EXTERNAL AFFAIRS /
(i.m. Seamus Ennis, piper & collector)
At Christmas in the cottage bearing his name
A packed crowd sways as musicians play.
The Naul village is quiet, a sky bereft of stars
Breathes webs of frost on windscreens of cars.
Awakened by the tunes he once collected
The bronze statue of the piper under the tree
Stirs himself, his stiff fingers elongated
As he lifts the chanter and pipes off his knee
And takes a cautious step across the square.
In his coat pocket a half-bottle of whiskey,
In his head the notes of thousands of airs
Still jostle and cling to life in his memory.
Songs collected in Irish clubs and building sites,
In Birmingham and Brixton, Battersea and Crewe,
White shirted men softly playing the squeeze box,
Lonely men singing about the Sweet Mountain Dew
Between shifts at the Vauxhall car plant in Luton;
Men, who once laboured with asphalt and asbestos,
Rasping out final breaths in flats in Camden Town
With the district nurse their sole weekly caller;
Men who tuned to Radio Eireann in kitchenettes
Hemmed in by foreign voices through cavity walls,
Desperate to hear a fiddle amid the static and forget
The damp odour of exile and the cross of loneliness.
The ghosts swarm to join him in the frosted square
Like they swarmed as boys to hiring fairs in Strabane
And queued on Dublin quays to board cattle boats
And waited at dawn in Kilburn for contractors in vans.
A lifetime of being herded and praying to be chosen,
Of pints and tin whistles shyly produced at gatherings.
Remember me, one of them begs the bronze figure,
You recorded me one December in Wolverhampton,
You came back to my bedsit, the only soul I ever let in.
I sang with my eyes closed amid my few possessions,
And it felt like I had only to reach out through the dark
And every face I left behind would be there to touch.
Play The Bucks of Oranmore, play The Frost is All Over,
Play for ghosts eternally condemned to be The Wild Rover.
Play for those picking mushrooms in the fields of Athenry
From Estonia and Lithuania, from Lagos and Paraguay.
Remember us, Seamus, we entrusted you with song
In Yorkshire mill towns that never felt like home.
Our legions left no footprints amid the wet cement
But you drank with us and gave our songs worth
In bothies on farms in Strathclyde and Arbroath.
We wander in limbo now, the forgotten remnants
Of an army recruited from hillside and tenement
To go abroad and send home a weekly remittance.
Strap on your pipes, Seamus, as each ghost flits
Around your cottage window to hear our tunes
Renewed in the young musicians’ fingers and lips.