In Your Wheelhouse

There is still a controversy about where J.P. Holland, inventor of the submarine, was born…but that comes later.

I finally found a moment to go down to Egan’s pub in Liscannor and show Patrick Egan the proof of my about-to-be published book, A Summer in Ireland. After all, one entire story is about him and another is about the music I heard there one night.

When I showed Patrick a photo that I had taken surreptitiously on that night he said, “Oh that was early,” meaning around 11:30 PM or midnight!

“That’s Mirabelle Gilis,” he said pointing to the dark-haired violinist. “She’s a classically-trained famous French fiddle player. Used to be a friend of a barmaid we had here back then.”

In the photo, Mirabelle was sitting at the small square wooden table in front of me where appreciative traditional Irish music lovers sent over three frothy pints of Guinness for her and another vagabond guitarist, whose agile fingering added extra sparkle to the whole magical music session.

I pointed to the three staggered pints of the black stuff, perfectly poured with their nice creamy heads in their trademark flared glasses and told Patrick, “I really like these three pints of Guinness—they look just like notes on a scale,” as I recalled how every molecule of my body had been infused with the music in the air.

Patrick nodded and smiled. “You left before the guy in the corner started singing. It was standing room only by then. It’s on YouTube! Have you seen it?”

Not only had I not seen it, I was a bit dumbfounded, as I was trying to be so discreet just snapping a quick photo or two, not wanting to annoy the musicians or be perceived as an ‘ugly American!’ Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that the Irish are known to be quite convivial and pubs are the place where they all go for the ‘craic’, but the atmosphere at that moment was almost other-worldly—it was like I was witnessing some kind of spiritual convergence and I just didn’t want to do anything to disturb the vibration.

In fact at one point, a hush fell over the room when an older gentleman came through the door and Kevin whispered to me, “I think that is the McPeake patriarch from Belfast.”

I told Patrick what Kevin had said and asked, “Was that him?”

“Yeah,” he beamed proudly, “the head of the McPeake family was indeed here. His name is Francis.”

To understand the significance of his presence, you need to be aware that it was at the McPeake School of Music in Belfast where John Lennon learned to play the Uilllean Pipes (the bagpipes of Ireland, pronounced ill’-in), under the tutelage of this very revered teacher, Francis McPeake III, of the four generations of “folk-royalty,” when it comes to Irish Traditional Music.

When he read the bit about another musician that Sean Scanlan described as, “Our own Johnny Cash,” Patrick laughed and agreed, “Yeah, we call him ‘Johnny-No-Cash’. He winked, then added, “Or we say he is one of the Elderly Brothers.”

It was a special night. No doubt about it.

As soon as we sat down together, Patrick had graciously ordered a glass of wine for me. It was truly a treat, as Patrick is also known to be an extraordinary wine connoisseur. I was enjoying this rare tete-a-tete with the congenial proprietor and marveled at the extensive selection of liquid choices, but not wanting to end up too tipsy I asked, “Do you serve any food here?”

“Yes, we have sandwiches now,” explained Patrick, “Charo (his wife) bakes the bread every day. We brought in a palette of the dough from Barcelona.”

Ah, that’s good to know—I might hang out here a little bit more now.

We switched back to the topic of books with him suggesting a heavier, coated paper for my book cover. He got up and disappeared into another room for a few minutes, then returned with a book called County Clare, An Introduction of the Architecture, so I could see and touch exactly what he was talking about.

I knew that Patrick was a serious collector of books but he appeared to be so knowledgeable on publishing, my curiosity compelled me to ask, “How do you know so much about all this?”

“Years ago when books were books,” (meaning before the digital craze got started) “I did some publishing and I also used to make DVDs.”

“DVDs? Of what?” I said, astonished.

He shrugged. “I used to be in television when I was in London. From 1983 to 1987 I was a consultant to Channel 4 and I made documentaries about Art and Architecture.”

Amazing. This man is truly amazing.

The conversation then switched to the story I wrote called “Population: 67” which is how many people Patrick told me lived in Liscannor that summer of 2010. In particular I brought up the topic of where J.P. Holland was born, since some of my research (and at least one Liscannor native) claims he was born in the town. Holland would undoubtedly be the most famous person from this tiny corner of County Clare, so the town fathers would fiercely protect what was believed to be his birthplace.

“He was born in Killaloe,” Patrick stated emphatically. “He would have been born in his mother’s family home. His father married a Scanlon. (I made sure to ask if it was spelled ‘on’ or ‘an’.) He was married twice actually, both times to a Scanlon.”

When I commented at the oddity of that he put a finer point on it and added, “And there is no birth ‘cert’ in Liscannor.”

Well that fact speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

He was a little bit amused that my story mentioned him giving me an up close look John Speed’s 17th century hand colored map showing the old name “Liskeny” in the part of Clare that is now Lahinch. I was pleased as punch when he complimented me for my good memory. I wish I knew why certain words or names stick in my brain. Maybe it comes from being a cartographer in another life?

While on the topic of names, was when Patrick said, “I used to fish for years out in the bay, and you know that rock that stands up from the water near the Cliffs of Moher?”

“I’ve only seen it in photographs,” I said as I drew a little picture of the sea stack. To which he enthused, “That’s it! Well, it has four different names. Some people call it An Bhreannan Mor. The fisherman call it Inis Mhicil. And if you’re from the Aran Islands, they call it Inis Mhic Domhnall. And then it is sometimes called Stokeen Rocks.”

This prompted a sad shake of Patrick’s head. “I fished for years with Brown on that boat that sank last week off Spanish Point. It used to be Brown’s boat.”

Of course I had heard that sorrowful news that Kevin brought home one night after meeting Sean for a couple of pints at Egan’s last week. There were two men who drowned. It was a bone-chilling fact that they were found close together in the wheelhouse of the trawler, the Lady Eileen.

The story was so shocking because they were known to be experienced fishermen and the sinking happened so suddenly. I said consolingly, “Do they know yet what caused it?”

“It was overloaded,” he sighed. “They had a steel frame wire enclosure to hold the nets on the back of the boat and it was too heavy.”

He gestured with his hand to show me how the stern of the boat would have sunk first with the two fisherman in the wheelhouse. “They were both in the wheelhouse because they were on their way home. The water would have rushed in and knocked them out immediately.”

This would have been the talk of the town for several days now, but I was once again astonished at Patrick’s familiarity with this very boat that tragically became a submerged coffin.

Patrick needed to attend to a project of some sort and I had finished my glass of wine, so we said our goodbyes.

Not that I ever really resonated with the trendy use of the phrase “in your wheelhouse”, but I will forever associate it now with the image of two poor fishermen going to their watery grave.