Blinded by the lights

Molly Malones Pub, Tallinn

From behind the lights the disembodied voices came, calling the names of songs and laughing. The sweat in my eyes and the spotlights shining in my face make it impossible to see, but I’ve got a microphone, which means I own the room.

The request for “Danny Boy” gets treated with the abuse it deserves, as does the guy requesting it. In a church or a home it’s a beautiful, poignant song; done in a pub, it’s a maudlin, sentimental and depressing dirge that brings out all that is worst in Irish music.

Instead I play the “Wild Rover” and “Dirty Old Town” before taking a break.

As I come down from the stage on that warm summer night in Tallinn, the sweat gets wiped away and finally I can put faces to the hecklers.

Of course, the one whose manhood I questioned over “Danny Boy” is the biggest human being I’ve ever seen, and unbeknownst to me, one of the most dangerous I’ve ever met.

I’m glad he’s smiling, but I get them a round just in case.

At first they are hesitant to say what they are doing in the fledgling nation of Estonia; they say they are civil servants on an exchange program but as the evening wears on the picture becomes clear. These are no ordinary “civil servants” or “military advisors” – I am sitting in the company of a group of US Navy SEALs.

Though that fact in itself was intimidating, in truth, they shortened the week I spent playing in Molly Malone’s Irish Bar, perched on the edge of the square in Tallinn’s Old Town, immeasurably. They adopted me as their troubadour for the week, as if I was sent to entertain them and them alone.

They were a deliberately low-key presence, discipline was the watchword and they were only allowed out every second night, so we’d spend our time with me singing and having the craic on stage before joining them for a few quiet beers afterwards.

When one of them did misbehave he was put “on the dry”- allowed to come to the bar, but not allowed to drink alcohol. Harsh, but fair according to his comrades.

And as the evenings wore on and the drink loosened their tongues, I occasionally got an insight into their bizarre, frightening world.

Many of them had seen action all over the world and would tell the stories with only vague details as to where and when their adventures had taken place. It was like interviewing the guy who wrote Bravo Two Zero as tales of weapons jamming at the most inopportune times were told with gusto.

Their private lives seemed equally dramatic.

One had accidentally killed a man in a bar in Texas, hitting him with such force that the coroner said he was dead before he hit the floor. In the ensuing court case, the judge ruled that the SEAL had acted in self-defence. I didn’t argue, and nor did his unit; he was allowed to rejoin.

But they weren’t just men of violence either. All had degrees, and they told me of cramming sessions about geography, language and culture as some unstable land threatened to tilt the world on its axis and they had to get up to speed quickly.

They told of how they often arrived in these places before the headlines, and were long gone even by the time they were written.

One told me of the mass grave where he unwittingly trod on the skull of a child, and as the anger and fury welled up he had to push it back down again for fear of letting it cloud his judgement later on.

Late on the last night a group of heavies started to follow four of us as we went in search of a late drink, and part of me secretly hoped that they would try to rob us or mug us or start a row. Despite being outnumbered, it would have been interesting to witness the outcome.

The next day they drove me to the ferry in the late afternoon and I headed back to Stockholm.

I never saw them in uniform, and despite their massive physiques, to me they were just normal, intelligent guys on a road trip or a holiday.

I thought about them a lot after that but contact with them gradually faded away. Then came 9/11 and as the second plane struck I remember thinking that somewhere in the world my drinking partners from Tallinn would be loading up and heading off to Afghanistan to chase down whoever had organised this attack.

Their officers in particular were intelligent men, but they didn’t question what they were asked to do. Politicians argued and debated; they just went ahead and did what they were told.

Last night a group of Navy SEALs were told to carry out an operation to catch and kill Osama bin Laden, and I couldn’t help but think whether any of the two dozen or so guys I met in Tallinn were there.

Whatever my own opinions about the various wars, just or unjust, fought in our names, I would hate to think that any of them has been harmed or lost his life doing what he believed was right. Common sense and the type of work they did tells me that this is unlikely.

I find it hard to dismiss deaths on either side as just statistics, collateral damage for use in news reports. I find almost none of them justifiable, no matter who inflicts them. It’s very easy to de-personalise those affected by conflict, and to forget that they too are human beings, made of flesh and blood.

It reminds me of the Swedish economist who argued passionately with me about how war is essential to mankind’s progress. He stopped when I pointed out that for many people, it brings a very abrupt end to any progress they might have made.

Whatever happened in the meantime, I hope they enjoyed their time in Tallinn and the long nights talking about the world and solving its problems as much as I did. It’s a shame we didn’t take notes.

And maybe next time someone calls on me to sing “Danny Boy” I won’t be so dismissive. As long as it’s not at a funeral.