It was a painful time, but the choice of songs was as political as the songs themselves -- if you didn't sing them, it was as blatant a political statement as if you did. And we were geared to the Irish ex-pat crowd, though, in this picture, only the fellow in the middle, John, is Irish-born.
He was a Limerickman who was a truly brilliant whistle- and flute-player and had a very nice tenor voice. He had organized the band and booked our gigs, and he and I switched back and forth on introducing songs, though I usually sang lead, having a decent voice and a prodigious memory for lyrics. There were songs that were "his" however, and I would also step out while the other fellas played instrumentals -- It gave me a break and helped cover the fact that I played "Johnny Cash guitar" which is to say that my Gibson was more of a prop than a musical instrument and barely qualified as rhythm guitar. It was not miked and for good reason, begob.
The blonde fellow here, Paul, was an American with a blues background but who quickly learned our material and was a very good sessions-type musician. We went through three strings players over the course of the group -- one a violinist who needed sheet music and didn't last, then a fiddler/mandolin player who was brilliant, won Colorado state fiddling championships several years and left us after a year or so for better things, and this guy, who was not only a shy and gentle soul but a wonderful musical director for the group, having a keen knowledge of how this stuff actually worked. And between the latter two, we had three or four people sit in on jobs, trying to find the right chemistry, an experience that occasionally bordered on the surreal. I had to fire one of them in the middle of a gig because he got drunk and threw a beer on one of the barmaids. See the "Commitments" reference a few grafs down.
We also had a second Limerickman, Sean, who played bodhran and sang, but never got in the pictures because he was on disability (smashed his knee in a loading dock accident) and didn't want it publicly suggested that he could stand for long periods of time. As we started gaining more and more attention, he eventually dropped out, though the truth is, he really couldn't have stood up there with us if we'd been playing more than one gig a week. But tell that to someone who wants to stop your checks. He was a good, sweet man from whom I learned a great deal about Ireland, and life, and who acted as a bit of an anchor among what could be a fractious and undisciplined lot.
We broke up before recording was cheap and ubiquitous, and I'm sorry for that because I believe we were quite good and might have made a living at it if we'd been in a place with a larger Irish community, though all it really takes to dispel the allure of that notion is another viewing of "The Commitments" which makes me laugh but also gives me the heebie-jeebies.
In any case, in the absence of actual recordings of our own music, here's a typical playlist that we might have put on an album. You might want to right-click on these links and choose "open link in new tab" rather than keep trying to pop back and forth.
(2012 Update: They're linked on this YouTube playlist. Hit it and then you can read along as you like.)
1. Follow Me Up To Carlow
Revolution in the Elizabethan Age. We didn't like'em then, either. The other day I interviewed a jeweler from Carlow and mentioned the song, which got things off to a good start -- I think they're rather proud of their town being memorialized in such a gritty little song. Incidentally, songs of 16th and 17th century rebellion were not written at the time of the events memorialized. They were written in the 19th century as part of a movement to create a national, and nationalist, identity. And well written indeed.
2. MacAlpine's Fusiliers
A song of the construction workers who sent money home from England during WWII. MacAlpine was (and I think still is) one of the largest construction firms in England and a lot of remittance men put in their time there. Sean worked for them briefly before he emigrated to America in the 1950s.
"I come from County Kerry, the land of eggs and bacon And if you think I'll eat your fish and chips, By jazuz, you're mistaken!"
We were probably more like the Dubliners (heard here) than any other of the Irish groups -- grittier than the Clancies and a whole lot more fun than the Chieftains, not as musically adept as the Boys of the Lough but moreso than the Wolfe Tones.
3. The Spanish Lady
A lovely ballad of no known significance. Fun to play and sing, and people loved it.
4. The Black Velvet Band
This is a type of song known as a "come-all-ye" (from the phrase common to each) and a huge favorite with audiences, much covered by other bands. Not sure this live shot is the best presentation of the song ever, but it might be the closest you'll get to our style of entertainment, since the Dubliners are really just playing in a pub setting here. John, our whistleplayer, ran into them in Perth, Australia, when he was living there and they played a pub gig at the end of which the publican announced he wasn't going to pay them, whereupon Luke Kelly, the fellow singing lead here, hoisted him up against the wall and explained that paying the band would be cheaper than reassembling his pub. John then returned to Ireland from his multi-year sojourn in Australia on the same plane with them, during which trip the instruments came out and the passengers got a nice long concert that nobody had to pay for except maybe with lost sleep and hangovers. Significant hangovers. And well worth it.
5. The Foggy Dew
Everyone in Ireland grew up with this song -- even this young girl and the old men playing their instruments for her. When I met the Cardinal, we didn't talk about this one, who hadn't emerged on the scene yet, but we spoke about Bernadette Devlin and the woman who ran her Dungannon school, Mother Benignus. Ireland is a bit like Canada in that it's small enough in population that, while they don't all know each other, they do tend to all know the people with any significant public profile. Mother Benignus Kelly was apparently a bit like Miss Jean Brodie in the way she inspired her girr-ulls, albeit with an Ulster accent rather than a Scottish burr. It was clear that the Cardinal had a great deal of respect and affection for her, but wished that perhaps she could ratchet it back just a bit. And they both of them, cardinal and nun, probably sang this song in school, not just in the streets or pubs.
6. The Old Orange Flute
A Protestant song and a favorite as well. A little self-mockery is a healthy thing, and a lot of Catholics have gotten a huge laugh out of this old song. Come to think of it, I've never heard a Protestant sing it. Mind you, the Unionists are known for their instrumental music, particularly their piping, rather than "songs" which in Ireland means sung music. Another of the little cultural differences between the two communities.
7. The Juice of the Barley
Speaking of an appetite for self-mockery, this is a classic of the genre. Drinking songs were only about 10 or 15 percent of our playlist, but it was a rare night we didn't sing this one.
8. The Donegal Reel/Longford Collector
We didn't actually play this particular medley -- and pub bands play medleys, because with nobody up and dancing, it's repetitive to just cycle through the same song over and over -- but this is the sort of instrumental we would feature. This is the Dubliners again. Like I said, we were more like them than anyone else, at least in our dreams.
9. The Man from the Daily Mail
Whatever the merits of a cause, there's nothing like a hysterical tabloid to turn it into something else entirely. A salute to media distortion.
10. The Limerick Rake
Sean, our bodhran player, liked this song because it's the only Irish song in the world that mentions his hometown of Ardagh, where his father had been a thatcher back in the 20s and 30s. I liked it because it was naughty and obscure.
11. The Men Behind the Wire
We had people in our audience who had been burned out of their homes by hate groups and who could hand you a rubber bullet so you could see what it looked like and imagine what it felt like. This song wasn't in the least extreme to them. H-Block, or Long Kesh, was Guantanamo 20 years before Guantanamo -- no habeas corpus, no right to see the evidence against you, and you're stuck in a nether world, neither a common criminal nor a POW. A travesty of human rights, and this song was more about that than about merits of the nationalist movement itself.
12. The Rebel
A poem by Padraig Pearse. This sort of performance piece, well done, has as great a place in the hooley as a stepdance or song, and a person known for good recitation would be called upon to give a poem in the general go-round of contributions to the evening. This would be a common choice, though others might go for something sentimental or comic instead. This certainly isn't particularly comic.
13: Over the Wall
This is based on a real event, presumably before they really locked down the internment jails. My boys, who were very young in those days, loved this song, probably for its repetitive chorus. We adapted the lyrics a bit for American audiences, changing "they'd all got tranferred" to "they'd played out their options" and "I'll appoint Edmond Compton" to "I'll appoint a commission." It remains a very silly song, but the populist sense of "whatever they've done, they're still our lads" is unmistakable.
14. The Broad Black Brimmer
There are any number of videos for this selection, but I chose this one because this chilling little song is a good example of the mundane way in which rebel songs become part of the zeitgeist. Two-thirds of the video is shots of Hibernian FC, an ex-pat football team in Scotland. Then it suddenly shifts into IRA scenes, then ends up back at the football pitch. This demonstrates more than anything else on this list why you can't simply leave these songs out of your repertoire without being as engaged in politics as you would be if you included them. They are bred in the bone. (2012 update -- that video is gone. Oh well. Perhaps that's a good sign. Here's another version closer to what we sang anyway.)
15. Sean South of Garryowen
John used to play at hooleys in Limerick when he was a young soldier in the '50s, despite his sergeant's orders to avoid those musical gatherings because they were so closely associated with nationalists. One of the people who used to come to those parties was a lad named Sean South, who seemed nothing special at the moment but chatted him up about his work, which involved radios, and even came out to the army base to see what John did for a living. Friendly fellow. Young Sean became rather famous shortly thereafter.
16. The Patriot Game
Two people were killed in that raid. This is the other fellow, a young man named O'Hanlon who was from Monaghan, near where my cousins lived. A generation later, it was they who slipped on the berets and went off to meetings in the middle of the night. A good movie about real life in that area known in the 80s as "bandit country" is "Run of the Country." This is Domenic Behan's original version of the song ... most singers make adjustments to be more gentle and politically correct; we made it a practice to vary our choice of versions by the audience before us.
17. Roddy McCorley
Because the march tempo made it easy to walk a fussy baby to this tune, it somehow became part of the bedtime routine in our family. An odd lullaby, certainly, but a lovely rebel song, and one that was sung with the group in the pub and with my boys in our home.
18. A Nation Once Again
We used to end every night with this song. It's not the Irish national anthem, but it might as well be.
19. The Rocky Road To Dublin
(You may want to turn your volume down a bit before clicking on this one.) When I was in high school, I used to sing this song while walking home, the trick being to get each verse out in one breath. I've heard it sung by a lot of Irish groups, some of whom sing it as if it mattered in the great scope of national identity, and others who sing it with the sense of fun inherent. I like the Dropkick Murphys' take on it because I think, first of all, that they represent the fact that the authentic "tradition" in Irish music is to enjoy the music and have some fun, and also because I suspect that they really would get off the boat in Liverpool and get into a brawl with the first person to insult them.
And win, by jayzuz.
Good night. Don't forget to tip your waitress.