‘To find myself I had to dig out the shame and I had to deal with it’
When you enter Don Baker's spacious house on the edge of Trim you are greeted by a huge bay window and a view that is spectacular, calming. Off to the left is Trim Castle - and there down below you shimmering in the late morning light, and flowing faster than it should in early August, is the Boyne.
Don loves the view; loves living in Trim and has done so for many years now. Sometimes he will sit there, play his guitar and harmonica or just stand and watch and wave to people who are walking on the other side of the river. They will wave back. He loves that human connection. This is it, this is where he wants to be.
The light that streams in the window illuminates a large living area and on the table is a card somebody has sent him. It's a brightly-coloured card that says: "Happy Birthday - Your Seventy" or words to that effect.
On the 26th August Don - renowned harmonica player and bluesman - will hit that significant milestone. He smiles and shakes his head when he is reminded of that reality. It's a smile that says a lot because he doesn't know how he has got here; how he has made it this far.
"I don't know, I simply don't know," he says again. "I never thought I'd see 70 with the lifestyle I've led, all the drinking I did. I nearly lost my life several times through the drinking, accidents, car accidents, nearly drowned a few times, diving off rocks into rivers, mad. I was a mad young man."
As we talk renowned blues piano player Salvatori Urbano walks in, there's studio work to be done later. Don lights a cigarette from one of the large lit candles on the table, or at least it's the remains of a cigarette, he had started earlier. He may have given up the drink but he still smokes, yet he looks fresh and healthy. He's full of ideas, writes songs on an on-going basis and is planning on recording a forthcoming gig in the hotel/pub he owns with his wife Maureen - Brogans in Trim.
He is happy with life but, he will readily admit, to get to this stage of contentment he has had to travel a long path, a rocky road full of pitfalls and pain when all that sustained him was the love of family and friends and a certain philosophy or spirituality he has evolved over the years; evolved from experience, learning, listening.
That young man who did so many mad things - that angry young man who hid his true self - now seems a long way off. Instead there is this serene, vigorous man who is about to become a septugenarian.
"It's a long time since I had a drink, I shudder when I think of that time. When I drank I was a CUN Tuesday. I'm a completely different person now, thank God. I went into the AA in 1983, I was 33 years of age, that's when I started to get my act together. I didn't really get it together until I was about 50. Healing is the most important thing in my life, it's not music, it's healing," he says.
Don's childhood in Dublin was as turbulent as a river flowing down a mountain. His father was an alcoholic, and young Don ran wild getting in trouble with the law. He ended up in places like St Conleth's Reformatory School in Daingean, Co Offaly. There, he says, he endured physical and emotional abuse. There was no shortage of traumatic episodes in his young life - and he has no doubts what was the most traumatic.
As a youngster he had TB and - here's a word we have become familiar with - he had to isolate, or as they said back in the mid-fifties, "go into quarantine." The experience left its mark.
"The thing that shaped my life was being in hospital at the age of five, I was left in a room on my own for three months that (he pauses) devastated me, my whole life," he adds. "My mother, I saw her for an hour on a Wednesday and an hour on a Sunday and the rest of the time I was on my own. I'd scream after her, they would have to prize my fingers off her legs or I'd grab a hold of her skirt, I was in an awful state, constant anxiety at the age of five, acute anxiety."
"I couldn't be in a relationship because of those feelings, missing my mother. I have projected the role of a mother on every relationship I've being in onto the role of the woman, expecting them to give me the love I never got, and it's grossly unfair to your partner to do that but I did that.
"I did it unconsciously when the anxiety would surface and the fear would hit me. I projected it all trying to get somebody to fix it." He took tentative steps towards his salvation when he learned about the blues, and the harmonica, and played music. It was a redemption of sorts, yet there was still a legacy from the turbulence of his youth.
He went through two marriages and then, when he was 50, he met Maureen O'Reilly. He was already on the path to redemption but meeting her, he insists, greatly speeded up the process. "Maureen was the best thing that ever happened to me, she won't let me away with anything, she keeps me on my toes, she has helped me mature and grow and become the person I'm today which is a person I like. There was a time I hated myself, I couldn't look in the mirror, I hated myself.
"The root of my problems as a child was that I felt a thing called toxic which is feeling I am a mistake. I never felt I belonged, I just didn't feel I belonged or deserved. I kept it secret and the drink was great in helping me act like I belonged, 'I'm one of the gang, I'm one of the guys but my real self was hidden. To find myself I had to dig out the shame and I had to deal with it."
Meditation and spirituality helped him find a path out of the painful, shameful maze. He believes in God but doesn't follow any organised religion.
As well as the bleak days (now consigned to the past) he has also enjoyed some great times. Among the most memorable was that time when he landed the role of IRA man Joe McAndrew in Jim Sheridan's superbly-constructed film 'In the Name of the Father.' He recalls going to Los Angeles, attending, in his tuxedo, the Oscars, working with Daniel Day Lewis. "I mean how lucky am I? "
He has made 18 albums and continues to write. One of the songs he composed in recent years was the brilliant number 'Crack Cocaine' and how it came about gives an insight into how he puts a song together.
He describes how, while giving a talk in Los Angeles about emotions, sadness, grief, loss and so on. He met a man, an African American, whose wife was addicted to crack cocaine. The man, who had a gun, spoke about his anger, the hate he felt towards the drug pusher who was supplying the poison and he vowed to kill him. Shocked by the depth of feeling, that anger, Baker wrote a song about it, looking at the situation from the man's perspective.
“I blame, I blame crack cocaine, looking at my woman skin and bone/ She would not leave crack cocaine alone/I look at you now, you're like the walking dead, but you would not listen to a word I said/And for the pusher with all the bread, I'll put a dum, dum bullet in the motherfucker's head.”
As far as Don knows the man didn't carry out his treat but instead threw his gun into the nearby River.
If he writes three good, well-structured songs a year Don will be happy. Ideas often don't lead anywhere but sometimes in those sweet moments of inspiration, he will find the Muse calling him. It's moments like that he lives for too.
With five children, now grown up, he has a large family unit around him.
Then there's Maureen. Sometimes he can't believe his luck, or that he's nearly 70, that he has made it this far.
But he has. Somehow.