From boatman and builder to balladeer extraordinaire 

Standing confused on a boat in the tiny west Donegal harbor of Bunbeg is how I first met musician-singer-songwriter extraordinaire Pat Gallagher.

Looking from above and seeing an obvious landlubber flabbergasted as to how to tie a main anchor rope, he kindly doled out guidance and assistance in abundance. That got us to talking, the kind of small talk strangers do to pass the time, with me rambling on about a wonderful concert – featuring ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ – that I’d heard with my wife the evening before.

boat

“So you liked it then?” he asked.

“Liked it? I loved it,” I said enthusiastically. “Great songs, great singing. Whoever wrote them is a musical genius.”

The man smiled, a quiet kind of smile. The kind you’d hardly notice, the kind where the lips barely part. I suppose that should’ve been my first clue. But who was I to know? Hadn’t I just moved to west Donegal and bought a boat soon thereafter? What I knew about either, you could write on the back of a postage stamp and still have plenty of space for a Shakespearian sonnet, or two.

“Do you know who wrote them?” I asked innocently. Then a queer feeling came over me, and in an instant, I knew what that smile meant.

Meet Pat Gallagher – banjo player, guitar player, harmonica player, singer, songwriter. And that’s only what he does for fun. As a Jack-of-all-Trades, he can also lay bricks in a straight line and tell you where the best fishing is among the offshore islands around Gaoth Dobhair in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Pat Gallagher

And, of course, as he explained self-effacingly standing on that stony harbor pier, he’d written all the songs in the wonderful concert I’d just been to in Dungloe.

It’s no surprise then that I was delighted to meet him again this past week in the same little town, in a school auditorium between the mountains and the sea, once again with ‘Goats Don’t Shave.’ This time they were starring in a special, community-wide charity concert in aid of two-year-old infant, Lucy Gallagher, from nearby Maghery, who suffers from a rare, potentially life-threatening condition known as ‘harlequin ichthyosis.’

It was a classic sort of Irish evening, the kind I remember well from the days of my youth. The kind where – just like at Sunday Mass – the men all clump close together, too shy to be anywhere near the front of the hall. And the rest of the people are huddled on seats at the very back of the room, which left a very large intimidating space in the middle, right in front of Pat and his band members up on stage.

But where most priests don’t have the power or the charisma to raise the emotions of their listeners, the ‘High Priest of Music’ Mister Gallagher and ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ do, so it wasn’t long before the braver of souls there slipped shyly off their seats and a bit of groovin’ and gyratin’ was soon going on, others joining them, until that middle space began slowly to fill up with moving bodies. It takes some doing to turn a fairly solemn occasion into one of dancing madness but when I saw a young girl in a wheelchair spinning herself round and round to the music like there was no tomorrow – and let’s be perfectly honest, unlike the rest of us able-bodied, its not the same kind of tomorrow that awaits her – I knew the boys on stage had well and truly succeeded.

Dancing

Okay, there were still a lot of burly, muscular men – who could probably turn me into thinly sliced meat with a touch on the arm – still hugging their pints. But there were others who’d started hugging each other, as well as hugging the ladies. Some, lo and behold, unCatholic though the nefarious activity might have been, even hugging their own wives, which got me to thinking. Why is it sometimes we Irish don’t have the strength to be who we really are – emotional and affectionate? There’s a time to be subtle and retiring, and there’s a time to BE. It’s long past time we knew the difference.

But aside from our lingering awkwardness when it comes to overt shows of affection, there was plenty of that other characteristic component of Irish gatherings – rollicking good humor, especially when someone pushed a button by mistake and a giant suspended basketball board almost swiped poor Pat and his colleagues off the stage. Even funnier, as none of the band members noticed the near-catastrophe approaching them from the Heavens above.

lucy and group

As for Pat himself, his musical career has moved in an ever-increasing arc over the years. Having started early in life – he was an UlsterFleadh singing champion when he was 11 – he’s now a master of the art form known as songwriting, with more than 80 under his penmanship – whether it be the lively, foot-thumping ‘Las Vegas (in the Hills of Donegal); the hilarious lyrics and rousing satire of ‘Mary, Mary’ which opened the famous Dungloe festival years ago; the haunting melody of ‘The Evictions’, about the cruel events 0f 1861 in the Glenveigh Estate in Derryveagh under the infamous John George Adair; or the nostalgic journey Pat and thousands of other emigrant workers from Donegal took over the years on the ‘Glasgow Bus.’

He and his band have played many parts of the world, including 14 tours of the US,  taking cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Fort Lauderdale. Their debut album ‘The Rusty Razor’ went gold and London’s ‘Time Out’ magazine voted them ‘Best Band’ in 1993. Admirably, Pat is not afraid to face up to many of Ireland’s taboo subjects in his songs – ‘Lock It In,’ a bitter attack on men who physically abuse their partners; or “Let It Go,’ on bigotry against Travellers; or even “Killing Me,’ about his own past addiction to booze and cigarettes. At the same time, his ballads are rich with honest sentiment – ‘Tor,’ about the joys of fatherhood (he is the proud father of three children – Fionnuala, Sarah and Ferdia); ‘Rose Street;’ and one no doubt very close to his heart, ‘She Looked My Way,’ written especially for his wife, Cathy, and given to her as a Christmas present two years ago.

Having released six albums so far (the latest being ‘Songs from Earth’), before the tender age of 55, thankfully there’s still plenty of time left for the friendly musician to regale us with even more such quality work.

And to contribute his myriad talents to such deserving causes as that of unfortunate Lucy.

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3 thoughts on “From boatman and builder to balladeer extraordinaire 

  1. Pingback: Praise and prise | Sean Hillen

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