I have said before that I love ballads; stories in verse. Kevin O’Connell, a Kiwi, and Dennis Barrett, an Ozzie, introduced me to Banjo Paterson, the renowned Australian balladeer whose worldwide best known verse is Waltzing Matilda. They would take a £5-00 bet on the selection of a single word difference in a ballad that they both knew off by heart, of which there were many! I was spell-bound, and learned more than a handful of the verses for myself. Clancy of the Overflow, McGuiness Magee, The Man from Snowy River and many others became well-known friends.
But the introduction to Irish ballads, the history of the Irish Troubles, and love of Irish music is something I can never thank Kevin O’Connell for enough. Tickling my interest with his accurate repeats of Kevin Barry, The Foggy Dew, Dublin in the Green, and a dozen more rebel songs, Kevin awoke a life-long love in me for these things. Although a Kiwi, his parents were from Ireland and Daniel O’Connell was his great-uncle!
Then six of us went to Dublin for a long weekend. As far as I can remember, I was the only man without a drop of Irish blood in his veins. I was glad they called me Jaap, or Ya Japie Bastard, rather than Pommie! We took the train, then the ferry, then a bus from Dun Laoghaire to Dublin, booked into a B&B and hired a car. One of our number, Gary McAuliffe, had been a policeman in Dublin for eight years, so was the perfect guide. The days and nights melted into each other and I have no recollection of what we did, or chronologically when, as I was bombarded with history, fifteen pints of Guinness and another fifteen of Harp lager before finishing off at two in the next morning at a folk-singing gig before hitting the sack.
We crawled from one famous pub to another. Glug, glug, glug. I remember Michael Collins’ revolver in a frame on one wall. We watched a game of hurling at Croke Park. And the crowning hours were spent listening to three groups doing their musical thing. The first was so devastatingly beautiful; I wondered why they had not kept the best for last. But they had! It just got better and better. The second was a solo banjo artist, I think Sean McKenna, the brother of the banjo player in The Dubliners. One of his instrumental numbers was Danny Boy, trembling the strings so that it sounded like the tinkling of glass crystals. From the audience, not a sound. Shocked, I found the tears running down my face, and as I turned to surreptitiously wipe them away, I saw every cheek there glistening…
As we packed up to leave Dublin, Kevin said: “Now don’t you leave anything behind, Jaap!”
“Just my heart,” I said.