Seán Laffey travels to Kilkenny to meet Mick “Citern” Walsh.
Twenty One Steps (The Butterslip Kilkenny) If you come from a place that's not very old And you want to walk back in time, There's twenty one steps in this little walk way, Till you get to the other side With its arched entry and stony steps, A narrow and dark walkway, It was built way back in the 1600's And has survived the daybreaks. The Butterslip stalls in those days, Lined the lane to sell their wares, It's been a shopping street for hundreds of years, And dreams of times gone by, I have seen the buskers standing there, Playing their songs for all to hear. I will always remember Mick Watson, Playing songs and other great airs. Some lovers would have sat on those steps, In those days gone by, Wrapped themselves in each others arms, To stay together till the end of time. A young hurler hit a ball one morning, On his way to Nowlan Park It landed on the Fourteenth step, And it rolled back down, Then he hit it again. Some shops have come and served their time Selling gifts, books and wine, A restaurant or two will welcome you, On the Butterslip if you wish to view, You may visit Greece or Edinburgh, Or spend some time in Budapest, Always remember the Marble City, And the time you walked the Butterslip.Listen to Twenty One Steps @ SoundCloud Watch Twenty One Steps @ YouTube
Monday in Irish Town, Kilkenny City, outside Cleere's pub there is a life-sized figure of a trad musician proclaiming there is a session tonight. In fact John Cleere's has hosted a session every Monday for the past 30 years. Mick Walsh has been a regular since 1989.
Tonight Mick is joined by his son, Gerry, on guitar, two fiddlers and a series of singers. I count 23 songs and tune sets in 90 minutes. After closing time we drive to Mick's home near St. Luke's Hospital, where over tea and a plate to fig rolls, Mick tells me his story.
Mick was born in Lismore in 1954. "We lived in a tin roofed house near the railway line, it was a bit of a noisy place." His father was a singer and there was music going back along the paternal line (including the Rev. Dr. Richard Henebry). He recalls his own father being recorded on a tape machine around 1965 by Dick Landers.
As a teenager Mick won £8 in a crossword competition. Feeling flush, he hitched to Fermoy, where he spotted a round backed mandolin in a music shop, priced at seven pounds ten shillings; he bought it. He didn't know how to tune it, but, "There was a car mechanic back home who played the banjo. The man was paralysed from the waist down. He loved traditional music and soon had me set up on the mandolin." Later Mick thumbed to Dublin as he began an apprenticeship, and he took the mandolin with him. Eventually he saved enough money to rent a flat in Capel Street, where he found extra work as a barman in Slattery's.
"The sessions were organised most nights by Ollie Casserly in Slattery's. The Pavees Club on Tuesday nights downstairs was the Keenan Family with other folk musicians as guests. Ian Considine ran it. The Wednesday night was the famous Tradition Club upstairs. Maggie Barry came in one night. She was wearing a big black coat with a sprig of shrivelled up shamrock in the lapel. She told me she had worn it at the Saint Patrick's Parade in New York. You could often hear the finest of Connemara Irish in Slattery's of Capel Street Sunday Mornings. The pub had a pay phone, and fisherman from the West of Ireland who had anchored in Howth, would come in, have a few pints and phone home."
Mick teamed up with Tommy Carew from Tipperary, Alan Hughes from Dublin, Johnny Byrne and Mick Campbell from Kilcar, County Donegal. "We played in Portobello and the Brazen Head and we'd often got to Donoghues in the city centre. It was at this time my own music really began to develop, Johnny Byrne (RIP) was a huge influence on me."
Mick shows me his tenor banjo. "It cost me £20 and it used to belong to Bobby Lynch (who was a member of the Dubliners between 1964 and 1965). Tom Cussen set it up and he did a great job. Tom also sold me the Oakwood cittern, which I tune to open G." I noodle, it's a beauty.
Mick came to Kilkenny at the end of the 80's where he joined the session at Cleere's, instigated by Jimmy Ratigan, who still sings every week. For twenty years Mick played with the guitarist Pat Murray (RIP). Mick explains, "There's always a good crowd in Cleere's. It is a listening venue, people stop talking as soon as a song starts up."
Mick has two albums out; Image and Memories of Great Sessions. Mick was encouraged to write songs by Matt Manning of the Song Writers Corner. He has written eight new songs for Image (the album was recorded by Joseph O'Faolain in Freshford). He is also quick to acknowledge the many musicians he has played with at sessions for the past 40 years or more. "Check out the fiddler Lotta Virkkunen from Finland who played with us on Image. She's now living in Cork and I'm sure she will be making a mark on the session scene there."
We talk into the night, there's more tea, and the stories build as the fig rolls diminish. On the drive back home, I muse: perhaps one of those backpackers who listen to Mick on a Monday, might be telling a similar story in fifty years time.
For Mick it is the music that memories are made of.
Seán Laffey writes that this is a relatively new song, written by Mick “Citern” Walsh about his adopted home of Kilkenny City.
Mick uses the word Citern, spelled with just one T to distinguish himself "from the hundreds of singers called Mick Walsh in Ireland." The song appears on his album Image, which he began compiling in 2014, at a time when he decided to write songs about his locality and the issues of the day. He was following in the footsteps of his father who had written songs about the life and characters in their home place at the foot of the Comeraghs in Waterford.
The song considers two ideas connected to the ancient public realm, the streetscape of the medieval city and the response it brings out of locals and visitors alike. Those who know Kilkenny will recognise the Slips that feature in this song. They are narrow lanes connecting the town's ancient high street with the old market area, on the low ground on the southern bank of the river Nore. Many of those lanes are partly covered by houses arching over them. Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most picturesque is the Butterslip. These lanes are home to many a busker on a wet day. Tunnel like, they not only keep the guitar dry but also offer a good acoustic chamber for an impromptu-unplugged session.
In 2009 the city celebrated the 400th anniversary of its Charter and a busking competition was held as part of the bigger commemoration. You can find a number of performances recorded in the Slips on YouTube. The singer mentioned in this song, Mick Watson, was the town's first official busker. He was from Freshford and played both guitar and the accordion; he died on Stephen's Day 2014. The song Nancy Spain was sung by thirty musicians at his funeral.
The fabric of the city has remained remarkably constant over the past seven centuries, even if the buildings have changed their uses. One restaurant which itself lies in one of the Slips is called Petronella's, named after a 14th century servant, Petronella de Meath. She was burned nearby for Witchcraft, while her rich but guilty Mistress Dame Alice Kyteler escaped to England. Dame Kyteler has a pub named after her. The pub's website puts it in a nutshell, 'Dame Alice was the earliest person accused and condemned for witchcraft in Ireland. Was Alice de Kyteler a witch, a poisoner or just a woman who became wealthy by marrying and burying four husbands?'
There has to be a song in that, don't you think, Mick?
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #262/2017 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1),(3) Kilkenny, (2),(5) Mick “Citern” Walsh, (4) Kilkenny Tradfest (unknown/website).