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Dancing to the beat of a different drum…

On warm July evenings, I sometimes think that I can hear drumbeats in the distance, and I am once again a student in Galway, hurrying over the canal bridges to rehearse with a street theatre group.

Back in the early 1980s, our small group of performers and dreamers channelled a wild, hilarious spirit that had been smothered for decades by respectability, religion and gombeenism. We would have been horrified to be compared to St Patrick, but like him, we had helped to light a fire that spread all over the country. Our arrival could be heard miles away, in the joyous beat of tribal drums.

Then you would see the pagan animals waving great coloured heads, the prancing imps, and the mad contraptions pulled, dragged and pushed by magical creatures. It was all noise and bawdiness, irreverence and joy, and the perfect antidote to shadowing some old guy in a white coat.

Back In the hospital, all was hushed and reverent. There was a strict hierarchy based on rules that made no sense to me. The lights were on in the bright daytime and the only art was a religious statue casting doleful eyes at the rows of prisoners in the beds.

I used to wonder how anyone could get better in this atmosphere of piety and disinfectant, and I longed to bring a few buskers up from Quay Street to rouse the wards.

Then I would throw my hateful tie in a locker and head down to the Fisheries Field, where the performers were camped. There you would hear a serious discussion about how to put wheels on a mermaid, or how to make a giant bird swoop in the sky.

It was all noise and bawdiness, irreverence and joy, and the perfect antidote to shadowing some old guy in a white coat

Everyone was painting, sculpting, playing music and maybe my memory is faulty, but they all seemed to be having a great time. There was a circus-like atmosphere as everyone pitched in, getting ready for the big days when anarchy would burst into the town. Small streets, as familiar to locals as their kitchens, were transformed into 3D film sets, as fairies, monsters and dreams became real.

We called the group Macnas. Macnas is an Irish word used to describe the feeling a calf gets in early summer, when she feels the sun on her back and dances and capers in the fields. She seems to dance for the joy of being young and alive.

Then I left, and I went to the north of Ireland to live and work. Maybe you can’t live in bohemia forever, and at the time I was ready for a change. I lived in the top floor of a huge psychiatric hospital, and from the Georgian windows I could see for miles over the summer countryside.

I could hear drums in the distance, but they were different drums. These drummers were rehearsing for the Orange parades. The Troubles were at their height and two gods who seemed alike to me, but not to their followers, squared up to each other with threats and menace.

When the parades came to town they spilled onto the streets with noise and colour, freeing repressed tension and violence. They were a glory to some and incentive to others.

The tunes were the traditional ones I had known for years, and a drunken gaggle of young men carrying beer cans and wearing Rangers shirts staggered behind the marching old men wearing bright white gloves.

I saw Jack’s army change the image of the ‘fighting Irish’ on the television and I took a day off to go home and vote for Mary Robinson.

I came back to Galway for the Arts Festival. It was hard to be a punter and I missed being involved. The Festival people thought that I had left the real world and their world was already moving away from mine, like a ship that you’ve missed sailing away from you.

A couple of years later, on an unforgettable summer journey I drove across Sligo and Donegal and west Cavan, down through Westport and Mayo, down through Tuam and Belclare and into Galway.

It was late July, moving into the golden time of Lúnasa, and every town and village had festivals and stages, bunting and music. They all had their drums, their parades, their own type of pagan madness. There was a new mood in the country and a spirit was stirring. Maybe it had been beaten down, maybe it had always been there, but in hiding.

Something deeper, older and yet younger had woken up. And past the villages, past the stone walls, the young cattle played in the fields.

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