One of Sligo’s best known singer/songwriters, who is also an actor, Tommy Fleming has developed a great love of the outdoors. But as much as he enjoys walking and exercise, sometimes Sligo can throw up new surprises, as we find out when he takes the Aughris Coastal Walk as part of the MySligoWalks series.
The day could hardly be better, the morning mist has burned off and the sun shines from a blue sky as Tommy winds his way into the car park at the Beach Bar. Ahead of embarking on an extensive tour in Australia, a walk is a welcome diversion for the singer who has performed all over the world. But he is always drawn back home to Sligo.
He remarks how long he has been looking forward to doing this walk before we set off together for an hourlong ramble on this spectacular clifftop walk, where he begins to tell us about his life and music.
Originally from Aclare, County Sligo, Tommy got the bug for singing as early as 3 or 4 when performing at a school concert, and from then the performer in him tapped into something that has sustained a career over more than 30 years.
Born into a musical family – where uncles and cousins in particular encouraged him to sing from early on, he describes singing as being “almost like another limb, I’ve never known life without it.”
As a teenager, his Dad would drop him off at local pubs in Swinford, Charlestown, Tubbercurry and elsewhere to perform, and here he got used to singing in front of a live audience, learning what the public wanted to hear and responding accordingly.
At age 17, and still at school at Banada Abbey, he was greatly influenced by the music of the likes of Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Paul Brady, among others, and really began to consider music as a way to earn a living.
“College went out the window, much to my mother and father’s annoyance. But in fairness to them, I was never told to get a ‘proper job’ because even when I was doing small things like singing in the Leitrim Bar or at TDs in Sligo with two or three musicians, I was actually making a decent living.”
But as important and all as those gigs were to build confidence and to road test his growing repertoire of songs, his ambition was for greater things.
“My path turned when I was 21 and I worked with Phil Coulter, then when I was 22 I became the lead singer with Dé Danann and now, at 52, I’ve never looked back!” he adds. “If it finished tomorrow morning, I can look back at it and say, I’ve had a great, great run at it.”
And while he does have perhaps half an eye on retirement, he’s not slowing up yet. Just weeks after this interview, Tommy is due to set off for a month long tour of Australia. But he admits that the pandemic gave him time to think whether all of the travelling is sustainable in the long term, and it provided him the the impetus to explore more of the county of his birth with his wife Tina.
“Tina and I just take to the open road in a camper van, that’s my love of the outdoors. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a beach, whether it’s the woods, whether it’s camping, there’s no medicine better than a long walk, fresh air and just exercise in the outdoors, and that’s me.”
And he’s also one for exploring and finding new walks. Today is his first time on the Aughris Coastal Walk, but on this beautiful sunny morning, his reaction to the views suggests that it won’t be his last.
“It’s one of the most phenomenal, spectacular walks,” he says, adding that “today’s walk was unreal because of the high tides from the blue moon. It’s nature at its best. We don’t appreciate what we have on our doorstep. I live just over half an hour up the road and I don’t do this often enough. I often come down to the Beach Bar – for the wrong reasons, to have a few pints of Guinness – but what’s on your doorstep, what’s in front of us, we don’t see. I don’t think I’ve been as blown away by something so local in my life as I have today.”
The Aughris Coastal Walk is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful in Sligo. It is relatively short at around 4km and you get a different view all the way round of the county’s beautiful scenery, from Knocknarea to Benbulben and out towards Innismurray Island across that huge expanse of ocean that hugs the shoreline.
We had taken the route anti-clockwise, heading first for Aughris Pier, where the off-road path begins. Locals will tell you that the views are even better coming the other way, but as it’s a looped walk, you can choose yourself, and as Tommy describes, you won’t be found wanting for scenery and views. A mix of gravel and grass paths bring you along the clifftops. The path is protected for the most part by a fence on the seaward side, although there are some open areas where you have to take a little care, and particularly in wet weather, good footwear is advised to avoid slipping.
And not only does the walk provide ocean views as far as the eye can see, but it’s also full of history and heritage. A World War II lookout post, a holy well and deserted Famine village are dotted along the trail. Half way around we come to a viewing point that overlooks a shingle beach, where an ancient promontory fort gave protection against maritime raiders centuries ago. Here, Tommy stops to take out the phone and record a video for his Instagram page, giving his followers a view that can be difficult to put into words.
“When you think of the thousands of years that have gone before us,” he says, referring to the information panels that can be found on the walk, “reading that parts of the walk were a watch out during the Iron Age, when you stand looking out at that, and you think of what has gone before you, and yet, that ocean has ebbed and flowed over all of those years.”
The people we meet are friendly – and Tommy is accommodating and stands in for selfies for some fans – and as we pass the deserted village, we notice a small table that has been set up there with an honesty box alongside. Here, some beautiful art work and woollen items have been left. So Tommy takes a gift home for Tina, using Revolut to pay for the item.
As we wind up the walk and approach the trailhead once again, I ask Tommy if his walk today might influence his singing, to which he responds:
“I find inspiration in the strangest of places and the ocean is one of them. To hear the roar of the ocean, there’s a song I sing that was written by a man called Tony Small – ‘and now I’m longing for a night beside the ocean’s roar’ – and that’s one thing that it reminded me of. That’s one of the highlights, but the other highlight is just standing there to look out at the vast expanse of the Atlantic.”
And as we complete our walk and sit down for a few minutes outside the Beach Bar, those pints of Guinness will have to wait for another day. In the meantime it’s all about drinking in those sea views and enjoying the fresh air.
Find out more about the Aughris Coastal Walk at SligoWalks.ie. There, you’ll also find a video of Tommy Fleming’s favourite highlights from the walk, photos and an extensive podcast about him, his walks and his music.