Excerpt: Killarney Blues


The sun on the lake sparkles. Only a laden, dark cloud in the distance has the audacity to ruin the perfect picture. Bernard has one eye on it, knows how things loom, how those clouds can hover, then open and pour, drench, saturate. But not yet. There’s a few more hours of this brightness, and he’s intent on enjoying it.

He’s very happy to be sitting out in it with this pretty American by his side: Laura. Laura from Texas. Blue-eyed. Bouncy. Beautiful. They both sit on the edge of the main pier and stare out at the lake, the sound of gentle lapping under their feet. It’s almost idyllic. So many scenes like this can be found in spots all over Killarney. Some famous, well-trodden places. Some hidden treasures that await discovery.

This is just one of the frequented runs, but yes, it is, for the most part, an almost-idyll. Perhaps he would take away the fishermen in boats to make the picture perfect; bit of Photoshop here, airbrush there, erase that black cloud for a start. Then it would be just right, perhaps. Bernard would be happy to sit forever like this. Just gazing out. Of course, if the picture is to be absolutely perfect then he’d have to substitute Marian for Laura. Then it would indeed be an ideal. Too many adjustments? Is this the way it is to be with him? Always too many adjustments?

Bernard is getting restless. It’s hot in that big coat. He might even take it off. Might lose the run of himself entirely.

“Were you born in Killarney?”

“I was. Born and raised. Grew up in a place called Ardshanavooly.”

Bernard plays up the accent. Knows the American will lap it up.

“Wow, that’s a funny name.”

“It was a good place. The people were friendly. Close.”

“Your folks still there?”

“We moved from there. My mother is still alive, and still kicking up a fuss about things. My father passed away when I was young.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Silence as a slight breeze cools the sweat above his eyebrows. Bernard isn’t at all sorry that his father is dead. It could have been so different. Everything could have been so… other. If some things never happened. Or if things had gone another route. Another way altogether.

His mind is beginning its whirr now. He thinks of good fathers that he knew growing up, stern but fair fathers who watched their charges play football, ruffled hair without causing alarm. It was a different era then of course, hair-ruffling went unnoticed. His own father had taught him the guitar basics at a very early age. He had taught him about horses, too. And those were two good things. Those were positives.

He should try to remember the good things. More mind-whirr. It’s hot as hell today. He’s feeling a little faint. Doesn’t need to be thinking of his father. Doesn’t need this at all. Not on a day like today. The sun. The lake. Are these not enough? Today at least.

He considers the blues. Always his haven. The thing about that kind of music is that you know what you’re in for. You know what’s expected. There are variations, but you pretty much know what’s to come, what’s in store for you. He finds great comfort in this.

He wants to think about music, get lost in the contemplation. He finds he’s ever only truly happy in two states: the creation or the contemplation of art. He wants to talk about it.

He wants to say the names out loud, like a mantra: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Skip James, Sunnyland Slim, Sonny Terry, Leadbelly, Leadbelly, Leadbelly. Now there was another songster that Bernard can’t help but sometimes think about, an outlaw, sent to prison, who sang his way out. Bernard likes to read about Leadbelly, the sexual prowess, the fact that he carried his Colt revolver with his guitar, never without the two, the fact that his repertoire was as big as his wild streak: he knew folk songs, cowboy ballads, low-down blues, sometimes he didn’t need his twelve-string at all, just hollered away in the brothels of Fannin Street.

Bernard would love that audacity. Love to be larger than life. The kind of person you’d release out of prison on the back of songs. As if music, and music alone, was enough. Someone not hunched up in embarrassment, but sticking the chest out, and hollerin’: I’m here, now listen to me, listen to me sing Goddammit! He wishes the Irish could say even that: Goddammit.

But he doesn’t want to sound like a gobshite. It’s important that he remain authentic. To not be phony. One day he’ll stick out his chest and sing. For sure. Maybe someday soon.

The water laps. The smell from the lake beneath their feet is strong. Fish. Frond. He wants to carve a tunnel back into the conversation. The silence is getting too much. Stifling. What is Laura thinking about? What does she think of him? How strange is it, this Irishman, interested in her music?

He remembers watching other curious hobbies on TV: a school in Moscow that taught Gaelic, and a man from Ennis who had one of the biggest collections of reggae (vinyl) in the world. It takes all sorts. People were up to all kinds of assorted activities. You don’t have to stay in your box. Bernard is prepared to tell her all about his passion.

“I love the blues,” he says abruptly.

“Excuse me?”

“The blues. American music. Folk. But especially the blues.”

“Oh. I see. I wasn’t expecting that. There’s a lot of blues music where I come from. And country music too, of course. And bluegrass.”

“I know there is. I’ve never been to the States, but I will someday. I want to hear some of those fellas play.”

This strange man beside her is full of surprises. He could say just about anything. She hasn’t expected any of this today. Anything like him. She thought she was just out for a bit of exercise. But look what’s happened.

“Why blues? I mean, you’ve got your own fine music here. I saw a session last night. Fiddles, that drum thing, you know. Accordians. Quite the energy going on there. Made me want to kick up my legs.”

Bernard laughs. She might not know the name for a bodhrán, that “drum thing”, but she captured the music in its essence, spot on. There is indeed a lot of energy about it. Nothing wrong with a jig or a reel. Not a damn thing wrong with it. But that’s not what he wants in his life. It’s something else.

“I like the blues because the sound is not Irish. Because it’s exotic. From far away.”

Bernard’s eyes are all wistful now, eyes as distant as the lands he talks about.

“My father taught me how to play guitar when I was – I don’t know – maybe six or seven years old. He had lots of old blues records. Some uncle I never even met sent them. From Chicago. I don’t know if my father ever met him either. Loads of records. Boxes full. Some still play. Some are so scratched they’re no good for anything. I still keep them though.”

Bernard remembers that old turntable. The way his small hands loved to so delicately place the needle into the groove. His father used to warn him to be careful, the slightest slip and it could all go terribly wrong. But he was careful. Oh, so careful. He didn’t want to make mistakes. Not just because he didn’t want to upset his father, but because he loved those records just as much as him.

He knew each artist, each song, and before long quite a lot of the chords, riffs and licks. Sometimes, he’d happily just look at the sleeves, read the liner notes and not understand half the words, and none of the places, just gaze at the photos of men in dapper suits, black skin, lived-in faces, fedoras, panamas, shoestring ties, banjos, washboards, mules, harps; the record player didn’t even have to be on at all. It was a different world. And it suited a man who was, is, indeed very different too.

“When I became a teenager, and he wasn’t around anymore, it seemed to matter more. The music, I mean. He was a bad man. Like the ones in the songs, you know, outlaws. I thought I could escape, in my head only, well… the blues took me there. The image of old black men somehow became more comforting. Like they could somehow protect me. I had the posters on my walls: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. Still have them in fact. They’re comforting to look up at, when you’re just lying there, you know. Those men seem wise. Like they know what it’s all about. Like they’ve lived lives. Like they have the answers.”

Bernard hasn’t spoken so much, so many proper out-loud run-on sentences in one sitting, in a long time, maybe ever. He does tell stories of the lakes and forests for his customers, explains the flora and fauna, but it’s just rattling off myth and half-fact, it’s not heartfelt, it’s not emotional. This is different. It’s what he really feels. He doesn’t speak like this to his own mother. Yet here he is, bending the ear of a complete stranger. His cheeks grow red at the thought of it, but he perseveres. On a roll. He’s not really talking to her anyway. He’s talking to himself. And to the ghost under his feet.

“We have all nationalities in Ireland now. Not like it was before. Sometimes I see them Nigerian fellas and I imagine they are from the Mississippi Delta, or New Orleans. Silly, isn’t it? Hoping these men would pick up a guitar and play for me. Daft.”

Laura laughs with him. He does seem daft to her. Though that’s a word that wouldn’t have come so readily to her. Eccentric maybe. Odd. Peculiar. Still, she’s enjoying herself. She wonders how she would feel about a born-and-bred Texan, in Austin or San Antonio, say, who listened to nothing but traditional Irish music. There probably is such a soul, for all she knows. It’s only a Google away.

“Don’t get me wrong. I do love Killarney. It’s in my heart. As much as I’d like to visit America, this is my home. I love this town.”

“Can’t say I blame you.”

Bernard doesn’t lie. He does love it. He’s proud when the town swarms with people in summer. They say the numbers have dropped, but they always say that, always playing it down. The town is busy enough. He loves to see strangers roam around his streets, enter the shops he knows, breathe his air. He loves to hear them praise the mountains when they pass them, or tell of how they enjoyed sitting by Torc Waterfall, or the view from Aghadoe, how they adored the calm, pretty deer they saw back at the golf course, their gentle faces, the soft white spots on their flanks. It makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand upright.

This pride. This heart-swell. He does love his town. He does. He might one day go to Chicago, or New Orleans for Mardi Gras, maybe even see B.B. King live before the great man clocks out, but he’ll always return.

“A smart-arse from Dublin once said to me that he could never live in Killarney because of all the horseshit. I told him I could never live in Dublin because of all the bullshit.”

She likes that one. Must remember it. Might be able to adapt it to her own territory.

“Would you believe they are even trying to get us to put nappies on the horses now?”

Laura knows to translate “nappy” into “diaper”.

“Trying to stop them fouling up the streets. Have you ever heard the likes? A nappy on a horse! There’s no way it’ll work. The horse would be too uncomfortable, could be dangerous. They’re just animals.”

Laura knows they’ve already tried this in some cities in America, some mounted patrol units use these “butt bags” or “poop pouches”, but she decides not to mention it.

She looks at this odd man beside her. Strange one, isn’t he? She’s glad he likes the blues. Her brother Tom will be pleased. The two men probably would hit it off. Both play guitar and bandy about the same names. They should get together. Have a jam session. Maybe she should introduce them. One thing is bothering her however, and she can’t keep it in any longer.

“Aren’t you hot?”

He is, actually.

“My mother gives out to me for carrying this old thing around.”

“Was it your father’s?”

“If it was, I wouldn’t wear it.”

Out on the lake a fisherman casts his line. There is a brief flicker as the sun reflects off the end of it, some tiny fly expertly tied. Bernard would like the artistry involved in that, tie-flying, the attention to detail it would take to make that fly realistic, authentic feathers and the hidden hook. The fly sinks under and the fisherman waits, watching the concentric circles enlarge to meet his boat.

“The blues is about suffering. And the Irish know a bit about that.”

“Do you miss him?”

Bernard takes his time in answering. He doesn’t know why he has to give the illusion of contemplation. The answer is dead clear to him.


The fisherman casts again and again. He must not give up. One cast is never enough.



If you want to buy Killarney Blues click here.