Though I loved all my cousins, it was Seamus that held the special place. At the end of our first meeting, he produced a punt, the old Irish currency, and tore it in half. “Write your name on one half and I will on the other,” he said. It was a crude but effective way of telling me that I was one of them, and though we may be parted by the Pond, when we got together we would be whole again. Indeed, the nights spent at the turf fire at Ballybrehony were an affirmation that I was home.
Seamus was no stranger to the world of entertainment. He worked the dance halls in Mayo and played a good harmonica. When I first arrived in Ireland, it was Seamus who set up the opportunities for me to sing. The cross-road dances and interviews on Midwest radio in Ballyhaunis were due to his belief and support in my music. It was a proud day when Brian and I played RTE with none other than Pat Kenny as the host. He was the American equivalent of Garrison Keillor or David Letterman and I felt like I had arrived in Ireland when I heard the pride in the voices of Seamus and Nell.
He was also a practical joker. On my first visit to Ireland, exhausted and numbed by more than one hot whiskey, I fell asleep by the turf fire. He and Tommy tied my shoes together as I slumbered. Early in the morning, I woke and started out of the chair to get ready to head back to Claremorris, only to find myself flat on the floor and my two cousins laughing at my befuddlement at my lack of forward mobility.
There was also the fact that Seamus was ironically a man of the wide open prairie but only vicariously. He loved watching westerns on television. Seamus could recall more western movies than anyone I knew. He would watch the broad expanse of the west open up on his television there in Claremorris. It was one of the few times I could share with him something that I personally knew a bit more about than he. When Brian and I would talk about our rambles across Kansas and Colorado, he would get a far-off look and sucking in a bit of air would exhale with an almost boyish “Oh yah” as if he was there in the van with us. Later the marvels of cell phones and texting pictures made the connection much easier. I would click a shot of a sunrise over the Flint Hills and send it to the Connaught Cowboy six hours ahead of me. Once we brought a bag of buffalo jerky over as a present. He loved that connection to the west. I was always on the lookout for an authentic arrowhead while I was on my rambles, hoping I could find one since that would have been the ultimate gift for him.
I always kept after him about coming over to the States to see the west. Seamus made it pretty clear that he was indeed happy where he was in Claremorris. He had his friends and his home. Riding the range on his remote was enough.
When I wrote the song Bolinree, it was as a tribute to the Irish side of my family. Their generosity allowed me, my siblings, and later on Brian, his family, and some of our close friends a true glimpse of an Ireland that is now past. Seamus would tear up when Bolinree would be played; it was too much to recount the years and his own siblings, passed on. The farm no longer in family hands, the movement of time. The song was played as they carried his casket out of the church.
The Pond, as both sides of the family would refer to the ocean, always seemed so small. An eight hour flight and you are there in Ireland, amazing. However, the Pond turned back into the forbiddingly huge Atlantic when word came from my cousin Liam that Seamus was ill. The FaceTime phone call caught Brian and me doing a sound check in Austin, MN. Seamus was in the hospital and slowly but surely the news turned from bad to worse as his health rapidly deteriorated.
Thanks to technology, I had the chance to say goodbye to Seamus and thank him for being a light in my life, but of course it just wasn’t how I ever thought our final parting would be. We would always end our partings at Claremorris with a “see you later” rather than saying “goodbye,” which was too painful. Cowboys like to ride off into the sunset of course. And the Cowboy from Connaught rode off like all cowboys, tall in the saddle and looking forward to what lies beyond the next rise.
Click here to listen to "Bolinree"