Lord Mcdonald by Eamonn Sweeney
Irish music is well known throughout the world. From Sydney to Buenos Aires, from London to New York, you can hear an Irish song, dance to a reel, and take a drop of Irish whiskey.
It is a sad thing, though, to see an Irishman far from home who is too fond of his glass…
My name is Michael Coleman and they say I am the finest fiddler that ever lived. They say I put a twist to a tune – I add something to it that no one else can. I have never been sure of where the twist comes from. I play that way because it is the only way I know. I play because I have to. I do not know where it comes from or what it is going towards.
My home is a small room in the South Bronx in New York, where the tall buildings shut out the sky. I don’t understand the place at all. Two of my nieces passed through the city last week, on their way to look for work. We tried to talk about home but I could not, nor about here either. I picked up the fiddle and played a couple of tunes, and then there was no distance between me and them or The Bronx or Killavil in Ireland where I was born. That’s what I have been able to do all my life.
I could talk to you forever, and still say less than you’d hear from the first few seconds of a tune called ‘Lord McDonald’.
It was a calm, bright summer evening. I got the fiddle back once again – I’d had to pawn it because I needed the money. Times were hard, as they have been for years. I remember the days when we musicians were paid a working man’s weekly wage for half a morning in the recording studio.
An Irish cop had hired me to play the fiddle at his daughter’s birthday party. He had done well for himself since coming to the USA. Not only did he have money, he was also said to be honest. I spent the week before the party drinking to his honesty. A lot of money had been mentioned.
It was a short walk to his house, in good weather. As I went up the wide grey steps to the front door, there was an uneasy feeling in my stomach, the same anxious feeling I always have before I start to play.
Some nights I sit up and play and then I notice the sun has come up and is shining in the street outside. Then I find my face is wet with tears. ‘Lord McDonald’ is the tune I play.
I knocked at the cop’s door, and a beautiful young woman in a blue dress opened it. She looked at me with a face full of puzzlement. There were holes in the elbows of my jacket. Nothing was said for a while.
‘I’m Michael Coleman the fiddler. I’m here to play at the birthday party.’
The girl still said nothing, only looked me up and down for a few more moments. Then she turned and ran back inside.
I still remember the face of that cop. It was the face of a man who’d take terrible offence if you weren’t enjoying yourself enough at his father’s funeral party. A big man, nearly two meters tall, still the colour of a man who’s spent many a long summer working on the farm. In a good suit and expensive shoes. He had more of the American accent than he should have had. I could never manage that trick, although I’m not sure, I missed much.
The cop rushed across the hall and tried to catch me by the throat. I stepped to one side and he dropped his hands. His right hand was opening and closing; he couldn’t keep it still. There was no sound in the neat and tidy evening street. He was so angry that his tongue hit his teeth as he spoke.
‘Well, Mickeen Coleman, the great fiddler. Ye dare to show your face here!’
I didn’t know what was annoying the man at all.
‘My daughter’s birthday was this day last week. I had a hundred and fifty people waiting for ye. Damn it, where were ye?’
It’s bad when you start making that sort of mistake. I really needed the money he’d have paid me.
‘Well, Coleman, where were ye?’
‘I made a mistake. I thought it was today I was supposed to be here.’
He banged his hand on the wall by the door. The man was nearly dancing with temper. There were a pair of young women standing in the hall behind him now. They were laughing at his shouting, and that was making him even angrier.
‘I’ll tell ye why ye weren’t here, Mickeen. It’s because ye were falling drunk around the South Bronx somewhere. I got plenty of warnings about ye but I didn’t take them, fool that I am. Yourself and your friends are a poor advertisement for us Irish, drinking and fighting and bringing our name down in front of the Americans. Ye think ye’re something, but ye’re nothing.’
‘I never aimed to be an advertisement for anyone, only myself.’
‘Ye may all be famous but did any of ye ever do anything to give us a good name, did ye, did ye?’ On about the second ‘did ye’ he hit me in the chest with his right hand and sent me rolling down the steps. I was on my feet before I reached the bottom one. I was always able to land on my feet.
I didn’t say anything to the cop. I never even said goodbye. It was a grand evening. There wasn’t enough wind to move grass.
I just walked off with the fiddle under my arm. Safe.
It cost people a lot more than their fare for the ship when they came over here. Some of them lost all sense of who they were. The cop wasn’t the worst of them. A lot of them wouldn’t let you near enough their house to be able to throw you off their steps. They’d be ashamed in case someone caught them listening to old Irish tunes like ‘The Sligo Maid’ or ‘The Kerry man’s Daughter’. The same people even tried to destroy their accent, cutting bits off it like a man trying to give a block of wood a new shape.
At one time, there was always a place for us. A place for those who made others dance. Maybe people don’t want to be reminded about what they came from. Because they’re frightened they haven’t moved as far away from it as they think they have.
The fiddle was pawned again, and I was in a bar. A quiet bar. Drinking whiskey. I learned to drink at those dances where you’d accidentally break a string on your fiddle if they weren’t refilling your glass quickly enough. I used to take my whiskey with friends and laughter then. Now I like to drink alone. The drink only makes me feel okay these days. Still, in bad times okay is good.
The twist. That’s what they say I have, what I put into a tune that the others can’t. You can’t try to put the twist into your playing, it has to be part of it. Some days I think I know what the twist is, but I can never catch it because it is inside me.
It is what I am. The drinking, the way I could never stay in one place, the blackness I see in front of me some days, the dreams I have in the night. All there in my fiddle. Whatever it was that was wrong with me leaked out through my fingers, and they heard it as the twist.
And sometimes I think I have nothing to do with it at all. When the first records were sold, 78s they were called, I saw men and women dancing and laughing and crying at the same time. At my playing. I am a farmer’s son from Killavil. How could it be me that did that? Maybe the fiddle wasn’t the instrument at all.
I heard there were men at home who wouldn’t eat for a couple of days so they could buy those records. Men who knew me did that! We had to come to America to record this Irish music to be sent back to Ireland for people there to buy, and yet we’ll never see Ireland again. Things are wrong in this world, so they are.
I was never too eager for work. That was well known around the place at home. All I wanted to do was walk the countryside and play music. Some men will kill for land, others will die for a woman. I lived for the music of the dance, fast and slow, sad and sweet.
Everything else on the face of this earth was forgotten when I picked up a fiddle. The coldness of the city meant nothing to me when I was playing well. If I could hear the twist, it meant the life I was living was all right for me.
I’d only just got back to Killavil from London when I came to the USA. Big cars and bright lights, a law against drinking, theatres full of girls singing and dancing, and dollars. You couldn’t feel right in it unless you were born in it. And even then you might not. You’ll always look back at the place you came from and think it was better.
At home, we started with an innocent life. Walking home from village dances across pale wet fields, looking at birds on the moonlit lake, playing a tune across the water in the early morning with no other sound in the clear cold air.
But it was a false life. False because it wasn’t right to let people live a life like that if they weren’t going to be allowed to stay in it, if they were already marked to go someplace else. It didn’t prepare us for New York or London, Boston or Manchester.
There was bitterness and jealousy and hunger at home – that’s true, I can’t say it isn’t. But is it fair to be punished with a slow death from a bleeding wound? I look at people’s faces when they hear the names of tunes from home, ‘The Boys of Ballisodare’ and ‘The Plains of Boyle’, and I know they are dying inside.
The night the cop threw me down the steps, I called at Seamus Anderson’s house. I was full of whiskey but I knew he had a fiddle in the house. I wanted to sit up and play music all night. I needed to feel that moment in the back of my head when I would know I’d got there. And then it would disappear before I could catch it, and I would have to try and create it again.
Seamus owned a bar. Like the cop, he lived in a good house in a good area. I managed to open the garden gate, although I couldn’t see straight. But I could hear a tune in my head that would cure me if I was only allowed to play it. I never played a tune badly in my life. The drink would change everything around in my head but I would still play the same as ever. The twist would always be there.
I knocked on Seamus Anderson’s door. There was light inside but there was no answer. There were plenty of voices. A light came on in the hall, so I tried to concentrate and look sober. Seamus was a churchgoing man who was strongly opposed to drink, although that didn’t stop him selling it.
I held my breath and tried to force my eyes to look in the one place at the one time. All it did was make my head go round. I fell against the door. A woman’s voice shouted.
‘Who’s that at this hour of the night?’
‘Michael Coleman, tell Seamus Michael Coleman is here to play a tune, to play “Lord McDonald”, Michael Coleman has landed from Killavil!’
‘Wait there,’ she said, and walked away back into the house. I knew that if I didn’t get into the light something awful was going to happen. There was a lot of noise inside. It seemed a long while before she came back.
‘Seamus Anderson isn’t home tonight, he’s out of town.’
He had been out of town the last five times I’d been to the house. Still, he was a busy man. A businessman. I still felt bad, so I leaned against the door and hoped the black waves in front of my eyes would disappear. I could hear a man’s voice inside the house.
‘Is Coleman gone? That man is nothing but trouble when he has drink in him.’
The voice could have been Seamus Anderson’s but I was not certain. I banged on the door and shouted for them to let me in. There was another voice. A harder one, with an unpleasant laugh.
‘Get out of here, go on, get out of here!’ And then to someone else, ‘Ye only have to lift him and he’ll fall.’
In a narrow back street. Me lying on a pile of rubbish. And a good number of rats. You’ll always know rats because they sit up and look you straight in the eye to let you know that’s how carefully they’re watching you. I thought these were real rats, not the rats I see when I’ve had a couple of drinks. ‘Lord McDonald’ was playing in my head.
There was a cop walking towards me. I realized my nose had been bleeding for a while and the front of my jacket was covered in blood. The cop was cautiously tapping his stick against the inside of his left hand, as he walked slowly towards me.
I stood up and stepped out from the wall. Into the light.
‘Officer, I was only taking a rest.’
They take drunks down to the police station and beat them unconscious. With sticks. Sometimes they kill them for the fun of it.
‘Christ, it’s Michael Coleman, Michael Coleman, the great fiddle player. We’ve got a whole pile of your 78s at home. What are ye doing here?’
‘If I knew that, I wouldn’t have to drink.’
He smiled and put a hand under my elbow to stop me falling.
‘Good luck, Mr Coleman. It’s good to meet ye. Ye’re a great fiddler when ye’re playing.’
And he walked off. A good Irishman. The rats were still there, so they were real rats. Not my rats. The night was lovely and warm and there was nothing to be afraid of.
The drink is like music. How can you explain it to someone who has not fallen in love with it? How it floods your head and pushes the blood three times faster through your body. The wonderful moment of the first one the morning after, when it starts to clear away the fear and anxiety it put there the night before. Drink makes the world a place of certainty. In every way.
I remember the day I played ‘Lord McDonald’. I sat in a small recording studio in the South Bronx at midday. Played another tune for a couple of minutes and then it started. I played the whole of ‘Lord McDonald’ just once and I could feel something running through me. Every second was like an hour and the music was coming from a place so far back in myself that it was tearing me apart. I followed the music, chased the music, with colours going through my mind and Killavil and my dead brother and the man who taught me to play and the end of all this and the twist in myself and green and brown. It was bringing me somewhere and I finally got there.
I walked away out from the studio when I finished, and two men from the record company came out into the street after me. One of them pulled a huge roll of dollars from a deep trouser pocket.
‘Here you are, Michael, a couple of hundred dollars for a special performance. No one ever heard anything like that before.’
The sun was shining the way it does in New York in the summer. The rest of the musicians were sitting in the usual bar, talking about work and spending money. They didn’t know then they’d never have that sort of money again.
I tried to explain what had happened. My hand was shaking and the beer was spilling onto the floor. Sunshine was coming through the dark glass of the front window. Blue-coloured light with dust flying round in it. I had got there. I looked at my fingers and said there would be so many more tunes that I would play like this.
But it never came again. Not that way. There was just that one day before it all finished for me. ‘Lord McDonald’ was the tune. My name is Michael Coleman and they say I am the finest fiddler that ever lived.