The Bag of Spuds
Patsy Hanley on flute (Photo: Luke Cheevers, courtesy Irish Traditional Music Archive)

The Bag of Spuds

The first in a series of traditional music columns by Ciaran Carson

I learned a new tune last week. Or rather, I’m still learning a tune I heard last week. It’s presumptuous to ascribe a past tense to the present ongoing process of getting a tune into one’s head or one’s fingers, not to speak of how the fingers often seem to have a mind of their own, controlled by an automatic pilot which remembers fragments of similar tunes, and hence leads one to sometimes gloss over the subtle twists and turns of the tune in hand, the little particulars that make this tune what it is, as opposed to others in the same family. The difficulty of ‘learning’ is compounded by the fact that in the matter of traditional music, there is no Platonic form of the tune, no ultimate score we can refer to as authoritative. The tune is all of its various renditions, and the memory of those renditions in the ears of countless musicians and listeners. As for transcriptions, they are only idealised snapshots of what the tune might look or sound like under one set of temporal circumstances. The tune itself is a process.

The tune in question, a reel, is ‘The Bag of Spuds’, played by Patsy Hanley on the RTÉ programme Come West Along the Road (itself the name of a tune) on 11th January 2008. The programme is essentially a repeat of another programme called after a tune, The Pure Drop, broadcast on 20th December 1988. That’s nearly twenty years ago, and I think it’s been around that length of time since I last saw Patsy in the flesh, all six foot odd of him. I’m transported back to the even earlier times when the fiddle player Deirdre Shannon and I used to get ourselves pleasurably lost in the musical Bermuda triangle of counties Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon. Playing into the small hours in pubs and back rooms and shebeens in places like Keadue, Ballaghaderreen and their mountainy hinterlands.

Patsy is from Roosky, Co. Roscommon, not too far from Strokestown, where I might have first that great sound he gets out of a flute; there’s a rounded depth to it, but also a hoarse, woody edge where the words ‘timber’ and ‘timbre’ equally apply. It’s a characteristic of Roscommon flute playing, as exemplified also by the playing of the late Packie Duignan, an old associate of Patsy’s. So I’m led to remember Packie Duignan, and his capacity for playing all day and night fuelled by a countless succession of pints, the odd ham sandwich, and a couple of packs of untipped Sweet Afton, pushing the beat along in a seemingly effortless flow of notes. And there was always time for talk, for anecdote and ‘crack’, as it was called then, before the spuriously Irish craic came in with the Celtic Tiger. Packie had a famously droll sense of humour, as does Patsy. It’s evident in the way he introduces the set he plays on The Pure Drop, ‘The Boys on the Hilltop’ and ‘The Bag of Spuds’, giving a little grin to draw attention to this curious combination of names, as if some Jack-and-Jill parable of useless endeavour lay behind the tunes.

As it happens, I know and play ‘The Boy on the Hilltop’, and I know and play a tune called ‘The Bag of Spuds’, but as Patsy launches into the second one, I realise that this is another kettle of fish, as it were, a completely different tune. It’s not, to be sure, a ‘new tune’. This ‘Bag of Spuds’ has been around since long before I was thought of, and will no doubt still be around long after I’m gone. It’s not even new to me, for as Patsy plays it I begin to have a dim recollection of how it goes, and it’s quite possible that I first heard it from him, some time back in the 1970s, perhaps, one of those tunes that flit in and out of one’s consciousness without ever being assimilated. If I did hear it then, I never attended to it properly. I never learned it then. But I want to learn it now. I don’t learn many tunes these days. For one thing, I’m not out that much, certainly nowhere near as much as I was some thirty years ago, when some three or four nights a week were given up to playing in various music sessions. To learn tunes you have to be around them, or they around you. In this instance, I’m immediately attracted by Patsy’s playing, as are the RTÉ audience, who let a couple of whoops out of them as he makes the change from the first tune to the second. It’s a great change, seeming to shift up a gear, and the playing is full of drive and verve and humour. I’ve no doubt that behind this particular rendition of the tune lies a fund of memories of other times Patsy has played it, and whom he played it with. The music is a kind of mnemonic for all those times. It’s about people as much as it is music.

When the programme is over I get hold of a tin whistle and try out what I remember of ‘The Bag of Spuds’: a vague framework with a few definite phrases here and there. ‘Is that the way it goes?’ I ask Deirdre, and she says, ‘Something like that, I never learned it myself, but I remember Desi Wilkinson played it through the letterbox of a pub when he got locked out and everyone else was inside having a big feed’. ‘And what was the upshot?’ ‘Oh,’ says Deirdre, ‘the woman of the house came out and chased him.’ ‘And where was it?’ ‘It was at a fleadh in Buncrana,’ says Deirdre, ‘before I knew you properly. But when we got out I remember you were walking up the other side of the street having an argument with some woman or other’.

Patsy Hanley is one of those great musicians who, for whatever reason, have never made an album of their own. He has, however, guested on a good few records, and there are three tracks of his playing on The Flute Players of Roscommon Volume 1, issued by Roscommon Arts Centre. Asked to supply a sleeve-note for himself, he came up with this: ‘My mind flashed immediately to musical accomplishments, recordings, et cetera – not worth writing about. Instead, maybe a word of appreciation for the characters with whom I stumbled, sped, shuffled, raced, hobbled and socialised (is that the right word?) with through the chaotic world of traditional music, which runs almost parallel with reality. I thank them for all their influence which shaped my music and my personality’. Just so.

As for my learning ‘The Bag of Spuds’ – that’s still ongoing, though I think I might have the gist of it by now. The next column in this series will be a progress report on the learning of that tune. It will be called ‘The Little Bag of Spuds’.

Published on 1 March 2008

Ciaran Carson (1948–2019) was a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player. He was the author of Last Night’s Fun – A Book about Irish Traditional Music, The Pocket Guide to Traditional Irish Music, The Star Factory, and the poetry collections The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and First Language: Poems. He was Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. Between 2008 and 2010 Ciaran wrote a series of linked columns for the Journal of Music, beginning with 'The Bag of Spuds' and ending with 'The Raw Bar'.

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