I had a strange dream last week. I dreamed I was at an open-air concert in the carpark of one of the local churches. There are two houses of worship in this little lakeside community, one is down by the main road and the other is in the hills, a beautiful pre-Emancipation cruciform building high above Lough Derg.
Anyway, I dreamed my neighbours and friends were sitting on chairs around the carpark in bunches of three or four. Everyone was dressed for a damp Irish evening. A stage had been set up in a corner of the yard, while the old church formed a magnificent background bathed in a soft flood of multicoloured light.
Suddenly the stage lights came on, catching the sparkling mist that swirled around the gathering. Harpist Niamh O’Brien and her guitarist Steve Ryan appeared on stage. Her ethereal, feather-delicate voice and the sweetness of her harping wafted over the audience, down the hillside and out over Lough Derg. It felt great to be there.
In dreams, no one questions the unusual and so no-one questioned why we were sitting out of doors, under the elements, and the church beside us empty.
Then, out of the night, like Merlin rising from the lake, John Spillane, the Bard of Passage West, materialised at the microphone singing his haunting tribute to the Banner, Under the Old Clare Moon.
The tunes took over, and in the oilskinned and huddled crowd we sang along with songs like Oró, ‘Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile and lost ourselves in the gentle quirkiness of Spillane’s canon of song.
I woke to discover it wasn’t a dream at all - what seemed unreal had actually happened. On Saturday evening, August 7, John Spillane performed in the carpark of St Marys Church at the Gap of Ogonnolloe. If you don’t believe me, look it up on Google or Facebook or any other such window to the world.
The idea for the event came about when a group of locals, decided to celebrate the first stirrings of post-pandemic life with a concert. Thanks to funding from the Department of Tourism, Arts, Culture, the Gaeltacht, Sport & Media and from the Arts Office at Clare Co Council, they were able to bring Spillane all the way from Cork and ensure that the best of sound, light and staging was available. A local man, Ger Kilkenny, who makes his bread and butter from this sort of thing, was only too delighted to gather his crew and wheel out his lights, mics, amps and speakers from the silent storerooms that held them since March 2020.
There was a lovely touch of resurrection about the gig. The wonder of it was brought home to us when Niamh, opening proceedings, explained it was her first gig in eighteen months. From then on, the weather didn’t matter - it was good to be there. Even though the sky threatened and sometimes the mist swept thickly across our coats and hats the music lifted us out of ourselves – with the help of a few nips from bottle, flask and naggin.
It was a night to savour and remember, a night to think of all the musicians, singers and artists consigned to the shadows by the plague. These kept the faith and explored other ways and other platforms to give expression to their work. They found audiences wherever they could find them and performed when there was little to be got for it.
I’m thinking of people like Eimer Dunne, a singer and musician from Laois whose eternal optimism and hard work will surely be rewarded when the half-light of these days gives way to a full dawn. I’m thinking of the two-piece, three-piece and eight-piece bands that played for every kind of community and family function and who, for months on end, have been unable earn a living doing what they love doing. And of course, there are those who filled the halls on the dancing and country music circuit and can’t wait to get back. Not to mention the actors, comedians and stage crews who have been missing the lives they once had. They want to be back on the edge of creativity, ingenuity, celebrity, and penury in a world fuelled by the buzz of an audience.
Sitting in the carpark on that August night it was indeed like a dream; the scenario made no sense; rows of hooded heads sitting in the mist and the half light with smiles on their faces and joy in their eyes.
Towards the end of the night, John Spillane took us away with him into the spellbinding hope of his trademark song, The Dance of the Cherry Trees. In it he describes how, every April, year in and year out, the cherry trees dress outrageously to sing and dance in a town where hardly anyone sings or dances,
“You know we’ve travelled all around the sun
You know it’s taken us one whole year
Well done everyone, well done.”
First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, August 17th 2021