It’s a long time since I rented a chalet one winter in the hills of Donegal, near Carrickfinn, and walked on the beach like a lonesome soldier every morning, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
I went to Dungloe once a week on the Lough Swilly Bus for groceries, and to replenish the whiskey I drank most nights, with Luciano Pavarotti bellowing away on my JVC stereo system. My only material possession apart from a bicycle.
Back then, the pub I revered was Teach Leo’s in Meenaleck. I could linger at an open fire, and chat to Leo about how well his daughter Enya was doing in the British charts, or where exactly Clannad were playing that very night in some far-flung corner of the world.
Leo was a musician and entertainer with a generous heart and the most kindly smile any lonesome drinker could hope for, on a cold November night; especially with only a bicycle at the door for transport home.
Thirty-five years later, the world has changed a lot; but in Donegal the same rocks emerge along the beach at low tide, and every turn on the road to Meenaleck is as it was, although the houses are slightly bigger.
We were like brothers since childhood, but I came home and he stayed. And I wasn’t even able to hug him at the end
I drove up from Leitrim recently and stopped halfway for coffee. An elderly man in the car park of a service station approached me. He walked with a stick, and his hand shook as he leaned on the roof of my car for support.
“I heard you were ill,” he said.
“I had a few issues,” I admitted.
“I have a stent like yourself,” he declared triumphantly. “And I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.”
“You’re even worse than me,” I replied, and we both laughed.
“It’s being stuck in the house that bothers me,” he said. “Since Covid, I can’t seem to get out at all.”
He said he had a friend who died in London during the pandemic.
“We were like brothers since childhood,” he said, “but I came home and he stayed. And I wasn’t even able to hug him at the end.”
He wiped a tear from his cheek, and I could feel his body crying out to be held and hugged by someone; by anyone. I even felt like reaching out myself and embracing him there and then. But it being a public car park, and he being a stranger, I let the moment pass.
That night, I was back again in Teach Leo’s for a music session. Clubeo is an intimate event where young musicians get a chance to perform in public; Moya Brennan presides, and there’s always a celebrity guest at the end.
The place was packed to the rafters. I met men from Glasgow and women from Dundalk, a retired couple from Derry and a horse dealer from Bundoran. Everyone was squashed in like sardines, enjoying burgers and steak ciabattas before the young aspiring artists took to the stage to sing their hearts out.
Aisling Jarvis, a gifted musician and daughter of Moya Brennan, was selling tickets for the raffle. The prize was a bodhrán, later won by a man from Gortahork who lives in Chicago.
And then, at the end of the night, came Ralph McTell to the microphone to sing with a voice as deep as a river and as solid as a mountain. His eyes were bright and his features rugged, and the veins on the back of his hands were bursting with life as he plucked the strings and opened his lungs, to share his songs and wisdom with the listening room.
And the room listened in awe. Especially when he came to The Streets of London.
I’ve always experienced that song as a call to be a better person; to forget about your own suffering or loneliness and consider someone else who might just be worse off.
I noticed a picture of Leo on the wall, and I suspected he too might be singing along if he were still with us
And there he was, the legend himself, singing with such ease that the audience sang along, and Moya Brennan sang along, and even I sang along. I noticed a picture of Leo on the wall, taken when he was old but still smiling at the world and I suspected he too might be singing along if he were still with us. And for that one spectacular moment, the world felt like a kinder and gentler place.
But of course, I felt regret as well, that I had missed a chance to be a better person and throw my arms around that lonesome stranger in the car park of a service station along the road.