Tag Archives: The Great Famine

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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Exiles – from Oscar Wilde to Oscar Wao

Brief-Wondrous-Life-of-Oscar-WaoThe Irish have a diaspora.

More than that – the Irish have The Diaspora. It’s not just a history or a culture or another word for ’emigrants’. It’s far (and away) more.

We even have a Minister for The Diaspora, who this week represented us (them?) in New York.  (We don’t let our diaspora vote, mind you, but that’s another matter.)

From primary school upwards we’re taught about this phenomenon of Irish exile. From the fifth century St Brendan in a currach on the freezing Atlantic, to the 17th-century Flight of the Earls, to the coffin ships departing Cobh in the 1840s.

And on. From those who left in the lean 1930s to the departees of the stagnant ’50s and ’80s – right up to the most recent wave of emigrants, those who left following the economic crash of the late 2000s.

The story of The Diaspora isn’t confirmed to history, academic reviews or news stories. It informs a large part of the national character. It may also go some way to explaining the Irish people’s reputation for melancholy.

It’s also a narrative that’s wound its way through Irish culture and society, a subject in folk memory, books, poetry and song.

Living in Ireland then you’d be forgiven for thinking, at times, that we’re the only country with a diaspora.

Not so, of course. And if you need reminding of this I recommend a novel by Dominican writer Junot Diaz,  that I came across (and tore through) last week.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao taught me about a number of things: the often-tortuous post-colonial history of the Dominican Republic; enough street Spanish to eat, drink and drive my way around Santo Domingo; multiple details of the Watchmen comic book series; the lows of high-school life in 1980s Paterson, New Jersey, and more besides.

It also taught me that the Dominican Republic has a diaspora which in many ways out-Irishes even the Irish one, when it comes to the wrench of exile and the push-pull lure of return.

In terms of emigration the two countries have a lot in common. Seismic social events of the past 150 or so years – a Famine in our case, a brutal 20th century dictatorial regime in the DR’s – catapulted huge sections of our peoples to a common destination, the United States.

And in each case emigration’s two-way street has seen the phenomenon of the returning emigrant, or at least their returning dollars. (It’s no surprise then that Diaz’s novel reaches its harrowing conclusion with the return of the prodigal Dominican son.)

The Irish had an Oscar Wilde, a Dublin-born writer who left to achieve fame and, ultimately, infamy in London. Diaz presents us with Oscar Wao, the overweight New Jersey nerdboy whose descent is intricately linked to his outsider status.

As post-colonial nations both the DR and Ireland are dealing with the often-blinding historical hangover that our histories force upon us.

Oscar Wao

Oscar Wao

But Diaz suggests something more at play, hinting that a fuku, a hex, may lie upon the Dominican diaspora, forcing and following them across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States.

Oscar Wao finally breaks free of this, at great cost, as Diaz offers up a tragic, hopeful ending to his novel.

Have the Irish a fuku of their own – a jinx born from dire domestic circumstances that’s forced emigration and its rendering effect upon the country?

After centuries has this finally been dispelled? The existence of a Diaspora minister would suggest not.

Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the brief, wondrous life of Oscar Wao.

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The pasta fresca test

Rollling pasta.

On a roll.

You’re Irish? You like to eat pasta?

No you don’t. Not really.

Each Irish person eats a grand total of 1 kg of pasta every year.

That’s less than the hardly-well-known spaghetti-loving nations Guatamala (2kg) and Dominican Republic (4kg).

Needless to say it’s nowhere near the Italians’ incredible 26kg. In fact even the rice-renowned Japanese consume more of the carb than us (1.7kgs, for the record).

Irish consumption equates to about eight platefuls per annum. That’s one measly serving every six weeks.

Part of the reason for our lamentable take-up of one of the world’s most popular food staples may be the longstanding Irish obsession with potatoes. The most recent stat I can find sees us sucking down a staggering 143kg of spuds yearly.  (This is nothing compared to annual consumption of 766kg at the outbreak of the Great Famine in the 1840s, mind you).

It may also be because we prefer pizza. Or fried fast food. Who knows?

None of this occurred to me when I recently entered the kitchen, with An American In Ireland, to make some pasta.

Yes, that’s right – make. For many years pasta was something that, for me, had a five-step prep: snip, empty, boil, simmer, serve. But a successful dip a while back into the world of gnocchi-making convinced me to try making my own.

Cutting dough.

Cutting dough.

And, after three decades, I’ve also grown bored of the ‘boil, steam, bake or fry’ potato.

So pasta fresca it was. This was my first attempt too, but (as you might have read) I’m recently got hooked on the cucina povera recipes of Carluccio and Contaldo.

If I’m being honest it wasn’t the final taste I was going for (in the end I actually forgot one notable ingredient, a case of cucina idiota), nor the appearance.

What struck me as clever was the way you could mix the dough one-handed on a flat surface, by making a little crater in a mound of flour and dumping two eggs in. This was cuisine refined to a level so simple it didn’t require utensils. It was cooking, alpine style.

Pasta’s not something you should really need an individualised recipe for (at its simplest it’s all of two ingredients), but I used Contaldo’s one for tagliatelle, from his recent book.

This involved using my most versatile kitchen instrument, my right hand, to mix 300 grams of ‘00’ flour (best for pasta because of its high gluten content, food fact fans!) with 100 grams of semolina and two eggs. And pound, stretch, pound, stretch.

Tagliatelle fresca.

Tagliatelle fresca.

I took to all this with such gusto that I neglected to add the fourth ingredient, 125ml of white wine. Luckily Clare had stepped in to add some water to the mix instead, averting a dry dough disaster. Then it was a case of making a big ball of dough (like the mixing, more fun than it sounds written here), wrapping it in clingfilm and leaving it to one side for 30 minutes.

This is the point at which a sane person writes: ‘Then I took out my pasta maker’. In this case the pasta maker was me, and my wife. After some rolling and slicing we managed to cut our tagliatelle on the countertop. Foodies might call this ‘rustic’, I called it improvising.

From there it was simply a victory lap. We boiled the tangled little mounds for three minutes in salted water, and served with a mushroom and white wine we made on the side in that 30 minute window above.

So here it is. One of the eight plates of pasta that statisticians expect me to eat this year. They’ll be wrong.

Tagliatelle al vino bianco con funghi.

Tagliatelle al vino bianco con funghi.

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