Towards the end of the evening, Ron Kavana asks how long he was supposed to play for. Until English pub closing time, replies Dan -- which is to say, about half an hour ago. Ron says he'll just do one more. A voice from the audience suggests a Republican song. Ron embarks on another illuminating, nuanced, meandering chat around modern Irish politics. "I'm not a pacifist. I wish I could be..." He finally comes to the end, and sings a long, relaxed "Irish Ways" which seems to sum up what he'd been saying pretty well. There's a feeling of change running through the land/ The church and the right wing / Finally losing their awesome control / We don´t give a damn for your border /And we are the future, so take heed or look to your prayers! It couldn't have been much before midnight when he leaves the stage; he'd been singing and chatting for close to three hours.
The gig was upstairs in a pub; I gather there was a football match of some kind going on down below. Ron says he never uses a set list: he lets one song suggest another, and he's guided by what goes down well with the crowd. "The...gathering" he corrects himself. There are about 20 people in the audience, five of whom are the support act.
He starts to tell the story of giving money to a drunk in Camden Town and finding that it's a person he used to go to school with. "When I first came to London..." he begins, and it turns into the first line of the "The Old Main Drag" and then the second, and then the whole song: unaccompanied, ancient, haunting; one of the most spine-tingling moments I've ever experienced at a live gig. He's been around for ever and seems to have known everyone. Michael Flatley comes to sessions at his local. A delicate, funny "Galway to Graceland" is attributed to "my friend, Richard Thompson". "Both Sides O'The Tweed" has become "Both Sides O'the Boyne", but Dick Gaughan said this was all right.
He used to open for the Pogues, and wrote "Young Ned of the Hill. "I understand that in England Cromwell is a hero because he challenged the monarchy. In Ireland we see him a bit differently...." He says he loved it when English punks in York or Cambridge happily sang along. A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell/ You who raped our Motherland / I hope you're rotting down in hell / For the horrors that you sent / To our misfortunate forefathers / Whom you robbed of their birthright.
He doesn't lecture; he doesn't even exactly tell stories. He talks: about history and politics and music. Like a lot of people on the underdog side, history seems real and living for him. He seems angry about what was done to his ancestors. He won't use the word "famine": there was no famine in Ireland in the 1840s. There was plenty of food, but it was sent to England. The number of Irish who went to America has been exaggerated: most of the boats were turned away, and the real diaspora communities were in Canada. Quite early in the evening he sings "Reconciliation", an allegorical love poem between the north and the south, almost his signature track. Our fight has run its course / Now is the time for healing / So let us all embrace / Sweet reconciliation. He says that in the 1970s and 80s, he could be booed at Irish traditional music festivals for singing it. He fears that the 2016 anniversary could set everything off again.
The support group are Roving Blades, a local choir, who do Copper-ish, churchy acapella, all rounds and sweetly sing cuckoo. Their agonisingly beautiful version of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar doesn't seem to be on the Myspace site: it really ought to be on a CD. When Ron sings Midnight on the Water, they join in the chorus, from the floor, quiet at first, but then almost another spontaneous performance.
He tactfully says that in the USA, most folk concerts happen in private houses. That's what this felt like. A bard stopping off in tavern to sing songs and tell us what he's seen. Magical. When I first started going to folk night, this is what I imagined they'd be like.
I have no idea who won the football.
Tura lura lay; tura lura lay.