I just got back from a terrific week in Ireland, where I performed at the 4th annual Belfast Songwriters’ Festival. I had the opportunity to play a couple of acoustic shows with Don Schlitz and Pat Alger, who are some of my greatest songwriting influences. Don wrote a slew of hits including Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” and Allison Krauss’s “When You Say Nothing at All”, and Pat wrote a bunch of hits including Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and “Unanswered Prayers”.
The week started off a little roughly when I was stranded at the JFK airport for 24 hours en route, and then the airline managed to lose my bag AND my guitar (losing your guitar is like losing your child!) so I spent my entire visit over there with no belongings except the clothes on my back and what I could borrow from my sister Amy, who had fortunately come along for the trip as well. But the Irish people gave us a lovely warm reception and it was easy to just roll with it – I was able to borrow a guitar for my shows. Finally my belongings were found and delivered to Belfast just in time to turn around and go home again (which was another 24 hour journey thanks to the blizzard that kept us stuck on the runway at the airport in Chicago for hours on end).
One of the highlights of my stay in Belfast was a visit to the Cregagh Primary School, where I performed for a class of 9 & 10-year-old kids as part of the festival’s outreach program. The festival’s organizers have been working with the local children for a while to encourage and teach them to write songs. Since there is still a lot of friction between Catholic and Protestant populations in the area and the schools are still quite segregated, this is a great way of bringing together kids from different backgrounds and enabling each of them to learn and write about the lives of the others. The kids sang a traditional Irish song for me, and I played a few of my own songs for them. It was a great day.
Another highlight of the week was the spontaneous jam session that evolved in the pub downstairs from the hotel where all of the performers were staying. Every night, the pub was a gathering point for us (Guinness is a big part of life in Ireland, and we took every opportunity to taste it – it’s actually much more creamy and delicious over there than it is here, so I’m a convert!). While the locals cheered on their rugby teams in the big TV match, the rest of us began to pass the guitar around and perform folk songs from our various countries, as well as some of our own original songs. Before long we had drawn a crowd, and the group had grown to include headliners Nanci Griffith (USA), Annika Fehling & Tobias Frohberg (Sweden), & Tony McLaughlin (Scotland) as well as about 8 other writers from various countries around the world. Pretty soon a harp player joined us to jam out some solos (quite beautiful hearing her play along with some of the traditional Celtic music!). When we really got rolling we even managed to kidnap a man who happened to be passing by outside on the sidewalk with a fiddle on his back, and he started playing some fantastic Irish reels. I think the most wonderful moment of all was when we convinced Dougie MacLean to perform his song “Caledonia”, which is hugely popular in the UK and has become a surrogate national anthem for the Scots. He sang it quietly, with his lilting Scottish accent, and by the time the first verse was over everything in the bar had suddenly become quiet: the TV had been turned off, all the bar patrons had crowded around, and a few people had even come in off the street to sing along. It was so beautiful that it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
Actually the hair stood up on the back of my neck a lot while I was there, especially during the tour of Belfast that my sister and I took. For two hours, a taxi driver drove us around; we saw the huge dry dock where the Titanic was built before her disastrous maiden voyage, some beautiful churches, and many of the fantastic murals painted on the sides of buildings all around the city. The murals serve as memorials and political statements honoring both sides of the Loyalist/Nationalist conflict that used to plague the area up until about 8 years ago, when acts of terrorism were a common occurrence, and the hotel we were staying in would have been enclosed in barbed wire and manned by armed military guards. The wall still stands in the middle of Belfast (quite like the Berlin wall) separating the Catholic sections from the Protestant ones, and it’s not unusual at all to see a row of lovely houses with one of them gutted, burned and empty in the middle. Apparently these taxi tours are not necessarily objective or even accurate in their description of the conflicts, but it was interesting seeing our driver point out many of the names of his relatives on the memorial signs throughout the city. It left me absolutely awed at what people had lived through so recently in a city that now seems so tranquil.
Our tour of the beautiful northern coast was also fantastic, with the highlight being a visit to the Giant’s Causeway – a strange geological formation caused by the cooling of volcanic lava into large black 5-sided cylinders that stand on end. An entire section of the coastline was comprised entirely of these stones standing side-by side at different heights, giving it a unique honeycomb appearance. The black rock was gorgeous against the white foam of the waves crashing in from the Irish sea, backed by tall mountainous bluffs covered in thick green grass flattened by the wind.
All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to visit the land my ancestors came from for the first time and to share in a truly international musical experience. Thanks to Colin and Anne McGee and all of their helpers for their hard work in organizing the festival. I’m in love with Ireland now, so I’m sure I’ll be back! And the Guinness just isn’t the same over here….