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June 9, 2010

BAYLOR: Celts on the Ohio River, too

NEW ALBANY — Back when Ronnie Raygun was still President and Ginger Lynn everyone's preferred First Lady, my friend Barrie and I were in Ireland, conducting scholastic research on the foundation and practice of one of the world's most enduringly popular religions, Guinnessism.

Classical techniques of anthropological analysis required that we spend each working day at various houses of worship, commonly anointed “pubs,” where fascinating grassroots rituals of piety and redemption regularly took place.

We noted the absence of sacramental wine. Lacking grapes, the Irish had ingeniously substituted a cool, roasted, black and fermented liquid, which seemed to serve much the same purpose as peyote in Native American cultures. One morning at a pub called the Hibernian (“High-B”) in Cork, we pulled up a pew to have a few of these beverages, and found ourselves seated between two regular parishioners. Their names are long forgotten, but for the sake of the tale, I'll call them Seamus and Rory.

Seamus was a local Cork boy made good — or, at least he told vastly entertaining stories about his successful career earning thousands of pounds Sterling while working as a musician in England. It was unexplained why he was presently threadbare, relocated to his city of birth, patronizing the High-B, and relying on visiting Americans like us to buy his pints.

Seamus claimed to have personally known and played alongside every big-name British rock musician, from Syd Barrett through Joe Strummer and Phil Collins. In fact, his contributions graced hundreds of albums selling millions of copies, but sadly, lacking a union card, his contributions remained clandestine, and uncredited on record sleeves.   

I asked Seamus about Pete Townshend of The Who. Shrugging, he conceded that he'd never actually played music with Townshend, although he'd once spied the guitarist changing a flat tire along the motorway, and stopped to lend a hand.

Ah, but drummer Keith Moon? That was another story entirely, seeing as Moonie and Seamus were mates, known to tipple, jammed often and talked about doing an album together.

At least Seamus was fairly well groomed. On the other side of us, listening attentively, was Rory, who had the unkempt appearance of someone who habitually stuck digits into electrical sockets. Profusely bearded, he wore a grimy red sweater beneath an ancient olive green army jacket, above pre-Nirvana shredded blue jeans.

Rory, quite firmly in his cups at the tender hour of Noon, was passive until Barrie mentioned the American invasion of Grenada. This set him off, and came the story that he had been member of an Irish military contingent sent by the United Nations to keep the peace in Cyprus during the 1970s - quite odd considering that an eerily similar internecine conflict was raging in Northern Ireland at the precisely the same time.

Were Cypriots sent to Belfast in a spirit of reciprocity? Anyway, Rory's unit was on patrol early one painful morning following a hard night's daze, when he'd managed to smuggle illicit brandy into the barracks, and now the Turkish Cypriots hidden somewhere in an olive grove started firing a few random shots at the Irish soldiers, prompting Rory to achieve, in the midst of a peacekeeper's chaos, the purely existential clarity that had previously eluded him.

Which is to say: Rory turned and ran, ran as hard as he could, and continued running, from the sunny Mediterranean shores all the way back to Cork's pastoral River Lee, where he began performing his defining role as lifelong psychological casualty, and yet even in his damaged state, there was an unmistakable dignity in his second major revelation during this most holy of High-B sessions.

Yes, we'd be paying for Rory's pints, too. Like Seamus, he had no money with him. Barrie and I exchanged furtive glances. Was there a bank still open to cash a traveler's check?

•••

As Seamus and Rory spun their allegorical sermons and the empty glasses of sacrament-ale began lining the back bar, one crucial element was missing: Liturgical music.

It wasn't that the High-B's proprietor, a learned and curmudgeonly man, didn't like music. Brian was an Irishman, after all, and a rabid opera aficionado, famously reserving use of his stereo for mandated closing time, when the arias boomed as he roamed the pub, wiggling a finger in patrons' beers, and inquiring whether they were quite finished, ready to spill down the stairs, out into the street, and go somewhere to sleep just a tad before resuming the black Guinness mass next day.    

•••

For a taste of the Irish music we missed that day at the High-B, readers are advised to come downtown this Saturday, June 12, for “Celts on the River” at New Albany's riverfront amphitheater. It's the second year for this completely free concert, which runs from 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

“Celts on the River” provides support for Blessings in a Backpack, and there'll be food from area purveyors; arts and crafts vendors; and locally brewed craft beer from the New Albanian Brewing Company. For those of Celtic lineage in the Scottish sense, there's a charity golf scramble at Covered Bridge golf course tomorrow (June 11).

Headlining the show on Saturday are the BeerMats, from the town of Ballyfermot, Ireland, which lies just outside Dublin astride two familiar signposts of Irish history, the River Liffey and the Grand Canal. Supporting artists from Kentuckiana include the Louisville Pipe Band, McClanahan Irish Dancers, Cloigheann, Keltricity, Guilderoy Byrne and Liam's Fancy.

I wonder if Seamus played with any of them?

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