I don’t know how it happened, I think it was by way of the Pogues, but suddenly in the mid-90s I became obsessed with traditional Irish music. Not the syrupy, overwrought ballads but the bawdy, colorful pub drinking songs and fast-paced, melody-meandering jigs and reels. The Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Bothy Band, the Chieftains were all on my playlist, so I jumped at the chance to visit Ireland in the fall of 1995. I’d been living in Cambridge, England, where I was participating in a study abroad program and me and a bunch of fellow students decided to rent a van to cruise around Ireland’s perimeter on our break. For ten days, we – five male students, one male professor and me – drove from Dublin to Galway to Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, Cork City and Waterford then flew back to England. Luckily, having a tomboy disposition and having been the only girl musician in a rock band, I knew how to conduct myself amongst so much testosterone and got along fine with all them. The guys, on the other hand, occasionally clashed with each other, after one too many pints of Guinness.
The memory of the beauty of Ireland stayed with me as I returned to my studies in Cambridge. I was coming up on the end of the program in December and thought, “right. Ireland’s right there – I love it, love its music, its land, its history, its people, now’s my chance.” At the program’s end, I found myself saying goodbye to my fellow classmates and boarding a plane for Ireland, with only a few bags laden with some books and clothes and my Guild guitar in tow.
I didn’t want to go to Dublin, because that seemed too easy and obvious a choice. I’d fallen for Cork City while there on our trip, had learned at a genealogical center that Cork was the likely town of origin of my ancestors on my mom’s father’s side of the family. I set Cork (the locals pronounced it “Kark”) in my sight lines. I didn’t have much money but did have an overarching optimism and naivete that everything would somehow sort itself out. I boarded a bus from Shannon airport to Cork City, where I disembarked and trudged down rain misted streets. I was looking for a hostel that had been recommended to me, across from the train station on Lower Glanmire Road (the rough side of town, some locals would later furtively inform me). Inside the drafty Georgian house resplendent in bohemian thrift store junk decor, I was one of only two residents – a German gal, Stephanie, also in her mid-20s and a cranky 30-ish, punk rock Irishman, named Damian. In my upstairs room, I could look out over the street, a classic Irish scene of row houses, a pub with a blinking neon sign that pierced through the dilapidated, broken slats of the window’s blinds, for which a towel draped over the rod helped to blot out the light at night. I found that the shower had no hot water available, so I shivered as I tried to soap and rinse as fast as possible in the frigid air, an enormous spider resting peacefully in his web in a corner. A sitting room downstairs had an ever-present peat fire burning where I would thaw out afterwards, the sting of the smoke hard on my eyes.
Stephanie and I fell into an easy friendship. She was waitressing nearby at a cafe and I’d pop in to visit her on breaks. We would sit al fresco, sip coffee and talk about our lives. I told her about how I had once lived in Seattle. Stephanie furrowed her brow quizzically, looked at me and said “you mean SEET-le?” I laughed and said “See-AT-le!” She reached over and pinched my arm playfully.
Since I was fast running low on funds, I began pounding the pavement, dropping into pubs, restaurants, shops, wherever, inquiring for work, pitching my services. But the moment proprietors realized I was an American who didn’t have a work permit they’d shake their heads no. I placed a call in response to a wanted ad for a strawberry picker, but even they were reluctant to hire me without the proper documents. So I did what every musician does in these circumstances, I took to the streets with my guitar. Standing under cloudy skies, chilled to my intestines, with my Guild’s case propped open, I would strum and sing for loose change. I didn’t dare sing Irish songs and open myself up to criticism from traditionalists (“coals to Newcastle” indeed). I stuck with classic rock standards, crowd pleasers – your Beatles, your Dylan, etc.
One afternoon I met a young woman (whose name I can’t for the life of me recall), an aloof, slight, bashful gal with thick, long wild Irish hair, bundled in an oversize brown coat and fingerless gloves. She, too, was a starving musician, played the pennywhistle on a street corner down the block. Since she and I were in the same poor boat, we hung out to enjoy each other’s company but agreed not to perform together. Playing together would mean less money. We each did our “shift,” her on her side of the street, me down the block within view and then we’d meet up at the pub afterwards, where we’d warm up and compare notes. She told me her story: she hailed from a farm in a small village in the Irish countryside but couldn’t take that lifestyle any more. Against her father’s wishes, she’d come to the big city of Cork to see if she could make a living playing traditional music on her pennywhistle.
Friends would say to me, “just find an Irish guy and get him to marry you. Then you’re in and won’t have the work permit problem.” But I found the idea of using someone to further my purposes repugnant. Even though I didn’t have a problem meeting guys at that stage of my life. There were many…like Tim, who I met in a dance club. He was cute, slim with tousled, brown hair and had thought I was a native Irish person. He tried to kiss me after awhile but I shoved him off. I didn’t want a fellow, no matter how cute. That would only complicate things at this stage.
After a couple weeks, I decided that it was time for me to move out of the hostel on Lower Glanmire Road. It was too far from the city centre where all the action was, too long a trek and too seedy an area. I said ‘bye’ to the scowling punk and ‘see you soon’ to Steph and schlepped my belongings from the wrong side of the tracks to a more swank hostel across the road from the university. As I walked in the front door, I could hear the strains of Bob Dylan’s song “Jokerman” playing which made my heart puff up with joy.
This new hostel was cheap, cheerful and crowded, packed with tourists from all over the world – Scandinavians, Italians, Japanese, Australians – it was like a Bennetton ad. This hostel had working showers with genuine hot water, blinds that actually kept out the light and a roomy drawing room with a TV which seemed to always be tuned in to Australian soap operas, go figure.
I settled in and continued my routine of daily busking when the weather allowed. Afterwards I’d hang out with Pennywhistle Girl, pub-hopping to find live music. My days were both monotonous and tense – would I make enough money to get something to eat? Would it be raining? Where was all this leading? How was I going to get my hands on a work permit?
I got an impromptu gig in a pub, where I sat on a chair in a corner, the muted steely gray afternoon light illuminating the patrons faces, people who were so polite and attentive it took me aback. They were thrilled I knew Dylan songs and called for more. I sang some favorites stored up in my head – “Tangled up in Blue,” “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right” and “One More Cup of Coffee,” each song ending with appreciative applause. So unlike the jaded crowds of my native southern California!
A few days later, I found the weather too bleak and blustery for busking. I wasn’t about to sit around the hostel all day, though, so I went for an hours-long walk. I visited the ancient jail (“gaol”) up high in Cork’s hills where I had a magnificent panoramic view of the town down below. I popped into cathedrals, admired their heavy stone facades and stained-glass windows. But I was starting to feel defeated and hunger was eating me. I was getting by in part by the kindness of tourists from the hostel, people who’d give the silly blonde a slice of pizza or a piece of toast. There were others there, who like me, had come to Ireland not as a tourist but to try to settle in awhile. They were poor, too, and so we all helped one another out when we could.
One evening, a young male resident of our hostel burst through the front door excitedly, in his hands, massive turnips. Dozens of enormous purpley-white turnips had tumbled onto the road from the back of a truck. We all bounded outside and giddily harvested the bounty and set about trying to figure out how the hell to prepare them. Even with all the countries represented among us, none of us had eaten turnip before. It was put to a vote and decided we’d slice them up and fry them, like french fries. We all helped out in the massive, industrial-size kitchen, all of us hungry and giggling. We took our plates heaping with our fries in the TV room and agreed that they were terrible, hardly edible, but washed down with a little beer they helped stave off hunger for one more day.
After a couple months, I had to acknowledge to myself that this wasn’t working out. The only way I’d be granted a work permit was if I applied back in the U.S., I’d been told. It was either that, marry an Irish guy or busk and starve for God-knows-how-long. My health was deteriorating from the poverty, the lack of nutrition and I gee-whiz realized why my Irish ancestors immigrated in the first place. After a call home to the States and a teary plea for help, a plane ticket to SoCal was arranged for. But first, I had to travel to London to catch my flight.
I left Cork City for good early one winter evening, Pennywhistle Girl and Stephanie accompanying me to the bus station. I hugged them and said a tearful, exhausted goodbye and then clambered aboard the bus, where I gazed out the window as we toodled through rain-damp villages, towards the coast, to catch the late night ferry across the sea to England.