Posted by Kevin Boyd, 20 July 2009
“McVeagh” is one of relatively few original tunes written by Martin Carthy (notwithstanding the numerous settings of traditional songs that have largely gone uncredited). It was written in commemoration of a brief friendship that Carthy struck up with John McVeagh in the early 1970s. When the tune first started to appear in Carthy’s repertoire in the late-1980s it was usually accompanied by an elaborate and lengthy introduction that often lasted longer than the tune itself and went some way towards explaining the significance of that brief meeting and of subsequent related events. With the release of the Right Of Passage album in 1988, on which the tune appeared, the story of Carthy’s meeting with McVeagh had been severely truncated in the sleeve notes:
McVeagh is John McVeagh, a man with whom I struck up a real friendship in the space of less than a week during a tour of Ireland in 1974. I never saw him but once briefly after that and heard by the most extraordinary of routes, that he had died in a swimming accident in Tralee Bay. Seven hours on a bus between Athlone and Belfast reflecting on the whole thing produced this tune.
In an attempt to fill in the gaps and to reinstate the full story in print for the first time, what follows is a complete transcript of the introduction given by Carthy during his gig at the Three Horse Shoes in Doncaster, South Yorkshire on June 2, 1988:
I’ll play a tune I made up… I’ll play you the tune I made up!
It’s a tune called “McVeagh”. It’s named after a fella I met in Ireland, a fella called John McVeagh. I met him in about 1974, it was one of those sudden friendships you make. I was doing this tour of Ireland and I wasn’t used to touring in Ireland – I’d been to Belfast and I’d been to Dublin, but I’d never been to Ireland, right? So I really wasn’t used to what it was like. And being from London I wasn’t used to the fact that if you go into a small town in Ireland and you walk down the street carrying two guitars everybody stares at you. Very quietly and calmly like that, they stare at you and if you look at them they give you this absolutely astounding nod, like that, then carry on staring at you. And that nod means everything from, “Hello” to, “Did you watch Neighbours..?” “Have you got a video..?”
So I was about four days into this tour and there’d been a lot of staring going on and I knew that when I got to Tullamore it was a walk right from the railway station into town, right through the middle of town and right out the other side, about two miles and it was a Saturday and everybody was in town. So it was going to be a two-mile gauntlet! So, like I say, I was fairly tense, fairly paranoid by this time and I’m walking through the town – I go everywhere by public transport you see, because I can’t drive – so I’m walking through the middle of town and this, um… to make things worse there’s the usual staring going on, sort of one stare is being passed along to the next stare in this two-mile continuous stare and I’m staring straight ahead. And there’s this one bloke who’s walking by my side, sort of just a bit out of reach, just a bit too far away to say hello too and a bit too close for comfort. And he’s pacing like that and staring all the time and after a while he came across and he fell very elaborately in step with me and he said, “Hello, you’re going to Buncrana tomorrow, aren’t you?” And I said, “Well yes, as a matter of fact I am”.
Well to get to Buncrana you see, from Tullamore right in the middle and Buncrana’s right up at the top and in order to get there by public transport you’ve got to do this amazing horseshoe through Dublin and Belfast and Derry and then you go back across the border. So I said, “Yeah, I’m going to Buncrana tomorrow” and he said, “Great, I think I’ll come too!” and I said, “Fine, terrific”. “How do you do,” he said, “My name’s John – John McVeagh”. “How do you do,” says I, “I’m Martin”. He said, “Yes, I know”. “Oh, alright, hello”. Carry on walking…
He chats away. I say we talked – we didn’t, he talked. He just talked, “Yap, yap, yap, yap, yap…” And by the time we reached the club these other two fellas had done the same thing, falling very elaborately in step with us and they’d introduced themselves. And they’d said, “Hello, my name’s Mick,” “Hello, my name’s Jagger,” right. “You’re going to Buncrana tomorrow”. “You’re going to Buncrana tomorrow”. “Yes”. “Yes”. “Think I’ll come too”. “Think I’ll come too”. Fine, okay!
So the four of us go into the club at Tullamore and we have a great time and we go back to Athlone to stay the night and we just sit up talking until about five o’clock in the morning whereupon Johnny McVeagh suddenly announces that everybody has to go to bed because we’ve got to leave at half past eight on the dot. So we all go to bed and we all get up and we have breakfast and we leave at half past eight on the dot – because he’s a policeman, you see. On the dot we’re there in his car, which he hasn’t told us about before, we’re in his car and we’re setting off for Buncrana. And at exactly half past eight in the evening we pulled outside the folk club in Buncrana and it’s hard to argue with that sort of timing, isn’t it? Even though there might be lurking in the back of your mind the notion that this twelve hour journey ought to have taken four hours. And the reason it took twelve hours was because we visited all John McVeagh’s friends on the way. We had loads to drink and loads to eat – we had lunch three times, which was great and by the time we got to the gig, I mean, it was wonderful! A great time. I had a great time at the gig and we all set off the next day for Carrick, on the west of Donegal to find a fiddle player called Johnny Doherty who was a really beautiful fiddle player. He was about 82 years old by that time and he played six nights a week in the pub for his bed and board, on Sunday he wouldn’t because he went to church. Absolutely wonderful player! So four days of music with this bloke and at the end of the four days I was very unhappy about it because I had to get the bus from Donegal City back to Dublin because I had a gig to do. And they came and they put me on the bus and then they all buggered off back to Carrick to have some more music and I never saw this Johnny McVeagh fella ever again. Sudden friendship, all of what, six days – five, six days?
So about, I can never quite work out whether its eight or ten years later but it’s something like that, there’s an Irish musician friend of mine sitting in Dublin airport and he’s coming to the Beverly festival. And his route is Dublin, Manchester, get the train, Manchester, Hull, another train, Hull, Beverly and then he’s there, okay. And the plane’s late so he’s sitting there and he’s chewing his – plane’s are always late – he’s chewing his fingernails but he’s not too bothered because he knows he’s gonna get there anyway. And this bloke walks up to him as he’s sitting there in the lounge and he says, “Hello, you’re going to the Beverly Festival, aren’t you?” “Yes, as a matter of fact I am”. And he wasn’t so fazed at it as I was. He’s used to it, he’s Irish, you see, he’s used to people doing things like that. “Hello, you’re going to the Beverly Festival?” “Yes, he says”. “Oh, that’s interesting says he, yap, yap, yap…” And he sit’s down and they “Yap, yap…” and they carry on talking for about twenty minutes or half an hour. And finally their flights are called and they’re on different flights but their flights are called about the same time and they stand up and they shake hands, “Goodbye, very nice to meet you, hope to run into you again some time, yap, yap, yap, yap, have a nice time at the Beverly Festival, great”. So my friend turns to walk away and this bloke won’t let go of his hand. And he turns back and the bloke’s looking at him with a slight frown on his face. “By the way,” he said, “Did you know that Johnny McVeagh had died?” And this mate of mine said, “Who the Hell is Johnny McVeagh?” because he didn’t know him. “Who the Hell’s Johnny McVeagh?” “Oh, never mind,” he says the bloke, “doesn’t matter, goodbye and nice to talk to you”. And off he goes.
My mate gets onto the plane, he gets to Manchester, gets the train from the station to Hull and by that time everything is that late that he’s got to jump straight into a taxi and go straight to the gig, which is what he does. Gets out of the taxi, he’s got a lot of instruments, heaves all the instruments out, gets them to the side of the stage and starts to tune them up ’cause he’s got to think of a set list and he’s got to tune up and he’s got about twenty minutes. And I walk in and I say, “Hello, how are you?” and he says, “Leave me alone, I’m tuning up!” Okay, so I stand off and I’m silent, sort of companionably silent while he tunes up. And there’s a gap in his tuning and I lean across and I say, “How’s Johnny McVeagh?” And he froze on the fretboard like that. And he looked up with this glassy stare and he said, “He’s dead” and he burst out laughing.
Which is a fairly good reason for writing a tune for somebody and that’s who this tune is for, for John McVeagh…
So there’s the full story. Personally, I tend to take this account with a smallish pinch of salt but maybe I’m doing Carthy – and by extension John McVeagh – a disservice. Having never walked through a small town in Ireland carrying two guitars I can’t say with absolute certainty that this sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time. After all, stranger things have certainly happened and moreover, a large part of me does in fact want every word to be true.