Monday on the farm, Rathfriland adjacent, green rolling County Down. We’ve settled in quite comfortably to our cozy old stone house, with the cattle lowing in the yard adjacent and flowers and fields and hedges bursting with life from the heaviest rains in Irish history. Rob and Marc are upstairs in rooms with ceilings too low to stand up in. Victoria and Paul reap the marriage status once again, with the big comfy room downstairs. We put on tea, coal in the fireplace, whip up a proper breakfast of eggs, toast, and sausage with black tea and milk, chat with our horrible fake British/Irish accents. Delightful.
This group could easily become citizens of the British Isles. Victoria’s grandmother was raised in London and Victoria lived there for three years in her wild youth, Marc’s forebears came from London on the Mayflower (yes), Paul’s great grandfather’s township is three miles away from our farm, and Rob recently found out that Waller is an ancient Norman name, and his people might have arrived in Ireland 800 years ago. We might never leave.
But leave we must, for after some strolls down farm lanes our host Andy Peters is honking, the big van fired up for our journey south to Dublin. Andy grew up in County Down, is a wealth of all types of local lore, was jacked at gunpoint by both the IRA and the cops, and has seen it all. He and his wife Jenny have the most musical speech we’ve ever heard, which we try and fail to imitate. Andy takes us on a back route south, past dolmens, past a monument to a British generals, past mass rocks where fugitive priests had to hold secret ceremonies while the British crushed Catholicism, past a motorway scene of a devastating IRA bombing. Every inch of this island is packed with drama.
We eventually meander our way onto the M1 which takes us south into Dublin on a lovely cloud and blue sky afternoon. We peer out excitedly, trying to soak in this international city as we roll, for we won’t get a chance to sightsee, not on this tour. We’re playing every single night, or day and night.
Whelan’s is a big and venerable club with wide planks on the floor and big flagstones upstairs, like a cathedral floor. We sound check in the upstairs room, get gourmet free range organic burgers dished up by Japanese chefs in a fish and chips type joint. Our brief taste of Dublin internationalism. Perhaps the best part of the night is the deluxe penthouse green room. Since it’s Monday and there’s no big ticket headliner on the giant stage downstairs, the Hawks are given the key to the inner-sanctum A-list green room. There’s a patio, a private bar, a big Jesus crucifixion painting complete with candles. All the furniture fits the mid-century modern theme, there’s even a peet fire in the fireplace. Truly glorious. The show goes well, we have just enough of a crowd to feel good about the whole thing. Our South African friends from Balla have shown up as they promised, bless them!, and they lift our spirits and the room as they step in. Andy introduces us to some local music movers and shakers, and we have high hopes for a return to Dublin. It’s like L.A. You have to keep showing up. Post-show, Andy slowly and cautiously drives us north on the dark M1 back to County Down and the farmhouse. A bit of late night whiskey and off to bed.
Hey, Baby, it’s the third of July. We make a farmhouse breakfast, load our gear into the van under a gray drizzle, and hit the road northwest for Omagh, County Tyrone. This drive is all farm lanes and secondary roads, and we bravely chant our tune, “Lots of room for everyone, upon this country lane!” as Paul hugs the fields on the left side of the road, cringing from oncoming lorries and speeding Audis. Long stretches of lane, roundabout, lane, roundabouts, mellow. Tyrone looks very old money prosperous, big old stone houses on much larger farms than down in Down.
We pass the edges of Omagh town and make our way down a motorway to the Ulster American Folk Park Down a long driveway, trees, big parking lot, tour buses parked at the entrance. It seems like a tiny and somber Disney construction—a shiny new museum and library, old stone and wood frame houses, an eighteenth century Irish village recreation. What have we gotten ourselves into? We check in, given a warm greeting by the park director, we are shown to our spartan dorm/barracks rooms, fed a massive potato-upon-potato and beef dominant meal, and sound check in a cavernous room housing a full-scale replica of a wooden “coffin ship,” complete with steerage room that Ulster Scots Irish and later Catholic Irish emigrants packed to escape dire conditions on the Isle.
The room sounds great, our grey and taciturn soundman is very good with the mike placement. We do two 45 minute sets, the audience buys lots of CDs, and, hey, this is going to be pretty sweet. We’re here for three days, fed to the gills, and a beautiful country lane closed to traffic winds in a big arc through fields of foxes and bunnies down to the black and lovely Drumragh River. We take long and leisurely strolls after our shows, under black clouds that merely drizzle occasionally. A mellow time, and a much needed catching up on sleep, and adjusting to Greenwich Mean Time. Laundry.
The Folk Park itself grows on us. The guides in the shops really know their stuff, show us how pills were made in the 1700s, roll off an ancient broadside on a hand printing press, explain how the stone and wood frame houses are actually pioneer houses from Virginia and Pennsylvania, shipped and painstakingly reassembled here in the Park. They do indeed look ancient and real. The museum is a trove of history and artifacts from the massive and various migrations from Ireland/Northern Ireland to not just America and England, but a huge Scots Irish movement to Poland in the 1700s, and to Scandinavia. In the genealogy library we eagerly pour over our roots. Rob discovers that the Wallers may be from County Limerick, not Northern Ireland as he’d always thought. We’re hooked. Ancient family lore is pulling us deeper into the damp soil.
On July 4, we feel very American, playing our Americana for tourists of the British Isles. One in four Americans has Irish roots, and we’re in the heart of a celebration of that link. After our show there’s a re-enactment of a gun battle between the British redcoats and the American revolutionaries, both sides peopled by history buffs with accurate uniforms, functioning cap and ball muskets, and thick Northern Ireland accents. Big fun. The Park director is a gracious host and master of ceremonies in full Colonial regalia. The crowd follows enthusiastically through the Colonial America village with spinning wheels and corn fields and bonneted maidens. It’s striking to see how long it takes to reload and fire the big unwieldy guns. If you get off two shots a minute, you’re fast. Much time is spent loading, hands shaking, cursing, a target for the similarly stressed out enemy across the corn field. A lovely war.
That night we drive into Omagh, a charming and very British looking town, head to the top of the hill and stroll past the high court building with its still heavy fortification and surveillance cameras, visit the cathedral and take a blasphemous photo of Reverend Rob at the podium, find a great little pub and a good chat with some locals. We get a strong impression that the Irish follow American events with a close and very wary eye. If you don’t think we’re descending into madness, talk to the educated folk from other lands. Twilight lingers to half ten at night (10:30), and an evening constitutional through the fields to the river is a quiet delight.
July 5, our last day in the Folk Park, last massive breakfast, two sets in the big room, a quick pack, for we’ve decided to accept a last minute evening show at Bryson’s Bar in Magherafelt, not too far to the east towards Belfast. It’s a bit of a load on our fearless lead singer, but Rob says his voice feels great over here in the mellow moist air of this green land.
Our drive eastward is carefree and most pleasant. We’re well rested, some money in our pockets, the day is clear with dramatic clouds, and the road takes us through beautiful and mournful fields. We see a sign for stone circles. Do we have time? Let’s do it. We leave the main road, northward on narrow lanes, far past the mileage indicated (signs and maps will do you very little good in Ireland and the north; you learn to accept this deep and modernity-defying mystery). We ask a woman walking down the lane. Just a mile ahead, she says. Two hundred yards on, there it is, a gravel turn off. We hike down the path through the field to a spectacular array of multiple stone circles and straight rows of ceremonial stones. There are 250,000 archaological sites in Ireland, and this one, like most, is an unobtrusive part of the landscape, barely marked, among shimmering green barley fields and hills rolling to a cloud ringed horizon filtering magic light over us and the stones.
We tear ourselves away and take a meandering route into the small town of Magherafelt, whose logic defying pronunciation we briefly master. We haul our gear upstairs into Bryson’s Bar, where soundman Brian Boyle is patiently waiting, and are we glad to see him. Brian dialed in the great sound at Castlewellan, one of the best sound people we’ve worked with, and a deep and kind man. The night builds and builds, a super enthusiastic crowd gathers of older hippies, recent high school graduates, and mid-life married couples stays and eggs us on, we play a long and longer encore, and this might be the musical high point of the tour so far. We rock the house, verily.
We hang with some local musicians, and bond with Irish Johnny, a legendary music fan who’s hung with Mick and Keith (we view the verifying photos) and charms the pants off of us, regaling us with tales of the rock and roll nobility. Irish Johnny, we will see you again.
We load up far later than we’d figured on, head down the road with local advice to skip going around the west side of the massive Lough Neagh, instead head into Belfast to grab the M1 south. All is going swimmingly. It’s a fast road into Belfast, we’re almost to the M1—oops. The exit is closed, perhaps from the flooding that inundated Belfast recently. Now we are lost, wandering down a motorway towards the airport. Rob pulls out his iPhone, our saviour with high priced roaming minutes for emergencies, guides us towards our southward destination through many roundabouts and back roads. Driver Paul makes an awkward lurch into a lane at one darkened intersection, and immediately a police car is on our tail, lights flashing.
Has our driver been drinking? Yes. Is he over some local legal limit? Possibly. Are we worried? A little. Tales of the Troubles fill our heads. The policemen approach us from both sides. Could they be any kinder, gentler, more soft spoken? No, they could not. Are you lost? Yes, sir, we are. Follow us, say the constabulatories, and they lead us down the dark road and energetically wave us to our exit south. Love fills the air, and the flashing lights vanish in the distance.
More winding roads, roundabouts in the wee hours, and finally we reach the farmhouse. We’re pretty toasted. Do we pour whiskey in front of the fire? Memory fails us here. Good night.