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  • You can lead a horse to water…

    A friend of mine would stop and talk to homeless around her area. Many of these homeless people were alcoholics or drug addicts. When I asked her why she spent so much time on these people her response was that life is a roller-coaster. You’re up one day and the next your down. There’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown. That’s just the way the world goes round. She said that you really never know when that could be you some day. The least you would want people to do is treat you like any other person. Dignity, respect and understanding don’t cost anything.

    So when I heard of a friend of a friend who had recently become homeless these words rang like alarm bells.

    I offered to let the person stay in our house because I know from previous encounters that they are a fantastic musician and it would only take the right contacts to get them back in the gigging scene again. Within no time I know the person would have a stable income and be able to properly afford a home again.

    I have also made the mistake before of trying to help too much. I came across as being too forceful and possibly even patronizing. From that experience I also know that peoples pride can never be under estimated so basically, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. With this in mind, when this person came to our house during the week I gave a couple of suggestions but I didn’t push or over state anything.

    I freely gave the use of two 16.5 inch RCF speakers or a small boes digital speaker and amp along with a mixer and as many mikes, stands and cables as needed. With this person’s talent and equipment like this at their disposal it would only take a few days to start building up some really nice solo gigs.

    I then gave a few numbers of some brilliant friends of mine who would jump at the opportunity to be introduced to such a good musician.

    Finally, I have quite a few contacts in the social housing industry so I offered some information.

    Without pushing or favouring any solution, I was basically handing this person the means to get out of this homeless situation without asking for anything in return. Within a week the person would have built up a contacts list that would have resulted in a flood of performances and enough money to put a deposit down on an apartment rental.

    I was kind of shocked when not only did the person not jump at any of these opportunities, they didn’t even get up to wash a cup or put away their bed clothes the next morning. As we don’t have a spare room at the moment our living room was the only option. Fortunately, our living room has a very comfortable couch that has been used as a bed many a time by visitors. Yes. By visitors in case any of you get ideas.

    24 hours after the person came, I decided that they really didn’t want any help to get out of this situation. They were quite content to live off the generosity of others. My generosity has a limit and I have absolutely no intention of helping someone who won’t help themselves so I put an end to my offer.

    It’s frustrating. I would have gladly given more time if the person had even bothered to help out around the house. I would assume that someone who finds themselves homeless would do absolutely everything possible to get a home again. But in the meantime, when depending on people to shelter you from the elements at night, the least you can do is use the opportunities given to you and contribute as much as you can to the people who are giving you somewhere to sleep.

  • Canada toor 2014 – Post 4. Feels like home.

    While writing on Thursday we were on a bus to Killaloe. It’s a small town in the region of Ontario. It was a part of the tour that I was looking forward to. In Ireland we have a town called Killaloe as well. A thousand years ago, this town was the capital of Ireland as it is where King Brian Ború ruled from. In 1014, Brian Ború was killed at the battle of Clontarf while defending Ireland from the Danes. Therefore, it was quite nice to meet people from a town with the same name here in Canada.

    We travelled seven hours from Shannon in Quebec to Killaloe and the first sight that greeted us was streets lined with Irish flags, painted stones and scenery that rivalled our own. In fact, one of the people on the bus remarked: “It’s raining, the sky is grey, there are Irish flags and most of the names in the grave yard are Irish. It feels like home”. The people of Killaloe certainly made us feel like we had come home. We got off the bus to a lovely meal and a room full of people whose excitement was tangible. After eating enough for a small army, we were treated to some brilliant music from local musicians and dancers. Children as young as seven sang expertly and local musicians who had spent time in Ireland entertained us with stories and songs. Of course, we couldn’t just sit there all night so we gladly joined in. It was great to play with local musicians again. The quality of music over here is brilliant. I even got the chance to meet with a piper named Paul. He played the Scottish small pipes. Although they aren’t as nice as the Uilleann pipes, I was still delighted to give them a go. I’m quite happy with the tunes I got from them as well. They are played differently to the Uilleann pipes. Instead of the drones resting over your leg, they are suspended by the force of the air going through the bag over your right forearm just below your shoulder. They only have one octave and the wholes on the chanter are tiny. The set I played were in A and they sounded really nice.

    We had a great typical traditional Irish session there. It was like being home.

    Afterword, we were introduced to our host family and after a quick beer and a chat we got some much needed sleep. Killaloe is mainly built on top of one really large rock. Not that it’s relevant but it’s interesting. They also get tremors from time to time. The town is home to about 700 people and most have Irish names.

    On Friday morning, we played in a primary school. There were two schools within about a minute walk away from each other. One is a public school and the other is a catholic school. I really liked that the children from the catholic school were invited to the public school for our performance. Our instruments were described in detail and we had a minute to play a short example. Of course, as I was playing in a school, I decided to have a bit of fun so I didn’t play an Irish tune, instead I played a children’s song called I’m a little tea pot. It was really funny. That tune was hummed by members of the group for an hour after the performance. It got stuck in people’s heads. The performance in the school only lasted an hour but I was energised by it for the day. I loved that the kids had no inhibitions about clapping along. It was so relaxed.

    After the school performance we had a brief tour of Killaloe. The town is tiny so the tour only took about 20 minutes but it was interesting none the less. We heard about how the rail line was only used up until the 1950’s before it was removed. The tour guide mentioned that they could travel from there to Toronto and back in less than a day. Now it takes two days as public transport from or too Killaloe is very poor. The railway track was ripped out in 1986 after the stations was removed in 1960 and in 2004, a student completing her masters in gardening landscaped the area where the track ran through the centre of Killaloe to commemorate the railway. A path now runs over the same route that the track took and a design using red bricks on the edge of the path shows where the rack lay. We also heard about a large fire that destroyed 7 businesses and four houses in 1950. Fortunately, men in that had been drinking in a hotel on the same road fought the fire and successfully bought it under control before any further damage could be done. In 1927 a flood covered the same area with three feet of water.

    As you can tell, I’m trying to soak up as much knowledge during my trip through Canada as possible. I am absolutely fascinated by the people, the geography and the history.

    After the tour we passed a local radio station and as a few of us expressed an interest in it, we went in to pay the managers and presenters a visit. It’s a small local station with a catchment area of about 100 miles so in many respects, it’s similar to our local station LMFM. It’s a tiny place in the middle of the town. The walls are lined with records, tapes and a few CD’s. They have no computerized repository but a local man has written their station management software which is really interesting. They seem to have similar license requirements compared to our local stations. They are also streaming online so I’ve suggested that they stream to iTunes or at the very least podcast their live shows.

    After the radio station, we paid a visit to their local grave yard. This was an unusual thing to do but if you think about it, it was fitting. I have had a real emotive connection to the stories and songs that I’ve heard in Canada. I have often thought of emigrating with my family and I’m still thinking about it. That’s a post for another day of course. It’s one thing thinking about emigrating but it’s another thing entirely leaving your family, your country, your friends and your culture to move somewhere else. I think it’s one of the reasons why I have been so enthralled by the songs and stories I’ve heard over here. People left here when there was no skype, no mobile phones, no Internet and no easy travel. They missed home. They were heart broken. To ease their suffering, and retain their unique identity, they spread the Irish culture. However, most of them dreamt of returning home someday. When they couldn’t, they asked that their origin be marked on their grave stone so that family and friends who came looking would find them. We found McCarthy, McPhail, Riley, Dwyer, Holly, Lynch, Geeran, Murray, Daly, murphy, Flynn, and many many more. The graves were often simple but some grave stones even had transcriptions and prayers in Irish. I get the impression that a hundred years ago, this was a thriving Irish settlement. They lost some of their connections with Ireland but they didn’t lose their identity or culture. Recently, with the Irish gathering, and now the Comhaltas tour, that connection has been firmly re-established and the elation of the 700 residents of Killaloe can be felt clearly.

    The songs and stories really meant a lot to me but visiting the grave yard really had an impact on me. Yes, people made a life for themselves here and many of them were successful and have been the foundations of what are now thriving and solid communities but they still missed home. They still wanted to get back to Ireland and when they died, they wanted people know where they came from. Therefore, when everyone had gone, myself and Ken returned to the graveyard with two local ladies so that I could play two slow airs. It was my way of quietly paying tribute to those who left Ireland when there was little hope of returning. We had bought Irish culture to Killaloe and to their descendants but I wanted to bring some culture to their forbears.

    I played amazing grace there as the first tune. It was the first time I played it since the 25th of May at my granny’s burial. It was quite difficult to play it again because it bought back a day I didn’t handle particularly well but it was fitting.

    Last night, we played for a packed hall of 600 people. We were in great spirits starting the performance and our energy carried right through to the audience. They seemed to love it. My favourite solos continue to be Rebecca’s first tune on Fiddle, Anna on harp and Clara on Concertina. All the other musicians in the group are spectacular. Their solos reflect this but these are three of my favourites. In relation to the musicians, I have rarely seen such talent. I’m in awe of some of them. They play such an array of instruments and they have such a lovely style. I have no problem saying this either. I consider myself to be a reasonable piper and an adequate bodhran player but the day I stop learning is the day I’ll stop playing. I’m sure the others in the group feel the same but their standard is higher than I would ever anticipate reaching. Not that I’ll not try but you should hear some of the music that I’ve had the fortune to listen to while on this tour.

    We went to a local family home after the performance to socialize with the volunteers and play some music. It was nice to get an opportunity to show our gratitude. We felt very welcome there so I hope they enjoyed our visit.

    We’re back on the bus now for a short trip of two and a half hours to the next performance and the next host family. We’re nearing the end of our trip now. I’ll write more in a day or two.

    Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to leave a comment on this or other posts to let me know if you’re enjoying them or if you have questions.

  • Canada toor 2014 – Post 3. Cycling.

    Only a few days have passed since my last blog post but we’ve done quite a lot since then so instead of writing a really log update in a few days I thought I’d write a mini post. Well, mini compared to the other posts I’ve written since arriving in Canada.

    The last time I wrote we were still in Winnipeg. We left there on Tuesday morning to take a flight to Ontario before driving for three hours to a small town in Quebec called Shannon. Over all, we were traveling for about 9 hours but it was a very relaxed and easy going trip. Now that we all know each other better and we had a few days to relax and recharge the batteries in Winnipeg we worked together very well organizing baggage, getting through security, sharing out hand luggage, collecting baggage at the other end and finally meeting with the coordinators for the eastern part of our trip around Canada. We also met with our new driver and his very new and comfortable bus. It’s one thing that has to be said. The tour coordinators in Canada are very mindful of our comfort while traveling. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be as well rested and as able to perform every night.

    We finally arrived to Shannon at about 10:30PM on Tuesday night and settled in right away with our host families or billets as they are sometimes called. The host family I stayed with had a house on a substantial plot of forested land. The house was nestled in a small clearing right in the middle. It was very obvious that the house was a labour of love as one of the first things we were told was that they had been working on it gradually since 1981. It’s beautiful. All wooden using pine primarily. The living area, kitchen and stairs were very open and the bedrooms were spacious without being over large. It is not a style that I’ve ever come across before. I asked if it was modelled on a French template but they put a lot of ideas together to find a design that fit their life style.

    The couple have a fantastic sense of humour. Getting along with them was absolutely effortless. Almost as soon as we met they were relaxed and making fun of us. It’s something that we have often commented about while over here. Many of the Canadians have a similar sense of humour to the Irish.

    Quebec is an interesting region. Its official language is French Anyone moving there are provide with free French lessons that although are not compulsory are required for social and employment reasons. What’s really impressive is that within the space of one generation, the people of Quebec successfully transferred their primary language so that an entire generation were fluent. The methods they used to accomplish this were aggressive in the nonviolent sense of the word. They created laws that dictated that local business must be carried out in French, marketing in the area must be in French, and schools would teach using French with optional English classes and all government functions would be carried out in French. They are very strict when it comes to this however, what is even more interesting is the centre of Quebec is now very popular for IT companies. Specifically for an unknown reason for video game developers. As they are not targeting their businesses at the Quebec region, they work around many of the requirements to operate their business using French. In Saskatoon, the property tax goes toward schooling but as I said before, they can elect to direct your money toward religious schools or public schools. If you don’t specify a preference, your money will go toward the public school system. In Quebec they don’t seem to have this choice. All money goes toward French speaking schools and as the region is vastly catholic the same options may not need to be available. The Quebec region is different to Canada in a number of significant ways. Their local government has a four year cycle. Every two years they have an election. One election is for the president of the country and local representatives but the second election two years later is for the local officials. For example, the head of the school board would be elected during this time. In Ireland for example, the executive that is elected in Quebec every four years are not elected by the people. They are appointed by the elected representatives in some cases but ordinarily, they retain their positions for a long time. In Quebec it is unlikely that they will retain their responsibilities unless the people allow it. This is a much more fair system in my opinion. Another very interesting thing I learned about Quebec is they have a separatist party. This party want to negotiate Quebec’s independence from Canada. In forty years they have not been successful but they have come close. During the last referendum they were beaten by a small margin. The referendum wasn’t to vote for Quebec to be a separate state, it was to vote to enter into negotiations toward this goal with Canada. The problem that they may face is Canada has a lot of det. If Quebec separates from Canada, they will need to accept a portion of this det. Strange but this is the first time I’ve heard about this problem. In Saskatoon they either weren’t affected by this financial issue or they weren’t bothered by it.

    We had a tour around Quebec City on Wednesday including the old city. Unfortunately it rained quite heavily so we didn’t get to go on foot so I missed a lot of information but I took the opportunity to ask a lot of political and social questions. I’m not surprised at the differences between regions. Canada is a vast country. It doesn’t seem possible that a centralized government could successfully manage a country of this size. Equally, a decentralized government win Ireland when compared to Canada doesn’t make any sense either. We’re too small to need that kind of decentralized governance. That’s only when taken within the context of Canada.

    Last night, we played in the Shannon community hall. Again, the audience were wonderful. It’s rare to find such a warm, interactive, interested and knowledgeable audience but in Shannon, with roads like Dublin road and Monaghan road I shouldn’t have been surprised. The room was full of Canadian accents with names like McCarthy, Murphy and Kelly. Fifth generation Irish spoke with voices that I’d associate with the north of the country but accents from Canada. One thing that I am finding very fulfilling and rewarding is listening to the stories and songs from people like William Kelly, a local of Shannon. His descendants left Ireland in 1842 to find a better life during the time of the potato famine. He sang a song about emigrants who had left Ireland and arrived in Canada. It told of their challenges in Canada, their down falls and their successes. I hears stories of Irish workers that prospered and tragic stories of families killed by landslides. I also heard of stories where children survived when their parents perished on the way from Ireland by boat to arrive in Canada. They were taken in by Irish families that had come before. They retained their family names and they spread their songs and stories. Of course, I also heard of the families torn apart when children that got off the boat wondered off alone and fell off a nearby cliff. Such sad and happy stories that I had never heard before. What was lovely was they were from a completely different perspective. In Ireland, we sing songs of emigration and loss but the songs that I’m hearing here are in the same style, from the same tradition but they are about people from Ireland arriving here. What’s even more brilliant is they are passed down to this generation in the same way we pass down traditional music in Ireland today. In sessions and performances. I have no words to describe how proud I am of the Irish who came over here. They survived a journey across the ocean that we can’t begin to imagine, they started with nothing in Canada and not only did many of them thrive, they built a tradition in Canada that has lasted to this day. At one point the population of Quebec was 50% Irish. Now it’s about 3%. Many have died but many have moved to other parts of Canada. Still, the sense of identity and culture is very strong in Quebec. Even though the French culture has become much more dominant.

    This morning, Thursday we are traveling again. I’ll provide details in my next blog post. What’s great about today is I got to go for a cycle. The family I was staying with had a tandem so when they learned that I loved to cycle they were thrilled. Phil, the man of the house suggested that if it wasn’t raining that we head out at 7AM. Unfortunately, we only did about 15KM but what a cycle! Phil is a big strong six foot man and without bragging, I’m a lot stronger than I look. We got fantastic speeds even up hill. Phil is a very experienced cyclist so even going through corners at a good speed was no problem to him. The tandem that he has is about 20 years old but it’s well maintained and reasonably comfortable. It gets better! We cycled on a dedicated cycle path. The cycle path was a rail track up to about twenty years ago. It’s therefore quite flat and very mature. It’s a two meter wide path that spans about 64KM. It goes through the heavily forested countryside just outside Shannon town. Parts of It are a little more open but over all, it’s very quiet and isolated. This reminds me of one important point. Shannon smells and sounds fantastic. It’s a blind person’s oasis. The trees, plants and fresh air are like a holiday for your senses. The birds and wild life sound amazing. On the cycle earlier, while speeding at a really comfortable pace through the forest, I was almost high with the exhilaration of the purity of the sounds and smells. The path was quite soft in places as it had rained quite heavily yesterday but this just added to the experience. I doubt there are many cycle paths quite like it.

    We’re now on the bus for a seven hour trip. I’ll write more in a few days.

    Thanks to everyone in Shannon for making our time there an unforgettable one. You truly live in one of the nicest parts of the world.

  • Canada toor 2014 – Post 2. Hostels to Mansions.

    A whirlwind of epic proportions is the only way of describing the past five days. Since the last blog post on Tuesday, we’ve gigged in four venues in four different areas, we’ve travelled at least 11 hours by bus, we’ve stayed in homes that range from modest houses to border line mansions and a hotel that must win the award for the most badly organized building in the world, we’ve had disagreements but over all great fun. Most importantly, we are really enjoying Canada and we are loving the Canadian people.

    On Tuesday, after the last blog post, we went to the cathedral that would host our show. As it was an unusual setting for us, we thought it would be a good idea to check it out beforehand. We decided to make a few changes to the plans. We moved the piano around and got rid of the stage. The wholly family cathedral in Saskatoon was only build three years ago. From the outside, it could quite easily be mistaken as yet another industrial building right in the middle of the industrial centre of Saskatoon. The only difference is its large spire that can be seen from a reasonable distance. The inside of the cathedral is quite different. Although the walls don’t have the same long lasting solidness found in Irish churches, you certainly get the impression you have walked into a cathedral when in the main room of the building. The main church area is a massive round room with high ceilings, very decorative stain glass windows, custom art work and a sizeable alter. I know so much about the cathedral because the host family we stayed with were very proud of it and therefore took great pleasure in describing the room in detail. In fact, I even know that outside the stain glass windows is a glass solar energy collector. I also know that a few months ago one of the stain glass windows fell in on the quire area and a replacement window had to be acquired from the maker in Germany. I’m rambling. Sorry. The point I was trying to make is although this wasn’t a typical cathedral, it still had the same acoustical attributes. This means that for playing the pipes without amplification it sounded great however playing with a group of eight musicians, it was a little difficult. I’ve encountered this a few times. When there is a lot of echo in a room, musicians need to be very careful. They need to sit closer together and they need to listen carefully to what each person is playing or the sound will become muddy. Fortunately, although it was a bit of a challenge, the sound engineer that is traveling with us handled the situation very well.

    On Tuesday evening, we went to a local session. There were at least thirty musicians there. Some from Ireland, Some from Canada but all playing traditional Irish music. Unfortunately it was quite hard to hear everyone in the session but the standard was great. I really enjoyed talking to people who had come over here a year ago or fifty years ago. They all seem to say the same thing. The quality of life is great over hear but the winters are very cold and harsh. I love hearing the people that have been here for fifty years that still have their local Irish accent. I also like that they get to go home once a year mostly. It was fantastic to hear locals finding people form our group that lived in the area that they left behind. The thrill they got from speaking to people from their home town was sad in one way but rewarding in another. It was nice to be able to bring a bit of home to Canada for some of the people that moved here.

    After the session on Tuesday night there was no time to be particularly social. The objective was to get to bed and get as much sleep as possible before getting up at 6AM on Wednesday morning to get to the cathedral to be interviewed by a local Saskatoon television station called Global. Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer any questions. All I had to do is play a few times. The program ran for 2 hours and we were needed for a total of about 10 minutes in that time. However, there was quite a lot of planning and organization required when we were off camera.

    You might think that the rest of Wednesday was spent relaxing after that early start. No. Not at all. I had work to do as I was getting dozens of calls from Dublin and by 12:30PM we were back in the cathedral again helping the sound engineer get things set up. We finally left around 5 to get something to eat before the show started at 7:30. By the end of the performance I was absolutely shattered. In fact, during the harp solo in the first half, I nearly fell asleep on stage. Still, we had to go to a pub afterword to play a few tunes and talk to the locals. I say we had to. That’s not really accurate. Of course, we had a choice but the host families had been so good to us it would have been very rude not to go out after the show.

    Thursday, we departed Saskatoon to travel to Regina. That was only a three and a half hour trip so with the opportunity to catch up on some sleep on the bus I was in great form for the rest of the day. The venue in Regina wasn’t as flashy as the cathedral in Saskatoon but it was a fantastic place in terms of sound and layout. When we started playing, the audience warmed to us instantly and every single one of us had a great time.

    There was no late nights on Thursday after the performance. It had been a long few days so we were all very happy to get to a bed and try to catch up on some sleep. Again, we stayed with host families from the area. We stayed with a family that lived about five minute drive from the venue. On the drive there the lady of the house warned us that the dog was quite protective. That was a tad under stated. The dog was very obviously vicious toward anyone he didn’t know so they unfortunately had to lock him away for the night.

    We left Regina on Friday morning to travel six and a half hours to Manitoba. We had a few delays at the start but we arrived there reasonably on time. The venue in Manitoba was quite similar to the venue in Regina. The sound system was absolutely top of the range and the stage was very comfortable for all the performers. Again, the audience on the night were very warm and appreciative. I even played around with them during my solo. I love interacting with an audience and I love when the audience interacts with me. It makes the performance much more enjoyable.

    After the show on Friday night we met up with our host family. They drove ten miles to their 1000 acre farm. Yes. I said 1000 and they said their operation was very small in comparison to most. Their house was a mansion. Their basement had a bar in it the size of my house! The son’s room was cavernous and the walk in shower was the size of two large showers. Their small car had a 3.2 later engine and their large car had a 6.6 later engine. They considered themselves working class but the wealth they demonstrated without trying to show off was incredibly impressive. On Friday morning we got up early to have a quick tour of their farm. It’s a funny thing about Canada. Their old buildings are at most about a hundred and thirty years old. In Irish terms that’s very young. However, a church that is in the locality was one of the oldest structures they knew of but to us it was quite ordinary. Don’t get me wrong. It was a lovely little church and it’s fascinating the way things are done in relation to creating small churches every few miles with very small grave yards. The host family we were staying with were the Lee’s. They were able to show us that the majority of their descendants had been buried in the grave yard a few miles away from their house. Even relatives that travel away generally prefer to come back to be buried in the local grave yard. It’s not exclusive to one family either but I think the idea of having several small grave yards dotted around the country side is to keep the plots small while keeping the churches and the grave yards accessible to the locals. It’s interesting.

    We left Manitoba on Saturday morning at around 9 AM and we were here in Winnipeg by 12:30. The organizers had asked us to teach locals who had an interest in traditional Irish music. For the first hour and a half I taught the pipes. Well, actually I didn’t. I was meant to teach the pipes but no one showed up. Two people came to listen to the lesson. A husband and wife. The wife played the bodhran and the husband played the guitar. I decided to ask them to play a few tunes with me. I spent the time teaching them about rhythm. I was thinking that if both are playing backing / rhythm instruments it would be useful to show them that playing together will make the melody players life a lot easier and it will make the tune sound a lot cleaner. The second lesson I gave was on the bodhran. I had four participants at a beginner level. Again, I tried to teach them to make their beats simple, only let one bodhran player run with a tune at a time and never try to overrun the melody.

    The performance in Winnipeg was as enjoyable as the previous two. The venue was a little different. At the start it felt like a barn but as the night went on I really began to like it. The equipment there was absolutely incredible. Over kill isn’t the way to describe it. They had five foot high bass bins, separate mixers for front of house and monitors and a complicated EQ system run through a laptop. I should also say the mixers were all digital. The system was at least thirty thousand Euro worth.

    In Winnipeg we are staying in a hostel / hotel. It’s a weird place. The building seems reasonably new but the design is absolutely senseless. Absolutely nothing here makes sense and just forget trying to get breakfast in the morning. They have stuff there but it’s all over the place. It’s a comfortable room but really not organized well.

    We will spend a few days in Winnipeg. The dancers are teaching today but we all have a day off on Monday. Tuesday is another day of traveling so I’ll update you again next week.

    One final note, my pipes don’t like the Canadian weather. The air is very very dry so the reeds aren’t handling it very well.

  • Canada toor 2014 – Post 1. Delays.

    I’m here in Canada with Comhaltas for a tour around a number of cities for the next two weeks. I’ll try to write a few blog posts as we get around with the aim of capturing some of what is happening.

    Let me give you some background. I’m here with a group of 15 artists comprising 8 musicians and four dancers. We come from all parts of Ireland and the first time most of us met was during the first practise. In fact, I wasn’t at the first practise as I was out of the country at the time so I didn’t meet the others on the tour until July.

    There have been three rehearsals. One in June, The next in July and the final one in October during the weekend before we left Dublin. Each rehearsal lasted an entire weekend. As there have only been three rehearsals, they have been very long and very intense. Each time, we stayed in the Cultúrlann. This is essentially the head office or the base of operations for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. If you don’t know what Comhaltas is, I suggest you google them. However, to summarise, they are a voluntary group with the goal of promoting Irish culture. This includes but is not limited to Irish music and the Irish language. Staying in the Cultúrlann was itself an experience. It’s an old Georgian building that has been extensively modified to fit the purposes of Comhaltas. Inside, there are various teaching and practise rooms, an auditorium and even a public bar that hosts sessions at any time of the day. In case you start to equate Irish music with the selling of alcohol, nothing could be further from the truth. In act, most sessions were held around the open fire outside the bar area. Children, young adults and older more experienced musicians all had a place and the standard of music was brilliant. If you are around Dunlaoghaire or Munks town I suggest you go in for a few tunes. Sorry. I’ve ventured away from the point. The rehearsals were intensive and very hard work but because of the very friendly and helpful staff, the environment was relaxed and homely. I was dreading spending a weekend away from home. Not because I didn’t want to leave home but mainly because I didn’t want to have to work all weekend after working all week. Fortunately, each rehearsal was a pleasure even though they were very challenging and a lot of hard work. During the second rehearsal but actually my first, we recorded a CD for the tour. This was a huge challenge for me because three hours after practising with the group for the first time, I was thrown into a recording studio with the expectation that I would sit in with the group and put down the tracks there and then. They were very intricate arrangements with precision a high priority so I had a lot to learn and very little time to learn it in. It’s not something I’d like to do again but I’m happy with the result.

    The second rehearsal for me but the third for the group took place just before we left for Canada. Saturday for example, we practised for a total of 14 hours with a two hour break. By the end of it we we’re all physically and mentally exhausted. On Sunday, it wasn’t much better, we were up at 8:30AM, had breakfast at 9:00PM, met at 10:00AM, practised until 12:30PM, had a briefing until 2:30PM and then practised again until 5:30PM. Fortunately we had a break until 7:30PM when we attended a reception for VIP guests before we performed at 8:30PM with a break until 11PM. Of course, after performing, we said good bye to our family and friends and then sat down to have a bit of a chat with people from the group. However, we left the Cultúrlann at 3:30 to go to the airport. So, Sunday was never ending.

    We got to the airport and checked in without any major issue. However, this is where things got really interesting. We were scheduled to depart at 7:40AM on Monday morning on a flight to London Heathrow. However, due to a reasonably bad storm in Dublin, the flight was delayed by twenty minutes. When we got to England we were also delayed by another 10 minutes because there was an issue with the spot our flight was scheduled to take on the run way. By the time we stopped, it was 9:30. By the time we got through the very busy and large London Heathrow airport, it was 9:45. Our flight to Calgary in Canada was scheduled to depart at 10:15AM but unfortunately, unknown to us, the gate closed on this flight at the very early time of 9:15AM. There was absolutely never any chance we would have made this flight. The result was that we missed it and had no choice but to book on an alternative flight. Unfortunately, this wasn’t as easy as expected. There wasn’t enough free capacity on the flights going to Canada that day so we had to split into three groups.

    I was lucky enough to be in group one. We flew from Heathrow to Toronto and then from Toronto to Saskatoon. It took a total of 11 hours flying time with a stop over time of 2 hours but it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was less than our scheduled travel time for various reasons.

    Group three had to fly a few hours later from Heathrow to Vancouver, then Vancouver to Calgary and then from Calgary to Saskatoon. Their total travel time was about 18 hours.

    Group three flew from Heathrow to Vancouver and then from Vancouver to Saskatoon. Their travel time was also 18 hours.

    Not ideal. In fact, it was one of the worst things that could have happened. However, it could have been worse. In fact, it was! Luggage should have followed us from Dublin however for some reason, it was delayed getting from Dublin to Heathrow so it didn’t get to Saskatoon until Group two and Group three got there at 12:30 local time this morning. We are still waiting for two cases and a harp to arrive.

    We met with our host families and finally got some much needed rest at the end of it all.

    Today has been quiet so far. We’ve been getting information about tomorrow’s performance, following up on misplaced luggage, learning a little about Canada but more importantly, we’ve been taking it easy after three particularly stressful and tiring days. We are playing at an informal session tonight with some Irish people that have moved to Saskatoon so I’m really looking forward to that. Tomorrow is when things will get serious again with a television appearance, sound checks, a practise and a performance at 7:30PM.

  • Méabh is now four months. Here’s a quick update.

    It’s been a while since I’ve given you an update on how Méabh is getting on.

    In terms of her development she’s doing brilliant.

    Here are a few things she’s actively doing.

    • Trying to role. Occasionally she successfully gets onto her back from lying on her belly.
    • Putting her hands out when you’re going to pick her up. That only started today.
    • Actively grabbing toys and moving things. This started about six weeks ago but the actions are becoming much more deliberate and much more accurate. Tonight, Méabh figured out how to push and pull a rolling thing full of beads on one of her toys. Fine motor control obviously is quite some time off but it’s really fascinating at how regularly she learns new skills.
    • When Méabh is learning something new, or she’s really focusing on something that she’s doing for the first time, she puts her chin on her chest so her head is looking straight down and she stays like that moving her arms until she makes something happen.
    • She is expecting / anticipating a lot more and in turn, we are anticipating her reactions much more accurately as well.
    • Sleeping constantly through the night is still hit and miss however that’s to be expected for a long time yet. However, we are now working on establishing a firm bed time routine so I’m hopeful that even if this isn’t working in a week, Méabh will be more comfortable. Mainly, she will begin to learn what signs to expect before bed time so she can associate it with a relaxing time.
    • We are walking with her in baby carrying slings a lot these days. Although we have a really good pram, we have actually gravitated toward baby carrying. It’s very comfortable and more convenient in most situations.

    These are just some of the things that Méabh is doing or starting to do at this very early stage of her development. People constantly comment at how active and alert she is. She doesn’t nap much if at all during the day but this would appear to be due to her constant interest in what’s going on around her.

    Emma is continuing to do exceptionally well. I know that I would not do so well if it was me staying at home every day. It is important to say that Méabh’s thriving development is a reflection of all the time Emma spends interacting with her.

  • The Drogheda Traditional Music weekend

    Irish traditional music lovers came to life in Drogheda two weekends ago from the 29th to the 1st. of December during the 17th annual Drogheda traditional music festival.

    The organizers and the Drogheda arts centre invited musicians from all over the country to entertain at a number of official performances and sessions during the weekend. These performances were well attended and very enjoyable. All venues were very comfortable and there was great respect shown to the musicians during tunes and songs. It was commented by a few musicians on Saturday night that the audience in Drogheda was one of the best they had ever played for.

    The sessions were also very well attended by listeners and musicians alike. With credit to the organizers, for the most part, they organized sessions in very centralized and very friendly venues.

    I was very fortunate to make it to most of the performances and sessions during the weekend. As Drogheda has a particularly weak traditional Irish music scene, I relished the opportunity to play in my own area for a change.

    I have voiced concerns in the past about the lack of traditional Irish music in Drogheda. There is nothing I would like more than to be able to go somewhere local for a few tunes in the evening. For over ten years now, I have ventured to Dundalk, Dublin, Carlow, Limerick and Cork regularly to get my regular fix of tunes but my motivation and determination has just kicked up a gear. There is nothing I would like more than to share the pleasure I get from music with my daughter. I want her to know the opportunity, freedom, enjoyment and relaxation playing music with a few friends can provide. Unlike me, I would like her to have friends that she can join with that have similar musical interests in her own area. The Drogheda traditional music festival is a great way of promoting this tradition in our little corner of the country. It highlights Irish music and brings people together. However, in my opinion, there really isn’t enough exposure given to local musicians. There are some really talented people in Drogheda but they spend all of their time playing music in other parts of the country. These people need to be encouraged to play at home and to highlight the talent that we have locally. Instead, the organizers continue to bring musicians from other parts of the country completely overshadowing our home grown talent.

    I mentioned the central locations of the sessions earlier but this of course can have a down side. One of the sessions was in a very nice Italian restaurant called divine. It was a reasonably nice venue but as the session started at around 3PM, Emma and I decided that while we were there we’d grab a coffee and a sandwich. For a coke, a coffee and two sandwiches I paid over €19.50! Now, I’ve paid a lot for a coffee in a really nice hotel in Dublin city centre and I’ve thought to myself that it was a tad on the expensive side. However, that was a really expensive hotel right in the heart of Dublin. Divine is a reasonably nice place in the basement of the Drogheda town centre! It’s far from nice enough to pay nearly twenty quid for a very small lunch! It wasn’t even a nice small lunch! I had to send the wrap back because it was made so badly and Emma’s sandwich had a tiny bit of chicken and a huge amount of onion! Now, my aim here is not to put down a valuable local business. My aim is to maybe make the point that if the aim of having sessions in restaurants is to make them more family friendly then perhaps more family friendly restaurants should be picked. At the very least, their prices should have been discounted ever so slightly for the weekend. In the session that started earlier that day, one of the organizers actually strongly suggested that I go directly to the later session as there wasn’t enough room. Again, if you don’t have room for more than three musicians in a session, that’s a bad location. It’s a nice restaurant there across the road from the art centre but on a Saturday afternoon when it’s busy, maybe it’s not the best venue to get musicians into. That happened twice actually. On Saturday night, the same person who is an organizer of the festival suggested that I should wait until some musicians left before joining the session. As I said earlier, I’ve travelled extensively around Ireland. Not once have I been told that there wasn’t enough room for me to join into a session. It made those around me feel very uncomfortable that a local man would suggest that. I was actually asked later on Saturday night by a visiting musician that I have met at different festivals in the past few years if there was some kind of ill will between me and the organizers. She thought that she picked up a “negative vibe”. I’d like to say here very openly, nothing could be further from the truth. I have nothing but respect and admiration for them. I would love to see more people taking part in this festival and I think they have done an exceptional job. I have a lot of constructive feedback for them and I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in this festival but none the less, I have nothing against any of the organizers.

    I have to say, I absolutely loved listening to Donal O Conor, Paul Meehan and Martin Meehan playing in the Tholsel. I arrived late because a session ran on a bit long but as soon as I got there I was drawn in by the tunes. Some lovely slow airs, a few strange tunes with lovely time signatures and a few of nice upbeat jigs and reels. I had Méabh on my knee for the whole time and although two weeks ago she wanted constant entertainment, she was fascinated by the musicians and the music. She couldn’t see the musicians from where we were because her eyes wouldn’t have been that developed but she was so content when they were playing. I was delighted! I danced her on my knee throughout the entire performance and apart from a small squeak during a slow air by Donal, she was very quite and happy. They even said hello to her during one of the tune introductions. She loved Nell Ni Chronin’s singing on Friday night. So she has good taste!

    I’m really looking forward to next year’s event. Marcella from the Drogheda Art Centre has suggested that I put a submission together for consideration by the organizing committee. I’m already thinking of what I should include in this.

  • Failte Méabh

    It’s fresh in my mind so I suppose now is a good time to write about yesterday. To say that it began like every other day wouldn’t be an accurate description because for Emma and her mother, it was almost a continuation of Saturday! Especially for Emma’s mother as she didn’t even get to bed on Saturday night. It was certainly busy!

    It all began on Saturday at around 11AM. Emma’s mother arrived to Drogheda and immediately the wheels of motion were kicked up a gear. Of course, I had planned things almost five weeks before but Emma and her mother were really adamant that the personal touch was the key so they set about knitting, sowing, baking, cleaning and shopping. A timetable of events had been discussed and agreed and this commenced without delay at 11AM. Of course, as often happens during the lead up to any significant deadline, things go wrong. A fault in a product purchased especially for the occasion resulted in huge upset and torment as what had been a finished master piece had to be dismantled and recreated. This put considerable strain on the plans however, progress was made slowly until 1PM when a gentleman with a particularly feminine voice arrived to cut, shape and style heads. My head was fine so I hid for the duration of his visit. Mainly because there’s only so long I can listen to idle chit and chat about weddings, christenings, hair and babies. Méabh and I escaped for a short while to play with the dog outside while the women were beautifying themselves. I of course explained to Méabh that there’s really no improving on perfection and all this hair and beauty stuff is a big waste of time but I don’t think she really cared. Instead she tried to shove her fingers up my nose which was a very uncomfortable sensation. She obviously already values my opinion as much as the dog values ear medicine. When a considerable volume of hair had been left on the living room floor the preparations continued. Later that day another part of the jigsaw fell into place when two people from very different parts of the country both arrived into Drogheda. Nicky, a great friend for the past 26 years jumped at the chance to be god father for Méabh. Well, he actually didn’t jump. We were in a restaurant in Drogheda at the time and if I recall correctly, he continued sitting at the table. There was no big gesture of disbelief or joyfulness when I made the request but in fairness, I’m sure he knew he was going to be asked which lessened the surprise considerably. The other person to arrive in Drogheda is of course no less important. In fact, she actually may be even more important than the god father. She is the partner in crime of the god father. The poor Girl, let’s call her Jenny for now, actually puts up with Nicky on a regular basis! It is a misconception that Jenny is quiet. She merely conserves her strength so that she can deliver the optimal force necessary for an ear flick when she feels that Nicky has stepped too far out of line. These ear flicks have been witnessed to be quite effective and Jenny should be commended for developing this most difficult of skills. Jenny came on horseback all the way from Donegal. It’s not because they don’t have the facilities that we enjoy in the rest of the world, it’s because they are so generous, and they’ve donated them to Carlow because….. Carlow don’t.

    On Saturday night, Emma’s mother was abandoned in our house with a few ounces of milk, a bottle, her knitting, a television, a large supply of tea oh and of course a baby. Again, this was a carefully arranged exit. Ahead of time, we planned to securely lock the living room door and before any profanities could be shouted, we bolted from the house hastily locking the front door and porch behind us. A few seconds later, the area was filled with the sound of a revving car and burning rubber as we retreated for the first independent social gathering since Méabh was born five weeks ago. We met up with Jenny and Nicky for a very nice meal in a local restaurant before adjourning for a single non-alcoholic beverage back at their hotel. It was an early night for some but a very enjoyable night for everyone. When we returned to the house, Méabh had already been taught four styles of knitting! I asked her about it but Mammies funny faces had her in stiches so I didn’t get much out of her.

    Because of the remastering of the master piece that had been finished but now had to be remastered, Emma’s mother spent over twelve hours straight trying to complete the finishing touches. Emma was also working hard adding buttons to the christening dress, making the bonnet and adding the decoration to the icing on the christening cake. I felt utterly useless so to keep out of the way, I went to bed. That was actually very effective! You should try it some time. At 3 in the morning, I awoke to find them both still at it. I pleaded with them to take a break but they had their minds set on finishing everything. Fortunately, Emma made enough progress so she was happy to get some sleep for a few hours. I’m glad she did! Could you imagine if she hadn’t slept? I’d probably have been stabbed with a pallet knife by now! I didn’t even know what a pallet knife was until Saturday by the way.

    Anyway, the Sun pushed the darkness out of the way on Sunday morning and the day started as it sometimes does. Preparations continued. Méabh had a bath, we showered and Nama got groomed. The house was filthy but we were clean! Emma’s father came over and as previously arranged, I went with him to where we would celebrate after the official part of the christening was over. I wanted to set up the amplification so that music was playing for people when they arrived. I knew that we would be a little late getting there from the church so it would be nice to put some thought into how the place was presented. After that, it was a downhill freewheel until the big event.

    At 1PM we arrived in St. Peters church in West Street. Ten and a half months earlier we were married in this same church so it was really nice to go back so soon to christen our first child. St. Peters is also where my grandparents on my mother’s side were married 56 years ago. It’s a spectacular church right in the centre of Drogheda but it now holds a lot of meaning for us. When I walked in, I was a little worried as the church was empty aside from people that we had invited to the christening. Usually there can be up to ten babies christened at one time so I expected the church to be a hive of activity. To our delight, we were told that Méabh was the only baby to be christened. Father Jim came out to us a short time later and began the service.

    Now, I am not a religious person. I’m not going to go into it. Everyone has the right to their beliefs or lack thereof. I respect every belief but I don’t share them. Getting Méabh christened was something that I felt I had to allow happen. Of course, Emma had an equal say in this. What I mean is, although I don’t share the same beliefs as the church, I recognise the impact of not having a baby baptised. This impact manifests itself socially in early years when other children are preparing for communion and confirmation but it can have other ramifications in later years for marriage and even a funeral. It would be irresponsible for me to preclude my child from the conventions, and benefits that others in the country share by default because I don’t have the same religious beliefs. It is very unfortunate but that’s the reality as I see it. If the decision impacted me alone, I would not allow myself to be influenced like this but for Méabh, Emma and everyone else in my family, I embrace the religious ceremonies. Now, I’m sorry if this insulted anyone. It wasn’t my intention. The point I am actually trying to make here is, unknown to Father Jim, he made the Baptism of Méabh a very special occasion for me right from the start. He began by saying that a christening is a welcome. It is a welcome to Méabh into our community, into our lives and into our hearts. I felt that it was a lovely way to put it. I believe that church is a necessary social construct that has bound us for thousands of years. I don’t know if the god concept is accurate but I do believe that life is better when people share and contribute to a community. There were about 55 people at the christening yesterday most of whom hadn’t seen Méabh before. The christening was a way of introducing Méabh to them and a way for them to welcome Méabh into our community. That opening sentence for me changed the act of baptism from a pointless tick box filling exercise into a celebration that had a lot of meaning and relevance.

    The church part of the celebration finished before 2PM and after what felt like an eternity of picture taking and poses, we left to go to the function room in the Thatch. We had some food and music organized there so it was a really nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. One of the highlights of the afternoon for me was definitely meeting up with Andrew and Trudy again. Because I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had any time for socializing or playing music so I hadn’t played a few tunes with them since August!

    The rest as they say is history. Méabh Caitlín Ní Éiligh was christened in St. Peters church in West Street Drogheda on Sunday 17th November 2013 at 1PM. Godfather is Nicky and god mother is Josie. Incidentally, it was Josie that was Emma’s brides made and Nicky who was my best man at our wedding on New Year’s Eve.

    I’m sure I can speak for Emma as well when I thank absolutely every single person who helped and who came to Méabh’s christening yesterday. It was better than either of us could have hoped and I am delighted that so many were there to welcome our daughter into the world and into our community.

  • Thanks Méabh.

    It has been a difficult week in a lot of ways. Mainly because of work but also because by the time I get home, Méabh simply wants to feed or sleep. I have been missing all the activity during the day and when I change her for preparation for feeding in the evening, she launches into hysterics.

    It’s unlikely but I think she’s been picking up on my stress in some ways. I have a lot going on in work at the moment and by the time I get home, honestly, I’m in no mood for minding a baby. That’s not good and it’s not what I wanted at this stage but that’s life. Méabh is my responsibility and I have to make time for her even when I’ve been working for 16 hours straight and I feel like doing nothing other than sleeping.

    Tonight was a little different. I got to work at 9:30AM and I finished at 7PM. Instead of going straight home, I met up with a few friends in Dublin for a pint or two and that was enough to let the week’s problems wash away for a while. I got home at around 9:30 and by 11PM I could tell Emma was really ready for a good night’s sleep. So I told her to go on up and that I’d change Méabh the next time she started looking for a feed to allow Emma to actually go to bed without anything to worry about.

    Emma is brilliant. Because I’m working such long hours, she encouraged me to sleep in Méabh’s room for a lot of days this week. I really want to make sure that I return the favour this weekend by allowing her to get as much rest as possible.

    That’s not really what this post is about though. Ordinarily when I change Méabh, she screams the place down and wiggles about like a fish on a hook. Tonight, when I changed her at about 10 past 2 in the morning, she was of course hungry and therefore searching for Emma but the straining against the change of nappy and clothes was much more manageable. In fact, she even paused from time to time when I was buttoning up her baby grow. The main thing she doesn’t like is when I’m getting her hands in to the arm holes but she’s the same with Emma as well.

    It was just a huge relief that she wasn’t over difficult for me.

    I know that after two weeks I should be fine with all this kind of thing but I’m so afraid of hurting her that when she cries because of a change of clothes, I’m always afraid that I’m doing something wrong.

    This whole having a daughter thing is hard but not for the reasons I thought it would be. I’m constantly worried! My ears are ultra-sensitive to her breathing, I’m noticing all her little movements and changes and I’m constantly worried that I’m doing something wrong. Of course, every person who has had a child is assuring me that this is all natural. It’s a pity they didn’t warn me that I’d be this afraid before she was born!

    Anyway, I just wanted to say Thanks Méabh. You’ve given me a bit of hope that I’m not doing this completely wrong.

  • I qualified with Nama this day last year.

    Today 18th October marks one year since I qualified with my third guide dog. As any follower of this blog or my updates on various social networks will already know, it has been one hell of a year. In fairness to you, I’ve been saying that almost every year for about five or six years. This past year has been life changing though. Let’s see. I qualified with Nama, I got married, I went on honeymoon and experienced things people could only dream of, I found out I was going to be a father, I changed job and finally I became a father to our beautiful daughter Méabh. Yes. It really has been one hell of a year!

    Of course I would have done all this without Nama by my side but it wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable or easy. As I’ve always said, Nama is a bullet proof, resourceful, independent, intelligent, obedient and loyal companion and guide dog. Over both Freddie and Ike he can handle more work, more changes and more upheavals. However, one thing I will say is he’s not gentle at all. I know Ike would be a lot more cautious and a lot easier going around now. Nama is really hardy but he expects everyone else to be hardy as well. That’s the way I like him though.

    I’ve written before here about what Nama has been doing in his first year so I won’t repeat myself. Since September however Nama’s work load has really decreased. I have been working a lot from home so I’ve had to artificially boost his work day. I think this has been a very unwelcome change from his perspective because he was really enjoying the work load I was giving him every day. The exercise was also doing us both a lot of good but overall, commuting every day was not doing my personal life or social life any favours. I’ve been commuting for the past ten years so although it’s not really the best thing for Nama, I have to do what’s right for me and my new family. It’s something that continues to weigh very heavily on my mind though.

    Nama is full of energy. His idea of a perfect life seems to be an equal balance of constant play and work. With the changes in my work life and the even bigger changes in my personal and family life, poor Nama’s needs have been pushed to one side. I’m really hoping that things will balance out again. Until then, I’m feeling very guilty because he really deserves more than I’m giving him at the moment.

    That’s really what this post is about.

    With all the changes that we have gone through in the past year, I’m really finding it difficult to juggle everything at once. Take today for example. We were over in my parents’ house for an hour or two. I had to go over to look at a computer problem that my mother encountered last night but because she had cleaned the house this morning I felt bad bringing Nama with me. He has been shedding a lot lately and the fact that I haven’t really had or taken the time to groom him regularly over the past two weeks really hasn’t helped. Anyway, we got back to the house after a while and I knew Nama would be very happy to see us. Ordinarily I’d spend the first few minutes giving him attention, letting him relieve himself and generally making it worth his while waiting for me to get back but today, it was raining and Emma’s not really herself yet so I had to open the house, go back to the car to bring the baby stuff in, go back again to bring in some shopping and then go back to dispose of some recyclable waste that was left over from the packaging. All this was probably done within about five minutes because I ran in and out as fast as I possibly could but I felt very guilty as Nama was moaning and crying in the living room waiting for me to go in to him. I have so many things to do at the moment from taking care of the baby, taking care of Emma and taking care of Nama that unfortunately, for the moment Nama needs to take less of a priority for a while. This leaves absolutely no time for me of course and when I have time to myself, I have absolutely no motivation left to actually get any work done. I’ve taken on some work outside my nine to five work but I’m so far behind that it seems like an absolutely impossible task. I know that it’s just that I’ve taken on a bit more than I can handle at the moment but unfortunately it’s meaning that I’m feeling particularly bad and guilty for poor Nama. Mainly because he’s been so good in his first year of work that I think I should be doing better for him.

    Reading back over that it sounds like a poor me post. It’s not. Things will get better. I’ll find more time for Nama and my priorities will get back on track again. For the moment I don’t think I will ever get out of this busy stressful stage but I know it will happen eventually.

    The extra money that I’m trying to raise will go into finishing a big chunk of work that I want to do before the end of the year. I know that when it’s all done all of this will be worth it.