<photo by Brian Hartigan www.andyirvine.com>
Veteran Irish songwriter Andy Irvine took a moment during his recent concert in Brisbane to tell a story about the day he was almost a drowning victim off a New South Wales beach. You could hear an intake of breath among the devotees gathered at the Old Museum. A founding member of the 1970s super group Planxty, Irvine visits Australia over and over – loves the place. After his first-half gig, he told us he had to leave almost immediately to drive to Sydney, where he would catch a flight to Tasmania next day. The life of a troubadour.
As he told it, the near-drowning happened when he was swimming at a beach in northern NSW. He got caught in a rip.
“I didn’t even know what a rip was,” he told the audience. “All I knew was the harder I swam the further out to sea it took me.” Close to exhaustion, wondering if his time was nigh, Andy dimly heard a gruff voice off to his right: “Oi, mate, over here.”
“I knew it,” said Andy, “God’s an Australian.”
More later in this piece about drowning and why 83% of victims are males (and 8.83% are overseas visitors). Andy was rescued from the surf and, under protest, taken to a hospital for observation. The local newspaper reported “Irish tourist saved from rip.” If only they knew.
So we savoured that concert, where the humble 74-year-old singer-songwriter and campaigner for social justice took us through a mixed set, including the famous My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland, A Blacksmith Courted Me and a complex story-song about Harry Houdini.
After chatting to fans and posing for photos, Andy and his wife Kumiko loaded up their Landcruiser with his bouzoukis and octave mandolin and set off for Sydney. At an age when many of his generation are playing lawn bowls, going on South Pacific cruises or pushing up daisies, he sets a cracking pace. In late November, he wrote on Facebook about having finished a marathon tour of the UK and Germany – 43 gigs in 59 days, wryly saying he needed a day off.
In December, he headed to Australia, teaming up with young Tasmanian musician Luke Plumb, who is back living in Australia after a decade playing with Scottish folk-rock band Shooglenifty.
The duo featured at Woodford Festival, after which Plumb went home to Tassie where he reunited last weekend with Irvine at the Cygnet Festival. Irvine and Plumb have two more festival bookings (Illawarra and Newstead) with concerts in between.
January, the month of drownings
Some of you might be still saying “Andy Who?” even though some of his May gigs in Ireland are already booked out. He’s as popular as ever among Irish music fans. There’s always rumours of another Planxty Reunion (with former members Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn and Christy Moore), last heard together in 2004.
And we owe it all, apparently, to a couple of bronzed Aussie surfers, standing up to their thighs on a rock shelf, willing an exhausted Andy Irvine to paddle his way towards them.
All Australians should be able to swim. It is a necessity in a continent with a 19,320 km coastline. But, whether they could swim or not, 280 Australians drowned in 2015/2016, 83% of them males. They drowned in the surf; they drowned in rivers, creeks, lakes and waterholes. Some were swept off rocks while fishing, some were tipped out of boats, but most were drowned while swimming at beaches.
We all know it is foolhardy to swim outside the flags or worse, at an unpatrolled beach. Many of us have had our brush with death via rips or other misadventures, as happened to me one time in the 1960s.
Clowning around in the east coast surf with my teenage mates I was suddenly dragged out of my depth, a powerful current towing me out to sea. I remembered from a physical education lesson, if finding yourself in trouble; raise your arm as high as you can. So I did and lucky for me that Dave, a member of the school swimming team, was further out than me and grabbed my arm as I swept by.
“What you doin’ out here?” he said, tucking his arms under my armpits and swimming backwards down shore where we emerged tired but happy.
Go on, you all have stories like that. Things you never told your mothers.
Your penance, should you choose to do it, is to download the Royal Life Saving Drowning Report 2016, from which these facts emerge.
Even if you skim through it, you’ll be all over your teenage kids like sand rash. The statistics which chill are as follows:
Men: 83% Women: 17%
Average age: 43.1
Age groups with most drownings:
25-34 (19%); 35-44 (15%);
Unhappily, drownings in the aforementioned age groups are increasing against the 10-year average, by 27% and 11% respectively.
The positive news in this sobering, 32-page report is that education programs are working on youngsters and their parents. Drowning deaths are down 30% in the 0-4 years group and 38% in the 5-9 age group.
There were 14 drowning deaths among the young (5 to 17) in 2015-2016, with a somewhat telling increase to 23 deaths in the 18-24 age group.
If I may editorialise, the latter can be largely explained away in the song by Rage Against the Machine− “F**** you I won’t do what you tell me.” Youngsters love to rebel and one clear way to give the metaphorical finger to your folks is to go swimming at an unpatrolled beach.
The Australian Water Safety Strategy has some ambitious targets, the key one being to reduce drowning deaths 50% by 2020.
This includes targeting “key drowning challenges” which are: boating, watercraft and recreational activities, alcohol and drugs, high-risk populations and extreme weather.
Royal Life Saving found that 44 people died with positive alcohol readings in their blood stream. More than half were above the legal limit in most Australian states and territories (0.05mg/l). Of those, 40% recorded a blood alcohol reading four times the limit or higher. Similar figures were quoted around people with cannabis or methamphetamine in their blood.
Who me, swim?
I’d like to say I can swim, after braving adult learn to swim classes in the 1990s. If you threw me in the deep end of a pool I’d paddle my way to the shallow end. But these days, if I were swept off my feet in angry surf, in future you’d be re-reading some of the early FOMMs and saying “Such a shame about Bob”.
If you’d wondered, I’m writing this not because it’s Friday the 13th, but because January is the month when most drownings occur (40 deaths last year). This is the main holiday time for families with young children and inevitably they head for Australia’s beaches. They need to be vigilant.
Some closing words, then, from Andy Irvine, ABC regional radio, circa 2003. He’s set to play his song, “My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland,” about the days in his first band, Sweeney’s Men.
“I’ve reached an age of looking back nostalgically at my past,” he told ABC South West Victoria Radio’s Steve Martin. “I nearly drowned in New South Wales about ten years ago and I wrote that in hospital. I was recovering from my near-drowning experience.”
‘Irish tourist’ indeed.
YouTube: My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland (with Donal Lunny)