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A legacy with strings

There was a time when the only legacy that mattered was one that could be calculated in acres of land or bundles of cash. Mercifully, we live at a time when what you leave behind is calculated in a wide range of currencies. While I sometimes wonder what my children will inherit, aside from my neuroses and bad habits, I prefer to believe their lives will be full of their own promise, and perhaps seasoned with a sprinkling of what they got at home.

I’ve been playing the guitar and eating my nails since I was 12. I was a first year in the Brideshead of my youth in East Cork where, every Saturday afternoon, a music teacher would come to the school. Budding musicians lined up outside the music room waiting to take their turn at trying the poor woman’s patience.

To play guitar it is important to maintain short fingernails, in particular on the hand that presses the strings to the fretboard. Our music teacher would get very annoyed if her guitar students hadn’t attended to their manicuring before each lesson. She clearly did not understand that the life of a twelve-year old can be very busy with very little time for doing one’s nails. Most Saturdays, just about to go in to the music room I’d realise the talons on my left hand exceeded regulation length. Since I didn’t carry a manicure set on my person I had no option but to pare them back with some dental assistance.

Fifty years later I continue to play the guitar and, thankfully, have given up the nail biting bit. Except when I’m unexpectedly called on to perform and have to adopt emergency measures.

As I became a more confident player I would often end up in the engine room of singsongs in the local pub. One night an old fiddler said to me, “Youngfella, let me tell you, that contraption you’re playing will keep you out all night.” And he was right. While I’m no Christy Moore, Steve Cooney or Ed Sheeran, when it comes to traditional singsongs I can rise a sweat and pump out albums of songs where quantity and volume trump quality and subtlety. I have often played from sundown to sunrise climbing into bed leaving the birds and their dawn chorus to take up over where I finished.

The guitar has been good to me, like the old John Denver song it introduced me to some friends of mine from Ballyculhane to Ballykenny, from Abbeyfeale to Aubais, from KInnitty to Kent, from Eutin to Illinois and from Ballinagleragh to Ballywilliam. I was even introduced to ‘Pearl the Girl from Erril’ via the lungs of a man who is huge in Rathdowney. The guitar has been like a passport, a plane ticket and a train ticket.

Of course, like all good friends, there were times it could be a pain and an encumbrance. It was inclined to get above itself becoming the focus of attention. Indeed some invitations to parties and functions should have been addressed to the instrument, “Dear Guitar, please bring Jim.” However, the blessings it brought, the doors it opened and the friendships it nurtured far outweigh any blisters it might have caused to the body, mind or soul.

Of late, my youngest offspring has surreptitiously taken an old guitar of mine to herself and, with the help of YouTube tutorials and a passion for music, she’s causing me no end of quiet delight. At first I pretended not to notice, there is nothing like the unbounded enthusiasm of a parent to put a halt to a child’s tentative steps in a new direction. I couldn’t resist eavesdropping and would find any excuse to linger in the vicinity of her playing, tip-toeing away if I felt I was smothering the flame.

One day I plucked up the courage to suggest a chord progression, on another occasion I mentioned a song that might be worth learning. Then I started to hear the strains of tunes from my ancient playlist; Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, Paul Simon’s ‘Kathy’s Song’ a ballad I got from an old friend in Fermanagh called the ‘Lakes of Coolfin’. God forgive her, she even knows all the words to Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’, a song that can cause the guards to be called to the most civilised of parties.

One night recently, with a glass or two of wine on board, I handled my own guitar, snuck in to where she was strumming and joined her for a gentle session of soft ballads.

In the case of one of my children, I’m beginning to understand that legacy is a thing with strings.

Thankfully she brings to the craft her own subtlety and grace - and a set of nail clippers.

First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, April 27th 2021

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