We were so happy, the three of us, perched on our rock outcropping. The simplest of elements scattered around us added up to our happiness; a few empty bottles of Harp, crumbs from a package of Dubliner cheese, the last few slices from a loaf of fresh cottage bread, a couple of apple cores, blooming yellow gorse and fog.
The thick fog obscured any view of the Irish fishing town of Kinsale below us, or any glimpse of the sea spread out to the south. It enclosed us in our companionship. Just the three of us, we sturdy hikers, had reached this point. No one existed but us: Alan, my husband; Reggie, our long-time friend; and me who still, in 2005, occupied that sweet spot of treasured wife and valued friend.
The conversation flowed slowly, quietly. In my memory I hear echoes of soft laughter breaking free from our throats and slicing a path through the fog.
Like everything else in Ireland, I believe that fog hung thick with song. That’s why Reggie said, “Let’s each sing a song. Think of the absolutely saddest song you know.”
Think of the saddest song you know.
What better way to celebrate the perfect union of time, place and people than with a song of sorrow.
Alan began with a phrase. “Louise rode home on the mail train.” Then he sat, eyes squinted half shut as he thought. Reggie and I waited.
He elaborated on that phrase. “Louise rode home on the mail train/somewhere to the South I heard them say.”
He said, “I can kind of hear the melody in my head. This goes back ages ago, a sad song about a bad girl. The kind of thing a college boy’d find romantic.”
I sang, “And the wind is blowin’ cold tonight/So good night, Louise goodnight.”
“It’s by Leo Kottke,” I said. “I remember it; a sad, sad song about a lonely woman. Only another woman can completely understand Louise’s sorrow.”
“Sometimes a bottle of perfume, flowers and maybe some lace/Men brought Louise 10-cent trinkets/Their intentions were easily traced,” Alan sang.
I heard him sing it in concert, on campus. I understood,” he said.
That was all he could piece together of Louise.
So Reggie started. Just like Alan, he began at the end of his saddest song, “Ah but I’m sick now, my days are numbered, so come all ye young men and lay me down.”
“It’s Irish,” he said. He started spinning a tale out of his own Celtic heart about his song. “It’s old, an ancient tune. One of those anonymous songs, passed along, never written down, pieced together generations later. Like Beowulf.
The singer has lost his love. She’s dead. He roams, inconsolable. He’s known all over the countryside for his broken heart and his beautiful song. Troubadours picked it up from him and kept it alive long after he died, adding bits, losing bits.”
Alan interrupted. “Do you remember any more?”
Now it was Reggie who squeezed his eyes shut. “But I’ll sing no more now till I get a drink/For I’m drunk today…” His voice switched from recitation to singing. “and I’m seldom sober/a handsome rover from town to town/Ah, but I’m sick now, my days are numbered so come all ye young men and lay me down.”
That’s about it for what Reggie remembered of Carrickfergus, aside from a few random phrases, like, ”soft is the grass, my bed is free,” and “the sea is wide and I cannot swim over.”
That didn’t matter. We stowed the remnants of our lunch in our backpacks and headed back down the trail to Kinsale, all three of us gleefully bellowing out of key, “But I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober……”
Notice that I didn’t have a saddest song. Not that day.