Tag Archives: traditional music

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.


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.

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.