DUBLIN IN THE EARLY 1960’s
Now here was a different scene!
I ran into some boys my own age, one night in the Brazen Head in Dublin. They were singing and playing and I plucked up my courage, took out my guitar and sang I ain’t got no home in this world anymore. We were all mutually impressed and became friends. Idealism was very much the watchword. We listened to the Clancy Brothers and thought the songs good but the performance stagey and over the top. ‘Strokey’ was the word we used in those days.
I moved into a one room garret in Baggot Street and began to live in O’Donoghue’s Pub. I was still acting but the money was very bad and at that time there were very few places to earn a crust playing music.
Paddy and Maureen O’Donoghue, God rest them, were people I and many another could not have done without. I’m sure I would have starved to death without the bowl of soup that was always on offer and I certainly would have died of the drouth without the daily ration of pints.
There I swapped songs and ideas with many people who made a big impression on me: Luke Kelly, Johnny Moynihan, Ronnie Drew and others. Life suddenly had meaning and I gave up the acting profession—at which I had become very bad and self conscious anyway. I swapped Neary’s pub for O’Donoghue’s and felt I was dwelling among real people.
Money was scarce but friendship and likemindedness were the finest I had known, maybe the first I had known. I moved into a house off Baggot Street where Ronnie Drew and others lived. It was a very bohemian scene and during the dreaded ‘holy hour’, when Dublin pubs closed between 2.30 and 3.30, writers, painters, architects and musicians would pass that uneasy hour till the pubs opened again.
Hatching a plan with Johnny Moynihan on Bagget St. Dublin, 1964
A Session held in the Coffee Kitchen in Molesworth Street was the first of its kind in Dublin.
Here on a Friday night I could earn 10 bob by singing my Woody Guthrie songs. I was also playing the mandolin at this time and was influenced by Johnny Moynihan, whose musical taste was as quirky as mine. We sang long ballads that we learned from the Child Collection, we sang songs from the "Radio ballads" that Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker had made for the BBC, we sang Old Timey songs from the American tradition and we sang and played songs and tunes that we heard on Radio Eireann, collected and presented by Ciarán MacMathúna and his like.
Starting in the early summer, we would head off down the country, to ‘follow the Fleadhs’as they used to say. Sleeping in haybarns, busking at fairs and living the life of a rover.
It seems to me now that musicians were much more in evidence, ‘’down the country’’, than singers at that time and I rarely heard songs that thrilled me. The repertoire seemed small. Sean South of Garryowen and Roddy McAuley being trundled out often. I may have been looking in the wrong places. Also, I don’t think that the traditional musicians looked on us city beatniks with much sympathy. We were bearded young men dressed in ragged jeans and playing instruments which many looked on with disapproval. Also we drank too much and slept rough. I don’t think our zeal for the music was particularly recognised either.
I spent long hours in the National Library writing out lengthy Child ballads and looking through the index trying to find Irish publications. It wasn’t till years later that Sean Corcoran came over to me and said: ‘’Have a look in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People, they keep it in the Librarian’s Office’’
But at that time I loved the really old "classic" ballads. Songs like Sir Patrick Spens, The Douglas Tragedy and Edward. Other publications that made a deep impression were Bert Lloyd’s "Penguin Book of English Folk Songs" with lovely modal tunes.
I used to sing them in O’Donoghue’s in the very early morning in the Men’s toilet, smelling of disinfectant. There was something wrong with the cistern and a drone emanated from somewhere all the years I frequented the place. Singing against a drone is something I love to this day.
I had begun to try to accompany myself on the mandolin some years before and my style was simple. I more or less played along with the tune adding the odd harmony note and half chord as I had learned from records of Old Timey American musicians accompanying themselves on the fiddle. Johnny Moynihan had taught me to tune down the top string of the mandolin—GDAD instead of GDAE which gave echoes of 5-string banjo playing with the top D usually a constant note.
These learning years were passed in something like ecstasy.
c. 1965 party in Nottingham
Unfortunately money was getting scarcer. There was the odd gig in Dublin in the Coffee Kitchen and sometimes in The Abbey Tavern in Howth, standing in for The Dubliners when they were away or in The Embankment out in Tallaght. However, we were not singing the right songs for these people and we were definitely not dressed in the way they expected. I remember one gig in The Embankment with Johnny Moynihan, Anne Briggs and others where we were showered with beermats from the audience and had to cut our performance a tad short. Some revenge was had later in the Ladies where my girlfriend and Annie Briggs encountered some of our female attackers and terrorised them. We beat a hasty retreat.
Two friends of mine had hit the road for Denmark and returned with stories that made my feet itch. I suddenly realised, along with half the rest of Europe’s youth that there was a big wide world out there waiting to be explored.
So late in 1965, myself and a Galway man called Joe Dolan set out to travel through Europe, playing on the streets of Munich and Vienna.
I never got over the traveling bug.