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In the Nest and On the Road

MANNION’S PUB, WESTPORT BLUEGRASS FEST, THE RACE TO CASTLEWELLAN

July 27, 2012 · 0 comments

After more heroic-jet-lagged-wrong-side-late-night-driving by PL we make it back to the farmhouse from Belfast. We light a coal fire, turn on the water heater and settle in with some whiskey and chat.  One by one we fall away to sleep.  Morning again comes very early as we struggle to make sense of time and space. A short walk down the lane to Andy and Jenny’s house is a bit grounding, rabbits and sheep following our progress.  Quick visit to our hosts, an exchange of armed witticisms with Andy, and we’re loaded up and off for the West of Ireland.

As we make our way through a gauntlet of roundabouts and lanes westward the countryside becomes more wild.  Close to our destination of Balla town, County Mayo, we spot a Round Tower off in the distance and head for it.  We’ve got time.  A narrow road and a few false turns, and we find the spot.  Dating to around 930 a.d., the Meelick Round Tower is exactly that, a round stone tower about 80 feet high, one of about 120 built throughout Ireland. Their purpose is not fully understood but one hypothesis has them as places of refuge from attacking Vikings. When Vikings were spotted from the tower, the clerics and townspeople would climb a ladder to the high window then pull the ladder in.  Hopefully, the Vikings would not figure out how to overcome the ten foot climb (although they did manage to sail treacherous seas from Norway), eventually get hungry, wet, and tired and head back to their ships? Maybe so.  Maybe not.  A beautiful decaying cemetery lies at this tower’s base. Ancient headstones tumble and fall in different directions. There’s even a horse walking among them. Dreamy. We eventually break away and head on in afternoon sun and clouds to Balla, a small town of sturdy old two story stone houses filling the roadsides, no gap between the walls.

Mannion’s is a classic Irish pub, dark wood, stools and booths, fiddles painted on the wall. When we arrive, a group of South Africans are having a birthday party and singalong with the locals.   They invite us to share in the food they have set out, stewed chicken and rice. We’re hungry and appreciate the welcoming vibe. Proprietor Chris brews us a pot of strong tea and joins us to eat. He was born upstairs in the quaint and immaculate rooms we’ll be staying in. We finish up the chicken feast and he takes us up for a tour. There appears to be a crucifix in every room. There’s a tea kettle and mugs on the table in the hall, plenty of beds and we each get our own room. We give Marc the en-suite bath–it’s his birthday, after all.

Marc Doten is a bold adventurer who has been on many musical and otherwise journeys with us over the years, playing bass and organ on many Hawks recordings, and recorded our new acoustic CD in his studio.  He knows the music well, and has diligently learned volumes of lyrics for background harmonies.  He jumped on board early for the adventure of it, and now we’re hoping there’s a financial payoff as well.  Indeed, for all of us adventurers.

We come back down and the Africans are singing and dancing. The South African women break into the three part township harmonies their region is famous for.  Beautiful.  Folks are coming in and the energy is up. The gig starts out loud. In fact, Chris hands us a note that says “Too Loud!” OK, cool, we got it. We turn down a bit and ease into the scene. We play a few sets, the Guinness is flowing, and the dancing intensifies. This is locals (and Africans) only.  These folks don’t know our music at all.  It’s a meeting of two very distant cultures, enabled by copious imbibing by all.  We bust out Waylon’s “Just Because You Asked Me To” and the place is hopping. It’s a grand time and perhaps best of all we just need to stumble upstairs to bed once they last note has been played.

The alarms go off early. We have a noon downbeat and short drive down the road to the Westport Bluegrass Fest. It’s not far but we’ve never been there and anything can happen on the Irish roads. Chris has woken early and made us the Full Irish Breakfast: fried eggs, tea and toast, beans, sausage, black and white pudding. Damn, it’s a feast. We make our way through most of it and hide little bits of the blood pudding in our napkins.   Chris, a saintly man if ever there was one, is off to Sunday mass, and we in our van westward to Westport.

Westport is a bustling market turned tourist town, its hills filled with old houses and stone mercantile buildings along a river winding through town, with roads feeding into the center downhill from all directions.  We get directions to the Clew Bay Hotel from a Polish waitress, whose English is a distinctly Irish Polish accent.  At the Hotel the promotor/soundman Urey, from Israel, has an Irish Hebrew accent.  The timeless tradition of Ireland absorbing its invaders and turning them into Irish continues.

Urey is super cool, sets us up in a corner of the hotel’s big front room.  We’re part of the Westport Bluegrass Festival, and we do our oldtimey acoustic best with PL on electric guitar.  Victoria rocks the house on snare and crash cymbal, and the band is finding its groove.  The crowd digs it, buys lots of CDs.  But our fun is haunted by a page in our printed itinerary from Andy:  please note that the Westport show ends at 2 p.m., and you have a 7 p.m. show back in County Down.  It’s a five hour drive.  The ink informs us that it’s impossible for us to make the evening show on time.   We pack up and race away, Paul L desperately trying to make the impossible deadline, which proves impossible.

We arrive a bit stressed and damp in Castlewellan, but Andy brings us into a huge pub, a pub empire, assures us all is good, they’ve switched us to last on the festival bill.  Whew.  And curse you, Andy.  And bless you, Andy.  We feast, drink, make our way down to the festival hall, do an electric set for a late but enthusiastic house.  At the end we jam with the other bands on an extended “The Weight” by The Band.  It sounds pretty damned good, the Canadian Irish American 20 piece band trading vocals and solos, a big sloshing groove.  And off into the wet night, the sky still glowing with lingering day at half eleven (that’s 11:30 p.m.).  We beg off Andy’s pub crawl, limp back to the never more welcoming farmhouse down blackened farm lanes, crawl into bed.  We are truly beat.  Jetlag can’t distinguish itself from our general weariness.

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