"At 30, you've tasted the ashes of your dreams to some extent, and you know you're going to have to rebuild or restart." These are the words that immediately spill out of my speakers upon sitting down to transcribe the 90-minute long chat between myself and Ian Bermingham, aka Old Sea Legs, aka that fella from The Eskies, on a brisk Tuesday evening in the window of Whelan's. Alright so, let's get straight into it, why don't we?
It's clear that Ian Bermingham is in a plaintive, self-examining mood as he perches himself over a barrel table, cup of coffee in hand, hair slicked back, making consistent direct eye contact through a pair of wire-framed glasses. It appears Old Sea Legs has a look! The self-reflective disposition is natural considering he's fresh from his first live show since the break-up of The Eskies, a band he had been in since he was 16-years-old, essentially making it his first-ever solo show.
"I thought, after The Eskies, I'd take a couple of months away from music altogether. I told myself not to think about it, not to think about booking gigs or writing songs. Don't even listen to music, just leave it a while. Things started to happen where I was sleeping regularly, eating regularly, fucking ridiculous stuff. I had a weekend!?
"In my head, I would eventually slowly start listening to music again and once I started listening again, it would only be a matter of time, such is my impulse before I'd have an idea for something for myself. And when that idea came, I'd slowly start picking up the guitar again and slowly start to write things. Let it happen organically without forcing it and see what happened, or even if if it happened. And if it never happened again, then maybe I'd never play music again.
"But it didn't last any time at all. Within a couple of weeks, I had these things, these songs bubbling away in my head, these ideas. The fact that happened so quickly was a great affirmation of my suspicion that this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
The breakup of The Eskies, one of Ireland's most beloved and underrated bands, in July of 2019 was, in the eyes of the public, a sudden one, with all shows cancelled, giving fans no chance to say their goodbyes.
"That was something none of us wanted to do but it was something we felt we had to do," Bermingham admits.
"We knew we couldn't, it would have been too much of an emotional slog to go and finish those shows. To use relationships as an analogy, most people who've gone through a breakup can probably identify a time before that or a series of signposts along the way where you go ok this was happening, I can see now that this was winding down.
"Nobody wants to give up on the person they love, nobody wants to give up on the relationship that they're in, but it comes to a point that if you want to have ANY sort of relationship with that person or those people, it's going to have to stop now because you don't have the emotional resources or the mental resources to continue with it."
Bermingham speaks at length about the "fairly high-labour endeavour" but extremely rewarding experience of being a member of The Eskies for almost half his life. He talks about the highs of having songs he'd written at his mother's kitchen table sung back to him in far-flung places across the globe, even Australia, and the lows of being stuck in a hostel in a place he'd never heard of, sleeping in the crap bed because it was his turn that night. It's fascinating to let him, for want of a better word, rant on about life in the band. It's clear he hasn't really given himself the opportunity to reflect properly on it since The Eskies ran out of road.
"The breakup of The Eskies can't be put down to any one thing. It was just a slow shifting of people's prerogatives. We encountered highs and lows together and how we reacted to those things were different because we're different people. And it just got to the point where it didn't make sense for us to be in a band anymore because we all wanted different things. Luckily, we managed to get out of it alive and with friendships intact.
"To use a lazy metaphor, you can rush through things by just putting a band-aid over a gaping wound. In truth, you're better off letting it run its course and make sure you process things properly so, by the time you do move on, you're moving on with that thing in a good place inside of yourself. I don't want to look back at The Eskies and feel pain or feel aggrieved or regret or bitterness. I don't. I think I've done well to process it as I have. It's brought me, if not everything that I love and care about, it's brought me the vast majority of it."
The importance of keeping those friendships intact is a topic that crops up again later in the discussion when Ian speaks about what he misses most about not being in a band anymore and how different his life is without them. He speaks of his bandmates as the siblings he, as an only child, never had and how the band acted as a grand canopy for him to stand under when he needed one.
"You're constantly tethered back to those people. So when that reason for being no longer exists and the band structure isn't there anymore, you're kind of floating in the ether a little bit. You're texting and ringing each other and asking each other strange questions like how they are and those sort of things. The weird thing that happens with friendships in bands, if you get to the level that we did where you're busy all the time, is that you can forget how to be friends outside that construct. So when The Eskies stopped, we were all rebuilding and starting again, learning how to be friends again without the band there."
What he misses every bit as much as his bandmates, however, is the community that The Eskies built around them. For a band who played an unusual blend of sea shanties, klezmar and Italian tarantella, The Eskies had a hugely dedicated and passionate following.
"I got used to people's names popping up on my phone all the time 'cause there are some people that would interact no matter what we put up. And I fucking miss those names. I miss them popping up and I miss those inputs. So it wasn't like I just lost the band or lost the music, I lost the connection to all those people.
"But the beautiful thing is, quite a lot of them have come across to Old Sea Legs and these names are starting to pop up again. So it makes me realise that when I bring it out on tour, which is very much happening, I'm going to be seeing some really familiar faces, which I'm really excited about."
So, back to Old Sea Legs, I ask why Ian has decided to go under that moniker rather than just performing under his own name.
"The name Old Sea Legs, well, you know what it means to earn your sea legs. You have to spend a certain amount of time at sea. Old Sea Legs is a reminder to myself that I've done this, I'm fine, I'm ok. I've earned my sea legs so to speak. Plus, I feel far more confident about the idea of a guy called Old Sea Legs than I do about a guy called Ian Bermingham. I just feel like he knows the fucking score. Old Sea Legs knows what's going on.
"I also like the idea of a bit of pantomime, a bit of character and being sort of larger than life. Old Sea Legs is a world I can move into and play around in and I have a lot of fun doing it. Even in my front room, with people walking past on their way to work or whatever, and I'm writing, I'm in this other world, a world that's not Ian Bermingham. It's like that Oscar Wilde quote: 'Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'
"You also have to remember, that I didn't come up with the name The Eskies, the name already existed before I joined. This is the first creative project that I've ever named so there's something to be said for owning my own creative being if that makes sense."
Aside from the videos in this article, there is very little out there to give a full idea of what Old Sea Legs will sound like (although you will find some Facebook live performances of a few tracks here). When pushed on what the project will sound like, Ian reaffirms that the project is still very much in its infancy and he's just allowing it to happen naturally and see where it goes.
"Just to say, I'm not coming here with a litany of answers. Speaking to you now, I feel like I'm posing more questions than giving answers as I'm still sussing it out. This is the very first time that I've really reflected on it in any sort of self-conscious way. Up to now, it's been very much an unconscious going with the flow and playing around with it. I've had a lot of fun over the last couple of months playing around with it and seeing what I can do.
"One of my favourite feelings in the world is going around and going about your day with a half-formed song recorded on your phone that you threw a couple of bits down that morning on. And then you go out through your day and as you're going about the place you're thinking about what else can go in there and so on and then recording it quickly in the staff toilet or on the Luas. It doesn't really matter what else happens that day, it's like having some sort of forcefield around you. Nobody can get to you. It's an impenetrable film that exists around you that's your own little secret."
We disappear down a tangent about the joys of creative writing, the importance of maintaining some child-like behaviour throughout adulthood and stories of our own personal issues in terms of mental health. There are laughs and there are emotional hugs. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that it's not just Bermingham's outgoing onstage persona that draws people to him, he's an extremely approachable, empathetic human. This is evidenced by our chat being interrupted on a number of occasions as various friends and acquaintances including Jess Kavanagh, Whelan's main man Dave Allen and 8Radio's Dan McDermott happen to pass by. Ian makes it his business to say hello and have a quick chat with each of them.
The conversation swings back again to the last days of The Eskies and Ian tells a long, endearing story of one gig in the UK, when they knew it would be one of their last. 1,500 people crammed into a small tent somewhere in the south-west of England but Ian remembers two small groups of people in particular. A father and his daughter in the front row and a family of four a little further out to the right.
"They were singing along with every word and dancing to every riff. They all had their arms around each other and doing that thing you do at gigs when you look at your friend and sing that bit you all love at each other. They were doing all of that stuff but I knew we were breaking up at this stage, so my fucking heart was broken. I felt terrible.
"I felt incredible joy at the experience of what was going on while, at the same time, there were tears brimming in my eyes looking at those people and not knowing when I was going to do this again or see those people again. You asked me right at the start if I knew whether I was going to continue playing music after The Eskies, and, to be honest, I think really I did. I couldn't not. There are things people do because they have the volition to do it, they want to do it and need to do it.
"A friend of mine years ago said she was pregnant with music and that's stuck with me ever since, not only because it's an unusual way of saying it, but because I understand what she was saying. I feel like I've got stuff happening inside me that I have written already and stuff that I'm currently writing. Like the past few months, I've been enjoying writing for the sake of writing and with no expectations as to what I might do with, who might like it, or where I might go with it. There's a nice body of work there that I'm excited and happy about and I'm looking forward to seeing who might sing it other than me. I feel like it started here last Friday, a room full of people singing a song that I'd only written in the last few months, and there are definitely more songs to sing!"
The parish lives on.
*Please note that this interview was carried out in January 2020 and therefore makes no reference to any events since then*