed two fields and three stiles to reach the last remaining wall of Aughrim castle, where I learned my next valuable lesson:

Tour Lesson 3: Check fields for cows BEFORE you sit down to record.

If I’m looking askance in the Aughrim video it’s because as I started playing an entire herd of calves started making their way over to me. They surrounded me, outside of the cameras view of course, and listened to the whole tune. They were really very sweet. Unfortunately, when I went to leave they decided to all stand between me and the exit. So I did the only thing I could. I played them another tune.

My concert finished, I left Aughrim and the cows behind me and headed to Athenry. I was in town for precisely no time at all when I met Alan Burgess, who just happens to run the Athenry Heritage Center. He spotted my sign and my harp. Here follows our conversation:

Alan: “Is that a harp?”

Conni: “Yes. I’m touring Ireland with it and making music videos in all the towns I visit.”

Alan: “Would you like to film one on my stage in Medieval costume?”

Well, what do you think I said?

Athenry Heritage Center

Within ten minutes of arriving in Athenry I was sitting on a throne in a full jester costume, complete with silly headgear. When life hands you a funny hat, put it on.

Athenry was insane. I got dressed, recorded, put my outfit away and was out of that museum in half an hour. Then I borrowed the keys to the Priory, with a warning that I had half an hour to bring them back, and nearly ran across town to get the rest of my footage. I think I left some rather perplexed people behind as I tore across the town with all my bags and my harp.

I made it to Galway that evening. Exhausted and hungry, I was welcomed into a student house, presented with a steaming bowl of pasta and veg and informed that the shower was broken, the holes in the roof were completely normal and it’s ok, that bit of carpet is only wet because there’s a burst pipe under it.

I slept like a baby.

Friday morning, I scratched one more city off by buskers bingo card. Galway was generous to me, I think I had my picture taken about five hundred times in the space of two hours and I left with my pockets jingling. I caught the bus to Oranmore in good cheer.

Now, I’ll be honest: I’ve never been to Oranmore before. Through it, sure. To it? Never. Such is the fate of many of the places I visited on my journey. Isn’t it amazing how you can know a place only through the window of a bus and never realize that there are real people living there, doing real people things.

Oranmore was lovely. I met up with Elisabeth again, who listened to my tales with amusement. She asked if I was going to film at Oranmore castle. I told her I was now (I didn’t know Oranmore HAD a castle up till this point).

Oranmore castle

Turns out Oranmore castle is still a private residence and is only open to the public for ten days a month over the summer. It was like Aughrim all over again. However, I could see someone moving around up by the main door so I called the number on the sign and spoke to whom I believe was the lady of the castle. She said there was a concert on that night and she would send someone down to me. Five minutes later, a confused sound technician was opening the gate for me. He told me I had half an hour, possibly less.

Twenty-five minutes later we were locking the gate behind us. I had my footage, a quick history lesson on the castle and it wasn’t until the gates were locked and the man had driven away that I realized I’d left my umbrella inside. Such is life.

Next stop was Kinvarra. Once again I was amazed to discover that another castle I have never heard of. Ireland is coming down with these things! This is also the only castle on my whole trip that I didn’t manage to get inside. Unfortunately, it was closed for a Medieval banquet and they couldn’t let me in. Should have brought the jester costume with me, they never would have noticed.

Saturday it rained. For five days of glorious sunshine I dragged my umbrella around with me. As soon as I lose it, it rains. This was also my day on the west coast of Clare. At least I captured it in its natural state.

I left Kinvarra at ten am with the longest itinerary of my week. Lisdoonvarna, the Cliffs of Moher, Ennistimon and Kilfenora, with Limerick as my final destination for the night. A grand total of 128 km. I made it.

It was weird. Lisdoonvarna was deserted, the Cliffs of Moher have changed a lot since I was last up there (over a decade ago!), I didn’t know Ennistimon had waterfalls and Kilfenora was also deserted. I thought I was travelling in tourist season but apparently I was too early for the seaside. It was kind of nice, I had the place to myself.

Even with the filming going smoothly, catching lifts easily and generally keeping the pace up, it was still evening by the time I made it to Limerick.

Linda “The Filmik Fairy” Feeney O’Grady was waiting for me with a chicken stir-fry and a bottle of wine. I cannot put into words how grateful I was to sink into her couch and be fed, watered and generally fussed over for the evening. It was just what I needed to get through my last, and toughest day of tour.

Sunday the 19th of May. The homestretch. There’s a Dutch saying that “The last weights weigh the heaviest” and I felt it on Sunday.

Live actors in King James’ Castle

It started easy enough. Linda drove me to Limerick and I was welcomed into King John’s Castle by Mary, the manager, and given free run of the place for my filming. I learned all about the making of Limerick city, the siege during Elizabeth’s reign, the building and rebuilding of the castle. I filmed in the courtyard and enjoyed the view from the battlements. I was finished in Limerick and on the bus to Charleville by lunchtime. That’s where things got interesting.

The last three places on my list were Kilmallock, Kilfinnane and CastleOliver. All I knew about them was that they were east of Charleville. So I hopped off the bus, found a road sign, and headed east.

Kilmallock was easy enough to find. I got a lift from a lovely couple who not only gave me a quick guided tour of the village, but also sang me a few verses of a song called “The Fenian Gun” which is set in Kilmallock. Armed with my recording and a grasp of the town I headed to the ruins of the old abbey, made my video, and then called in to the Kilmallock museum. There I was given even more of a history lesson and also told one very important piece of information. CastleOliver is not a place.

Turns out CastleOliver is a big house, not open to the public. There is also a ruin, up on a hill, that is associated with it. Well, I’d come this far. I wasn’t about to let the non-existence of my final destination stop me from getting there.

I left Kilmallock and made my way to Kilfinnane. It’s a small place and I was finished filming quickly. Stopping into a pub I asked for directions to the ruins. The locals seemed a little bemused that I was heading out there with all my gear in the beating sunshine, but they gave me directions anyway.

Needless to say, I got lost.

In the end I walked about three miles out of my way. Occasionally I would spot the ruins up on the hill through a gap in the trees. It looked so far away. There were absolutely no people on this road. Passing by a house I stopped to ask for a glass of water. The door opened and two Newfoundlands bounded out to greet me. The lovely couple in the house gave me a big bottle of water from their well and told me I was about a ten-minute walk away.

Forty minutes later, I collapsed at the top of the hill in the shadow of the ruin of a castle.

The view from the top, CastleOliver

I have looked for information. I don’t know what that place was or what it was called. But after I dragged my harp over two fields, a barbed wire fence and up a very steep hill I was going to call it CastleOliver and there was no-one there to tell me otherwise.

The wind was howling. The sun was burning my skin. I was tired, sweaty, hungry and sore. But I had a bottle of sweet spring water and in every direction were green fields awash in the golden evening sunlight. I could have sat there and watched the sun set quite happily.

But that would leave me on a hill in Limerick county, in the dark, on a Sunday, so I finished my water and got to work. I made my film, wind threatening to send my phone flying down the hill, and turned to make the long journey home with the sun setting behind me.

I got home at half past ten in the evening and nearly fell through the door.

It took me four days to start this blog and it’s taken me three more days to finish it. My fingers are still sore. I spent an entire day wading through the footage I took and another sending it to my wonderful cousin Emma who is once again bailing me out of my own insanity and making the music videos for me. The week has gone by so fast and I have a mountain of prep to do for the June week.

But even with the aches and pains and never-ending list of emails to send it was worth it. Sitting on that hill I felt proud of myself. Proud of how far I’ve come and what I achieved. This tour isn’t about making money. It’s not about getting gigs and being famous.

This tour is a love-letter. It’s about sharing what makes me happy with a whole country and showing that we are all connected through music. It’s my gift to Ireland and I’m happy to hand-deliver it, no matter how far I have to walk.

Oranmore beach

The Journey Begins

Hello Internet!

It turns out that any lunatic with a paypal account can make their own website, so here I am. With my own website. Gosh that’s a lot of blank space….

Well no time like the present I guess. If you are here then you either know me or have stumbled upon this website somehow. Either way, let me tell you how this is going to go down.

I don’t hold with perfect content. I don’t filter my photos into some kind of unrecognizable perfect alter-dimension. I write the way I talk which is, you may have already noticed, a mile a minute. This website is going to be my blog and my canvas. I am going to fill it with rambling messages, music, videos, artwork, songs, poems and everything I do in relation to my music.

Also possibly some things that I just think are cool.

So if that strikes you as fun then take my hand and join me on this magical rollercoaster ride of music making, travelling and harping on 😉

It’s time. Let’s bring back the bard!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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