Monday, 16 November 2009

Hail Mary, full of Graceland

Donegality (part 1): Miracle of the Rosary

Knock, West of Ireland International Airport, the week after an apparition of the Virgin Mary had been forecast in Knock Village. ‘A Boyle woman said she saw the sun change colour’ said the barman in the airport bar, ‘as long as they don’t bring the circus here.’ I sipped my coffee, waited for my Elvisiate host for the weekend, Orla, and felt like I’d come home. 

In 2002 the Irish paper, Sunday People, wrote of Bundoran (Bun Dobhráin) that it was like ‘the back streets of Las Vegas only with cheaper hookers’. It has an element of surfer cool these days but off-season seaside is off-season seaside with quiet streets, raincoats, sad arcades flashing for attention, bookies and pubs doing the best business, while the recession means the town-limits extend for miles with empty and half-built holiday home housing estates. Where else would you hold the Irish Elvis festival?

Rocking up in Donegal’s Vegas on a dark, rainy November night, Elvisness didn’t look too abundant – cold, wet, no sign of the King – but a pub, Teac Sean Rua, had a little sign outside saying ‘Elvis here tonite’, and Orla stopped looking at me as if I’d invented it. We warmed up in a restaurant where the proprietor told us how big the festival had been last year – it’s first – with Elvises playing each other in a full-costume football match under sunny skies, the streets awash with a parade of Elvii instead of rain. He said if his daughter managed to get him a costume he’d wear it tomorrow.

The Great Northern Hotel, host of Las Bundoran, is a former railway, now golf-hotel that overlooks the Atlantic. Friday night was international masters night with Juan ‘He may be Elvis, but he still wants his mam to make his costumes (South Wales Echo)’ Lozano, Dean ‘The Official Best Welsh Elvis 2009’ Mack, Steve ‘The Rockin' Reverend’ Caprice, Mike ‘Thatcham man gets Elvis accolade (Newbury Today)’ Nova, Ben ‘Best Gold Lamé Jacket 2007’ Portsmouth and Marc ‘Forty-year-old gas meter reader (Glamorgan Gazette)’ George, all backed by Britain’s top Elvis tribute band Red Alert and Porthcawl’s splendid backing duo Mills & Boon. I’ll come back to them individually at a later date – suffice to say they are some of Britain’s top ETAs, having between them won the Porthcawl prize several times, and scored well in international events. Personally, I go for Mike Nova, but maybe because he got the young Elvis slot – the movie music and some earlier rock ‘n’ roll. The audience  comprised (foretold by the Porthcawl bus parked outside) a strong Welsh contingent - familiar with Elvis convention etiquette. This was my first time at such an event so wasn’t sure how to play it. We sat at tables around a dancefloor at the head of which the Elvises performed on a low stage. Popular songs got dancers onto the floor; people filmed and photographed. A little ritual of winning a scarf from Elvis was in play: a woman approaches the stage, Elvis beckons her foreword, puts a scarf around her neck and kisses her and when one brave woman went, more would follow, so Elvis wears a number of scarves around his neck. The woman opposite us was from Dublin, she comes for her daughter she says, her daughter loves Elvis. They go to the hotel on the Red Cow Roundabout (a notorious accident hot-spot) to see all the Elvises that come, organised by the Irish fanclub. Her daughter returned from the Elvis tat stalls in the foyer with a tie printed with Elvis images. Ben Portsmouth’s own Colonel Parker came around, distributing Ben’s ‘Taking Care of Elvis’ stickers and little Elvis pendants. ‘Ben’s got some good scarves’, he said, 'You've got to be quick to get them.' Ritual. How anthropological. I thought I’d better initiate myself if this is part of living Elvisly. I was elbowed out of the way by some more demanding Welsh ladies, but got my scarf eventually. It came with a kiss from Ben Portsmouth. The noise, the competition, the demand, Ben’s costume (he was Comeback Special acoustic), the women, the manliness of sweat and leather, lends it flustering excitement. It could almost be the real thing. Almost. 

We’d had enough of Vegas Elvis (except for Mike Nova and Ben Portsmouth all of them were That’s The Way It Is gaudy in jumpsuits) by the time Marc George came on all blue and spangly. I knew American Trilogy was coming and I’ll put my cards on the table – I hate it. On the way back we stopped into Teac Sean Rua where a red jumpsuited young guy was singing karaoke Proud Mary to a rollin’ rollin’ home crowd.

Thanks: Elvisiate Orla

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