by Henry Austin
Séamus Joyce lived for the day when he would return home to Ireland. He could well remember when, as a young man eighteen years of age, he walked up the main street in Galway, to board a train for Dublin, where he would connect with the mailboat, for the last leg of his journey to London, to seek employment. Now, fifty years later, he had returned home to spend his last years in his native land. After he had alighted from the train in Galway, he made his way across Eyre Square.
He stood there for a while, before making his way to his hotel, which was situated at the bottom end of the city, on the road to Salthill. He would rest there for the night before completing the round trip which would take him to his home at Maam Cross. While walking down Galway’s main street he stood in awe of the many street buskers and artists entertaining the crowds of people that constantly made their way through this thoroughfare of living culture.
He was fascinated as he watched the different artists as they displayed their wonderful talents. He stood and watched the statue man, painted silver, as he stood as still as a telegraph pole, and he listened attentively to the many buskers who sought by their music to earn the price of their next meal. He watched as the children had their faces painted with a variety of different designs. But nothing achieved with a brush could conceal their joy.
After pausing for several minutes, he slowly made his way through this utopia for disciples of culture. With each step he took, a different kind of performance presented itself to him. As a boy growing up in the nineteen fifties, he had taken great delight in following the pipe bands in the many parades that were a major part of Irish culture. He was in awe of their beautiful tunics. With his boyhood friends he would skip along, side-by-side with the pipers, until they had left his area.
He was fascinated with the leader as he swung his staff up, down and sideways, with great skill. He would watch as the pipers squeezed their bellows and always found the correct note, and the drummers, whose beat was delivered with perfect timing. On occasion, when he and his pals had reached the end of their journey, they would mingle among them, until they departed from the scene.
One piper in one of the bands was quite friendly with all the boys and girls who followed close to him, as if he was the pied piper. He never got to know his name, in all the years he followed him, but the picture of his face was ingrained in the archives of his mind. He was generous of spirit, and he would answer all the questions that were thrown at him, regardless of their quality.
As he continued on his walk, he was grateful that the spirit of Ireland was alive and well and, was residing happily in Galway’s main street, although he was a little disappointed that he had not heard the sounds of the pipes. Having been entertained for a couple of hours, his stomach was developing a dialogue of its own, brought on by the absence of food.
With the hunger pangs becoming more pronounced by the minute, he made his way to McDonagh’s seafood eatery, taking up a position at the window, from where he could observe the activity in the street outside. Immediately he was served his fish dinner, a middle-aged man and woman took up a position on the street opposite and began playing tin whistles. It was as if they were putting on a performance just for him. He was amazed at the generosity of the passers-by, as they threw coin after coin into the cap that was strategically placed on the street beside them.
The whistle players, intermittently and in turn, emptied the cap and made their way into the adjacent pub in order to (he assumed) wet their whistles before returning to continue their performance. After a time, and full to the gills with a fish dinner, he felt a bit like Jonah. Only, instead of being inside a whale, he felt he had a whale inside of him!
As he made his exit, he felt at one with the several pieces of whiting he had consumed. And he kept his eyes fixed on the floor, not quite sure if he was walking or swimming. It was getting dark as he made his way back to the hotel. Then, in the distance, he heard the sound of the pipes. His heart skipped a beat! He walked toward the sound, wondering if his mind was playing tricks on him, so great was his desire to see them. Finally, he arrived at the source of the sound. Sitting on the pavement on a side-street, adjacent to the main thoroughfare, was the old piper of bygone days.
Though the years had written many stories on his face, his smile, to Séamus, was unmistakeable. He was sitting there, all alone, with no-one in attendance, until he arrived, which gave him an audience of one. But, he played with the same enthusiasm as his boyhood memories of him. He couldn’t help but wonder. He stopped playing and smiled at him.
“How can you play with such heart,” he asked “when you don’t have an audience?”
The piper laughed, “But I do have an audience,” he replied.
Then, as if to show him that he remembered him, he said, “I’m playing for all the boys and girls who followed me for all the years. Furthermore,” he went on “the pipes are the heartbeat of our culture, and if the heart stops beating, the culture dies with it.”
It was a very telling comment from the old piper. He sat there listening to him, and they exchanged their accounts of the intervening years since they had last met. He stayed with him for quite a while, until tiredness finally determined that they should depart.
He began to walk back to his hotel, leaving the old piper to serenade the moon and the stars. On his arrival there, he took the lift to his room, which was located on the top floor, at the front of the hotel, facing the west. It was a beautiful night, with a clear sky. He opened the window and gazed out at the gigantic form of Black Head, as it stood guard over the moonlit Galway Bay.
In the distance, the sound of the pipes rang out through the night air, as the old piper played The Connemara Cradle Song.