The man waved and smiled. Distant, and unperturbed by the affairs of the world, he sat on a bench in the warmth of the evening sun. Some thought of happier times must have come to mind, prompting a half-smile to cross his face.
It evoked memories of a poem recited by Tommy Makem at the 1984 reunion concert with the Clancy Brothers. Makem had a love of poetry, his repertoire included Shakespeare and Heaney. The beautiful music of Carrickfergus seemed a fitting context for poetic words. In his inimitable way, Tommy Makem filled lines by James Cousins with a power to bring tears to the eyes.
He stumbled home from Clifden fair
With drunken song, and cheeks aglow.
Yet there was something in his air
That told of kingship long ago.
I sighed — and inly cried
With grief that one so high should fall so low.
He snatched a flower and sniffed its scent,
And waved it toward the sunset sky.
Some old sweet rapture thro’ him went
And kindled in his bloodshot eye.
I turned — and inly burned
With joy that one so low should rise so high.
Perhaps Cousins’ words added further depth to the song Carrickfergus, which is very far from the love song as it is sometimes presented, but instead is a tale of the demise of a man who had succumbed to drink. The ballad concludes with the lines:
But in Kilkenny, it is reported,
On marble stones there as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her,
But I’ll sing no more ’till I get a drink.
For I’m drunk today, and I’m seldom sober,
A handsome rover from town to town,
Ah, but I’m sick now, my days are numbered,
Come all you young men and lay me down.
Cousins or Carrickfergus, there is a sense that behind the person walking the roads in Co Galway, or the person who is counting his final days recalling memories of a town in Ulster and tales of a city in Leinster, there is someone with a story to tell. The man walking from Clifden, the man sat alone in a bar, are people of dignity, they are not people to be passed unnoticed.
It is hard to imagine such lines now being written. Perhaps communities are fragmented, perhaps individualism has atomised our society, perhaps anonymity allows people to be forgotten. The man sitting on the bench might have offered an opinion.