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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.