Stories and Songs: transported by folk music

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The Ivy House Pub

The other night I went to a gig at a pub not too far from my house, about a half hour walk past – or through, depending on the time of day – Nunhead Cemetery. The Ivy House is special as it’s London’s first co-operatively owned pub. It opened in this guise around 2013 but it took me a while to find my way there. I’m glad I did eventually make it. The pub serves up great food and drink, although I think that’s just the added bonus. The pub’s jewel is the wood-panelled back room where there’s a performance space which seems just right: spacious enough, yet intimate too. It holds a small, perfectly formed stage and a host of small round tables, chairs and sofas. It feels cosy, the staff are easygoing and the stage curtains are gold. It’s a perfect combination of tradition, community and quirky.

Thomas McCarthy: folk singer, storyteller, Traveller

The gig was part of The Goose is Out: folk concerts, singarounds and club nights held regularly at The Ivy House. Support that evening was from various local traditional singers who clearly knew the venue well and were all great. The main ‘act’ was Thomas McCarthy. I write ‘act’ in inverted commas because it’s hard to think of someone less likely to ‘act’ than him. My immediate sense was of someone so utterly down to earth and full of integrity that I felt captivated even before a single song was sung.

When we’d arrived at the pub I’d noticed a man sitting quietly at the back of the room, somehow making an impression without saying or doing anything. Later, this same man was introduced and walked on to the stage to sit on a small wooden chair in front of the microphone. I wondered where his musical instrument was, not being familiar with this kind of folk singing. And then he began to sing in a voice which was so full of decoration and vibrato that an instrument would have been superfluous. This style was so unusual to my ear that it took a little while to tune in. It felt a bit like discovering a new food, such a unknown experience that getting a feel for it – or a taste for it – isn’t instantaneous. Or rather, the sensation is instantaneous but finding a way to register it isn’t.

The songs’ lyrics were part of the rich experience too: stories of love and lust that sometimes I had to listen carefully to in order to follow. But I wanted to pay close attention and it paid off. I heard about fairies, hunchbacks with Pinocchio-style long noses, aching hearts and red breasted daisies. There were stories that were sung and stories that were told, all with a rhythm that carried me off to a travelling life of wagons and caravans and conversation and singing.

Transported back to County Clare and Galway

When I got home I looked Thomas McCarthy up and saw that as a child he used to spend his summertimes in County Clare and County Galway. My roving imagination found poignant satisfaction in this as a few years ago I had trodden the path of so many with an Irish surname and gone looking for where my father’s family originated from; these relatives had left Ireland for north west England at the time of the potato famine. I’d hired a car and three of us had driven around Clare and Galway. On the final evening as the sun was setting, and after almost giving up on the search, I found what I thought to be the village I was looking for. As I got out of the car to look closer at the sign, a murmuration of starlings rose up from their silence and took flight from the tree close to me, filling the sky with song. The timing and the light, the sound and the sight of this huge flock of birds was extraordinary and I felt overwhelmed. As we’d driven to the airport I’d watched the moon rise and felt close to the land. I’ll be looking Thomas McCarthy up again.

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