ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: In Ireland, Music Chases Away the Ghosts of an Old Schoolhouse
The distillery chimney behind The Old Still, a pub in Clashmore, County Waterford, Ireland. (Photo by Tristan Scroggins)
Whenever I think of Ireland, I think of Clashmore. Located in County Waterford a few kilometers inland between the mouth of the River Blackwater and Waterford town, Clashmore is picturesque but not necessarily more so than the other towns dotting the Irish countryside.
Clais Mhór means “great hollow” in Gaeilge and, fittingly, the town is situated on a small stream below an expanse of rolling hills. The cattle farm I slept at was situated on a hill where you could see the town below and the Irish Sea off in the distance. We played there in the middle of a two-week tour of similarly quaint villages, but the circumstances of that show made it stand out to me.
Our show in Clashmore was in the newly renovated old schoolhouse. Our hosts in town, Geoff and Kieran, told us that the building had sat derelict for decades until some citizens decided to remodel it and use it as a community space for plays and shows. The stage was in a big open stone room and while they set up the sound, I sat by the small fire, got out my mandolin, and warmed up. There was a weird feeling in the room and as I sat staring into the fire I felt a lot of angst as I started to get the idea for a new tune. I recorded it on my phone, unnamed, to work on again later.
The next day Geoff and Kieran informed us that a lot of folks in the town had gone to that school and that there had been difficulty getting people to come to the show because of it. It had formerly been a Catholic school during a time when rules about disciplining children were much more “loose” (i.e., nonexistent). Geoff told us that the room we played in had been the boys classroom where he had attended classes. He told us about an incident where a particularly cruel teacher was teaching when someone in the class let out a very convincing “meow.” The teacher whipped around and said “Who’s the cat?” to no response. When he went back to the blackboard, another, more pained “meeeooow” came from the class and he turned around and said “I’ll get that cat.”
There were six rows of six boys in the class, and starting at the back left-hand corner the teacher went one-by-one and gave each boy five lashes. This was rather laborious and took time. The boys in the right-hand corner of the class felt lucky as it seemed they’d beat his race against the clock. But when the bell rang to switch classes, the teacher stood up, whispered something to the teacher entering the class to teach the next period, and then closed the door behind him before returning to finish the lashings. When he was done, he said, before exiting: “I told you I’d get that cat.”
Some of the students still lived in town and refused to enter the building, despite its renovation, because of all the terrible memories it held. But I do remember one man who seemed strangely happy after our show. Geoff told me he had been a student there and he felt that the community coming together to enjoy music in that space exorcised the bad memories.
I named the tune “I’ll Get That Cat.”
The show went well and, as usual, we were taken to the local pub. In this case we went to The Old Still, a pub in the center of town named for its proximity to a distillery built by Lord Hastings, the thirteenth Earl of Huntingdon, in the mid-1800s. The distillery chimney is still out back and is, apparently, unique in Ireland as the only one that sits on top of the stream that powered the mill.
It’s worth mentioning that country music is very popular in Ireland. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a random cafe or pub and hear pedal steel guitars on the radio. Our lead singer and guitar player, Greg, is a great country singer and, being from West Virginia, has the accent to fit, which got people in the pubs really excited. There was a man who told us he’d had a ticket to fly to America to see Merle Haggard in concert, but he got sick and couldn’t go, and Merle died shortly after. He cried listening to Greg sing Merle’s songs.
All pubs in Ireland are required to close at midnight, but in my experience nearly all of them simply lock their doors and draw their curtains at midnight and rush everyone out the back door if the Garda happen to show up, especially in the country and especially when there’s a bunch of bluegrass musicians in town. We stayed in the pub all night trading bluegrass songs for Irish ballads as we would many more times over the next few years. I’ve seen many very moving performances by locals in the Old Still and many of the other pubs we’d return to. I made lots of friends in Ireland, but the connection to and importance of music I felt in this community always meant a lot to me.