Lockdown and a new way of life for an old country boy
The arrival of a pandemic put paid to country music star Charlie Arkins' 50 years of criss-crossing the roads of Ireland for shows.
The Athboy man tells JIMMY GEOGHEGAN how the new normal gave him time to reflect and be thankful he doesn't have to jump into the car for those long drives
It’s just about a year now. A year since we started hearing regular updates of something called a coronavirus that was spreading from China; an invisible little bugger that hit some people with all the subtely of sledgehammer descending on a nut.
As Covid-19 took hold there were all sorts of fall-outs – in all sorts of ways. The ripples extended in every direction and in Athboy the arrival of the pandemic convinced Charlie Arkins it was time. Time to retire from his job as a professional musician.
With everything closing down Charlie found himself spending a lot more time at home; certainly a lot more than he was accustomed to – and he was enjoying the vibes.
“When the first lockdown came that’s what tipped me off, what convinced me, the opportunity to wake up every morning and not have to go anywhere even though it was my job for 51 years.”
“It was just the other morning I said to Mary (his wife) you know it’s lovely not to have to get into the car and head to Killarney or Donegal or somewhere like that for a show, maybe ice on the road, arriving home very late."
There can hardly be a road, a town or a village hall Charlie Arkins didn't visited in those years working with a variety of bands playing country music. Song after song, night after night.
There was the The Virginians in the early days then Mattie Fox, Margo, the Cotton Mill Boys, John Hogan, Robert Mizzell, the Jimmy Buckley Band, others too. He recorded with the likes of Roly Daniels, Big Tom. So many others. Worked with great local singers such as Matt Leavy and was in bands that had number one hits, played on some of the biggest shows around including the Late, Late. Charlie tasted the big time.
As a highly accomplished fiddler and harmonica player he was never short of work – either as a gigging or a session musician. Recordings, gigs, trips around Ireland, Britain and the Continent it was full on - but it had to stop some time and it has now.
Fifty years. Where did they go?
ON THE ROAD
Charlie – who is now 72 - has a few regrets sure, but then it would be strange if he didn't. He talks of the times when he missed the birth of some of his children. “When I look back now there are things I may have done differently,” he says. “Some of the things I regret is not been there for the birthdays of some of the kids, it’s something that wouldn’t happen nowadays.
“Back then you’d be too loyal to the bosses. I look back on photographs of birthdays or First Communion maybe and I ask my wife Mary is that Darren or David? She would say to me ‘oh that’s Darren’s First Communion’ but I might have been in Scotland or someplace. That hurts now. I wasn’t in the picture on the big day.
“When David, the youngest was born I said to myself I’m not going to be away playing, I’m going to be in the hospital with Mary, holding her hand and I was,” he adds. David followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a musician. He is a guitarist with Daniel O’Donnell and has his own recording studio outside Navan - Crookedwood Studios.
While he may have a few regrets when when he reflects on his career Charlie Arkins sees just how much of blast he had as a working musician. “Now I would have to say I enjoyed it and if I was going to live my life again that’s exactly what I would do. I might do a few things differently, all right but when you are young being on the road, all the travelling, the late nights, you don’t feel any pain at all.”
Not that his career as a performing artist is over. Ok the tours are a thing of past but Charlie has every intention of doing more gigs. You can’t just do something for half-a-century and suddenly stop.
The gigs will be locally based, in and around Athboy and such like. Whenever that pesky little virus is conquered and some kind of normality resumes, of course.
Considering his background it’s not at all surprising that Charlie Arkins became a fiddle player, arguably one of the best on the Irish country music scene. Ever.
His father Willie Arkins could, they said, make the instrument talk. He was a brilliant fiddler but in his real job he was a farmer who worked his land in Finea, Co Westmeath. He raised his family and when his eldest, young Charlie, began to grew from a boy to a young man, the parent had plans for him.
“My father used to say now that you are growing up it will be great to have you helping me in the bog and with the hay, working around the house but my mother was wiser, she had other plans. She said: ‘No, as soon as you are finished school you are going into a job.’ That’s what I did. “
For a time it looked like young Charlie might become a member of An Garda Siochana. He was accepted by the Force but he also applied to become a psychiatric nurse and got the call.
“I was actually going to the Guards in Templemore but one day the local sergeant in Finea said to my mother that psychiatric nursing might be the best option and it did sound great, the white coats, minding patients, the training. You had a secure future and a pension.
It was while he was in St Brendan’s, Grangegorman he met a young, attractive Clare woman, Mary Moloney from Doonbeg. They started going out together and in 1974 Charlie and Mary were married.
Charlie had been playing with bands around Dublin and was offered the chance to join country n’ western outfit The Virginians full-time. A chance to become a professional musician was appealing; so was the money. He was getting £12 a forthnight as a nurse; his job as a fiddler with The Virginians yielded £25 a week.
In time he moved on and ended up in the Cotton Mill Boys who had a series of number one albums but they really hit the big time when they won the hugely popular TV talent show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ playing the ‘Orange Blossom Special.’
There are seminal, far-reaching moments in people’s lives and that was one for Arkins who displayed his prodigious talents as a fiddle player to a huge audience. The Boys also had appearances on the Benny Hill Show and the Late, Late Show.
The band played songs like ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ the words expressing sentiments Charlie could relate to: “Well life on the farm is kinda laid back/Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack/ It’s early to rise, early in the sack/ Thank God I’m a country boy.”
Charlie Arkins spent the following decades traversing the roads of Ireland, Britain, the Continent and beyond with the various bands and singers. It could be boring but it could be fun too and rewarding – but there was a price to pay. Those days when he missed out on significant family occasions hurt.
Then there was the lifestyle. The constant travelling, getting into cold vans after gigs in steaming hot halls, the unsociable hours. He reels off the names of showbusiness people he has known who have died as a direct consequence of alcohol.
However, overall Charlie says he has been lucky. He made it through relatively unscathed. He refers to his wife Mary and the hugely influential and steadying presence she has been in his life; minding the fort when he was away touring.
It was Mary, he adds, who was the driving force behind the decision to move the family from Dublin to Athboy to live 36 or 37 years ago. “She is wiser than I am,” he adds.
Over the years Charlie enjoyed his hobbies such as gardening or DIY around the house. They always offered a pleasant alternative to the gigging and the recording, although these days he has his own studio and is working on his own album.
He can hardly believe it’s almost a year now since Covid struck. A year since he decided it was time to retire after 51 years as a touring musician; a country n'western star.
As the song goes: ‘Thank God I’m a country boy.’