Tag Archives: Irish music

A man you don’t meet everyday

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

“Will MacGowan make 40?”

That was the question buzzing around among my music-listening peers in December 1997. Former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan had cancelled a pre-Christmas show with his then-band The Popes at the Olympia.

Days shy of his 40th birthday, it was rumored that the songwriter had collapsed, or was gravely ill, or on bender of some sort. Whatever the reason for the no-show, the consensus was that the Tipperary man had been lucky to make it this far, given his voluminous consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Twenty years later MacGowan is still around. What’s more, he’s still performing – albeit in a short bursts. He took to the stage at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last Sunday night, closing out a show staged in his honor.

MacGowan sang ‘Summer In Siam’ with Nick Cave and then performed a version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, rounding out a night which saw performances from the great, the good, and the ‘well, maybes’ of Irish and international music.

It sounded like a good evening, albeit one far removed from the merry, beer-stained chaos of any Pogues show I’ve attended – then again, it’s a long way from the Pindar of Wakefield to Earlsfort Terrace.

Plenty of classic Pogues’ songs got an airing, of course, including that Christmas one. But one composition that didn’t – as far as I know – was a song MacGowan wrote but never himself recorded.

‘The Dunes’ is a song of horror, a Famine survivor’s account of the burial of bodies in the sand dunes of a Co Mayo beach. Children play among the grave mounds, the bones of the dead are revealed, and grieving relatives pray.

Forms of the dead rise and dance on the sand. The singer, enraged by the deaths, shoots a bailiff and a landlord. He blames them for stealing food from the dying.

As verse, it has a simple, arresting cadence. To hear it performed – or declaimed – by Ronnie Drew is a whole different experience.

Shane MacGowan wrote a number of songs that will go down in the canon, but none of them are tragic, as angry and as chilling, as ‘The Dunes’. I can think of few others who could have written it – which is probably what makes MacGowan unique. Now, is it too late for him to record it?

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Place me up in Monto

Luke Kelly.

Luke Kelly.

I’M not sure if there’s a statue of Pete Seeger in his hometown.

But I know there isn’t one of Luke Kelly in his.

The Dubliners’ singer, long regarded as one of the important performers in Irish music, died 30 years ago today.

Kelly did more than most to burnish an idea of Dublin and Irishness in the public consciousness.

And yet you’ll search in vain for any likeness, sculpture or bust of the musician in his hometown.

Contrast this to the bronze figure of Phil Lynott on Harry Street, seen by thousand of passing pedestrians, Dubliners and visitors every day.

Or the litany of other statues that dot the city, from dawdling literary heavyweights (Wilde and Joyce) to mythical cattle rustlers (Cú Chulainn) to alleged prostitutes (Molly Malone, and I admit that’s up for debate).

If Official Ireland can see fit to maintain a (pretty regal) statue of Prince Albert (look him up, or up to him) surely they can do something for Luke Kelly?

Pretty regal. Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

Pretty regal.
Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

There’s no bust of Gabriel Byrne in his hometown either, although the Irish government did see fit to honour the actor with a cultural ambassador role a few years back.

The Dubliner emerged last weekend to criticise the government for “paying lip service to the arts”. “I don’t think they really care about it,” he stated, bluntly.

And correctly too, if the foot-dragging on a proper commemoration for Luke Kelly is any indication.

We’ve been here before of course. A decade ago Dublin’s city councillors voted to erect a statue…but nothing happened.

In the interim the boom, which saw just about everything and anything built in the capital, came and went. And still no movement on the statue.

It popped up on the agenda again last year, but there’s still no word on funding, or an actual site (surely somewhere close to Kelly’s home in the north inner city, or the nearby, fabled Monto area there he sang of?)

And all the while the culture of music and song that Luke Kelly lived, sang and even brought to the Ed Sullivan Show is flogged mercilessly, more often than not to sell booze. (To be fair The Dubliners weren’t averse to pushing the beer connection themselves.)

Across the Atlantic this week tributes have poured in for Pete Seeger, a performer who, over a 70 year career, came to epitomise that country’s folk music. There’s no Irish equivalent of Seeger but, in terms of influence and talent, a claim could certainly be made for Kelly.

Ireland is a country where, it was claimed this week, €2bn can be spent on a sweetheart deal for municipal workers.

A tiny fraction of that would erect a statue to Luke Kelly and put him – as he sang himself – “home for while in me own country”.

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Come all ye voices of a generation

'Come all ye budding folksingers.'

‘Come all ye budding folksingers.’

CAN YOU recall where and when you first heard The Times They Are A-Changin’?

Me neither. The song’s so deeply wedged in my ears that I was probably humming it in my cot.

It turned 50 this week, prompting a slew of analysis on whether the times had changed, what today’s youth have in common with their 60s forebears, what Bob Dylan had for breakfast the day he wrote it. The usual stuff.

Not many articles made mention of a fact which explains why the song has always sounded so familiar to me – its roots in Irish folk music.

Specifically in the rain-lashed, tear and beer-stained ‘come all ye’ ballads that ran, like a sodden thread of Aran wool, through the traditional Irish music of my youth.

An interest in folk songs, which I’d picked up from my parents’ cassettes at home, later saw me spend far too many evenings of my college days and after at sessions in dreary pubs.

These events often concluded with a late night lament  – for the lost soldier boy, the emigrant bound for Amerikay, or the closing of the bar.

As a budding folkie Bob Dylan sat through his own share of sessions. Luckily for him the ballads in the Greenwich Village taverns of the early 1960s were sung by the likes of Liam Clancy and his brothers.

'Knee slapping...'  The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

‘Knee-slapping…’
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Of The Times They Are A-Changin’ he later explained: “It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’…”

The former may a reference to the Clancy Brother’s knee-slapping Brennan On The Moor, which immortalised the 19th century Cork highwayman Willie Brennan. (Dylan had earlier used the song as inspiration for his own Rambling, Gambling Willie.)

While there are echoes of Ireland in the title track the album The Times They Are A-Changin’ boasts plenty of other material that wears its Irish folk influences on its sleeve.

Restless Farewell is a barely-disguised take on The Clancy Brothers’ The Parting Glass. The melody of With God On Our Side is identical to Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, another song popularised by the Clancys.

Maybe all this is why, when I first heard the album as a young student, much of the music resonated with the half-learned Irish melodies I’d picked up since I was in my cot.

Such influences come full circle in the end. Three decades after Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changin’ The Clancy Brothers took to the stage at Madison Square Garden during a tribute to the ‘voice of a generation’, Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert.

That night they performed When The Ship Comes In, transforming Dylan’s song into an Irish sea shanty, turning Dylan’s Irish influences back on him.

What went around had come around. And no doubt will come around again.

Or as Dylan sang 50 years ago this week: “The wheel’s still in spin.”

 

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