Monday, 28 December 2009

Irish Soul

Notes from a lecture/performance given at Princeton University, Dec. 4th, 2009

The soul of a nation courses through its poetry and music. You can also catch glimpses of it peeping out through the pages of history and occasionally through the ideals of its political movements.

Yeats referred obliquely to it as the “fanatic heart;” while Patrick Kavanagh saw it in much earthier terms as a spirit that emanated from his stony little fields, infecting the country people, causing them to break their religious and social strictures, and get into all manner of mischief.

Sean O’Riada recognized it in the traditional music of Ireland. He grabbed this force by the scruff of the neck and dragged it screaming into the 20th Century where many of us have injected varying degrees of it into modern songs and sounds.

It was back in Wexford where I grew up that I first became aware of this distinctive spirit that for want of anything better I’ll call “Irish soul.” Wexford town was very old, Ptolemy had noted it on his maps, Henry II did penance in Selskar Abbey for the murder of Thomas a’Beckett, while Cromwell and his army of bigots gained entrance through the West Gate and slaughtered both laity and clergy. After the insurrection of 1798 its citizens declared the liberated area a Free French Republic; even the Uncrowned King, Charles Stewart Parnell, was arrested for preaching sedition in the local Imperial Hotel - where later I would perform in punk ensembles. The very stones of the old town oozed history.

And yet, as often happens, the inhabitants of Wexford, for the most part, went about their daily business with little thought of history or politics. In fact many of them seemed to be almost in denial of the past; or was that studied nonchalance a cloak worn to ward off the addictive appeal of past grievances? That seemed to be the case for many citizens of the Republic of Ireland during the Troubles of the last 40 years - keep the bloody thing isolated up North and, for God’s sake, don’t let it spill over the border – a nearly impossible task give that the Troubles themselves were fomented by fanatic hearts full to the brim of simmering Irish soul.

My father and his side of the family wanted nothing whatsoever to do with this “madness.” My granduncle had joined the British Army and was killed on the Western Front in 1916. My grandfather was a well-to-do cattle dealer whose business activities were curtailed by DeValera’s Economic War of the 1930’s. Meanwhile, my father - a merchant marine - would only sail with British shipping companies. Like many Wexford people, he was thoroughly convinced that Irish history was a disaster, radical politics was for eejits, and any form of traditional music or the native language could be summed up in two dismissive words – “Auld Irish!” Indeed, in his later years, he had a sneaking admiration for the Iron Lady herself, Mrs. Thatcher – the very antithesis of Irish soul.

But I hailed from a mixed family, as my maternal grandfather who raised me not only believed in the power of the Irish soul, he felt that it should be cherished and nourished and that it behooved each generation of Irish people to help bring about a solution of the British problem in the North of Ireland.

He was a stonecutter whose father had escaped the worst of the famine years of 1845-1847 by gaining employment on the construction of one of the great Anglo-Irish houses. But this great-grandfather of mine had heard the moans of the famine victims dying in ditches and he made my grandfather promise that these people should never be forgotten. My Grandfather made no bones about his wish that I should carry on that tradition. Hence, when we set out to form a band that would hopefully be infused by Irish soul, and deal with things political, we chose the name Black 47.

I was awash in all my grandfather’s accounts of Irish history. This knowledge rarely came from books though like many self-educated men of that period he had amassed his own library. He had seen the great men of his day visit Wexford and give speeches: James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Eamonn DeValera and Michael Collins. He passed on eyewitness accounts of these icons and seemed to rate them by their measure of Irish soul. Thus, Big Jim Larkin was a mighty man, but James Connolly a troublemaker; Mick Collins a marvel (though he would later turn against him) and DeValera, principled though with little heart.

But he didn’t just stop at the political. Like, the poet, Kavanagh, my grandfather recognized that the very land, the mountains, the lakes and the valleys were a repository of the Irish soul, but that such soul was often unpredictable and could cause grief. As we drove around County Wexford on Sunday afternoons, there wasn’t a fairy rath or lucky tree, a holy well or a sacred hill that he didn’t recognize and tip his cap to. And in each of the old people’s houses that we visited, we’d meet likeminded people who dated the banishment of ghosts and such things to the introduction of the electric light. And as the evenings grew darker they would sit by the light of the fire allowing these spirits a chance to dance out of the shadows and mingle with them again as they had in the time of oil lamps and candles.

My grandfather had much time for the tinkers or traveling people, as they’re now known. No one knew where these people came from – had they been pushed off the land by Cromwell’s soldiers or taken to the roads during the famine years? It didn’t matter; he recognized the soul within them and felt that they were closest to the old hidden Ireland. They would arrive at his stone yard, the women in colored shawls, the men with their pockets stuffed full of five, ten and twenty pound notes. They were poor people who mostly lived in caravans by the side of the road but when one died, they did not stint. They would come from all over the county and beyond, and order great ornate headstones and statues, then pay on the spot. He once told me that they alone “recognized the majesty of death and one could learn much from them.”

I learned something from them too but it had more to do with life. Because of their itinerant nature, they had not been coated with the same stifling lacquer of Victorian conformity that smothered the rest of the country. They still retained the old links to the Irish soul and wore those links on their sleeve, though most of us settled Irish never had the eyes to see them.

I was thirteen or fourteen at the time and mad for the Beatles and other forms of pop music. And yet I was having trouble reconciling I Want to Hold Your Hand to the complexities of puberty and sexual awakening. Then one day coming from school I happened upon a large group of tinkers in the very narrow confines of John’s Gate Street. They rarely appeared in numbers unless celebrating weddings or funerals. Even then they were wary of outsiders and would have sent me packing; however, one of them had begun to sing. He was obviously someone of stature for their total attention was focused upon him. He sat on the ground outside Kielty’s Pub, a large bottle of Guinness balanced between his legs. He could have been an old-looking forty or a young looking sixty, and he had hair the color of dirty snow. Thin and hawk-faced, his eyes closed, he sang about a woman, by name of Molly Bán (bawn being the Gaelic for white, or of fair complexion). The song concerned jealousy, pain and loss, and Molly Bán’s love for two men, one of whom she leaves for the other. There was a raging, if contained, sexuality in the lyrics and delivery that I’d never heard before, and I learned from this probably illiterate man that soul will always trump literateness and convention crumbles before the fanatic heart.

The song stayed with me and I recently added a counter-melody and some words to help it on its way in a new century; hopefully I’ve retained the soul that gave it birth.

One Starry Night
One starry night as I lay sleepin’
One starry night as I lay in bed
Dreamed I heard wagon wheels a’creakin’
When I awoke, love, found you had fled

I’ll search the highways, likewise the byways
I’ll search the boreens, the camping places too
I will inquire of all our people
Have they tide or tidings or sign of you

For it’s many the mile, love, with you I’ve traveled
Many the hour, love, with you I’ve spent
Dreamed you were my love forever
But now I find, love, you were only lent

I’ll go across the seas to England
To London or to Birmingham
And in some public house I’ll find you
Lamenting your lost love back home

I’m drunk today, I’m seldom sober
A handsome rover from town to town
When I am dead, my story ended
Molly Bán a stórín, come lay me down

One starry night as I lay sleepin’
One starry night as I lay in bed
Dreamed I heard wagon wheels a’creakin’
Now that you’re gone, love, I might as well be dead

I eventually left my grandfather and his Irish soul behind and emigrated to Greenwich Village in the 1970’s. In fact I would imagine I’m one of the few people here who remembers Professor Sean Wilentz as a gangling clerk in his father’s bookstore on 8th Street. He and I frequented The Bells of Hell, a saloon of some notoriety on 13th Street and Sixth Avenue. This haven of lost souls was owned by a lovable rascal, bon vivant, liberal shock-jock, and writer, Malachy McCourt. It was full of gangling book store clerks, revolutionaries, failed priests and Christian Brothers, communists with drinking problems, musicians, hardened newspapermen, dope dealers, music critics, card sharps, refugees from respectability, bankrupt bookies and an ever-changing coterie of young ladies from the nearby Evangeline Residence.

I was a member of Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, the house band of this roiling, rollicking establishment. One of the trade-offs for the weekend residency in the back room was that you were required to play a lot of benefits. These were usually for Leftist causes; the Right drank in the Bells, but were often circumspect about their various leanings. Thus we played for Vietnam Vets against the War, Legalization of Marijuana, Gay Rights, British Coalminers, any organization hostile to Mrs. Thatcher, and the full spectrum of the movement for change in the North of Ireland. It was at these latter events that I caught my first glimpses of the Irish soul on American soil. Oh, I’d seen green beer and plastic shamrocks on Saint Patrick’s Day, yet that all seemed little more than skin deep. But at these functions and in similar situations in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx I was brought face to face with a hidden Irish-America where ancient scores still had need of settling. I was transported straight back to my grandfather’s house where what was called Republicanism went beyond mere politics – it was more akin to a religion. What I saw in the back rooms of New York City saloons had crossed the Atlantic within emigrant hearts and predated republicanism. In fact, it went way back beyond Cromwell and even Red Hugh O’Donnell. When I first came in contact with it, this force was diffuse and directionless. Then in 1980 it galvanized outside the British Consulate on Third Avenue.

Reading from Green Suede Shoes, Bobby Sands chapter, page 167

Black 47 has a T-shirt whose emblem is a heart ripped through by barbed wire. We call it the Fanatic Heart. It speaks to me of what often happens when the Irish soul is touched by sectarianism or inflexible ideology. Though I often employ the Irish soul when writing for Black 47, I’m ever mindful that it is a powerful, primal and often indiscriminate force that is particularly potent when combined with rock & roll and alcohol. You can use it to make a point but never to preach or, god forbid, control. For you have no idea what seed it has planted in people long after the bar is closed or the iPod switched off. “Did that play of mine send out certain men the English Shot? Did words of mine put too great a strain on that woman's reeling brain?” Almost a hundred years ago, Yeats worried about his own employment of the fanatic heart; and even the least of his acolytes would do well to heed his warning.

Still, the Irish soul is our heritage and we’re fools if we don’t use it. There are times though when it has need of a spark. I can relate to and write about anything stretching back to the 1840’s for I had a grandfather whose father spoke to him of such times, so I can, at least, metaphorically touch them. I can even find my way back to Wexford’s rebellion of 1798 because I grew up on its streets and can still hear whispers of it in the old stones. I had a boyhood hero, however, Red Hugh O’Donnell. Much as I empathized with him, I was unable to find the key to unlock his particular psyche. What could I begin to know of a man who blazed across Ireland in the late 16th Century?

He was the young prince of Tirconaill or Donegal, as we now know it. Kidnapped by the English when 15, he was held hostage in Dublin Castle to prevent his clan and relatives from rebelling. He escaped during a snowstorm on Christmas night, 1592 and instead of heading north towards Donegal he headed south into the Wicklow Mountains where he suffered frostbite and lost a number of toes. When he finally made it back to Donegal, he put to the sword many relatives and friends who had collaborated with the English. Joining forces with Hugh O’Neill, Prince of Tyrone, they drove the English before them. However, they were defeated at the Battle of Kinsale on Christmas Eve, 1601; whereupon Red Hugh set sail for the court of King Philip in Spain to seek an army. One can imagine the wild young Prince of Donegal adrift amidst the intrigue of the sophisticated Spanish court. To add to his problems he was constantly under threat from Queen Elizabeth who had dispatched agents to poison him.

I could sense the wild Irish soul of Red Hugh but couldn’t touch it until I became interested in Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance and enemy of the Taliban. He and other Afghani leaders shared many qualities with Red Hugh - religious fundamentalists, paranoid and egotistical, at war with invading modern armies, pawns of great empires, their semi-feudal times coming to an end.

This is a song about Red Hugh O’Donnell on his last night at the court of King Philip, but it could just as well be about Ahmad Shah Massoud on the night before he was assassinated by agents of Osama Bin Laden.

Another sleepless night
On a foreign shore
Candle flickers by my bed
Locks bolt my door
I drink too much wine
But it gives my brain relief
Stops the meanderings
That root me from my sleep

I stare out at the night
From a sweat-soaked bed
The Queen lays plots in London
But she won’t have my head
The candle gutters
The smell sweeps me back
To the icy fields of Kinsale
The bodies burning black

Fire and lightning protect Tirconaill
Fire and brimstone rain down on London
They’ll long remember Red Hugh O’Donnell

I could not join that battle
I gave orders from my horse
Wicklow snows had withered
The toes inside my boots
Still a fever of anxiety
Racks my bones
All my friends dead
On Kinsale’s icy roads

Oh were I back in Ulster
I’d dive in Swilly’s foam
Her crystal waters
Would soothe my soul
Dispatches from O’Neill
He grows old and cautious
Our allies are deserting
My blade would rip their stomachs

If Philip won’t help
I’ll return alone
O’Neill longs for an armistice
What profit in a peace
With a queen who’ll break her word
I swear to God
That bitch will taste my sword

I’ll drag her red wig from her head
Pull out her poisoned tongue
I must get back to Ulster
The candle is dead
There’s footsteps at my door
They halt
I’m tormented by that whore

Who waits at court in London
For word of my demise
Her agents hunt me everywhere
But I will not be taken
By any of her men
My head will not grace London’s spike
I’ll fight her to the end

Tonight I sup with James Blake
An honest man is he
He’s promised me three ships of war
We’ll sweep Lizzie from her throne
I will take my place
High King of the Irish
Defender of my Faith

With O’Neill as my adviser
O’Byrne at my side
I’ll rule with justice
But now the dawn is breaking
On this foreign shore
I will arise and say my prayers
Tomorrow I’ll go home

Fire and lightning protect Tirconaill
Fire and brimstone rain down on London
They’ll long remember Red Hugh O’Donnell

One of the problems in employing this Irish soul is that it cares nothing for expediency. Hitch a ride on its tail and you’d better be prepared for stormy weather. Pragmatism is not one of its strongest suits and it cares little for the fact that you may wish to make a living from your art. This demon knows only one way, and that’s forward! Follow your Irish soul and you will toss feathers, lose friends and end up tilting at as many windmills as real enemies.

Perhaps it was because I had prior experience in the murky world of Irish politics but it never occurred to me that we were going into Iraq over “weapons of mass destruction.” War was inevitable - the die had already been cast. 9/11 was the perfect smoke screen. And so Black 47 opposed that war long before the first rocket was fired. People would say, “Listen, American bands aren’t coming out and risking anything, why should an Irish band do so?” And we would reply, “We are an American band. We live in this country and vote here. It would be unpatriotic not to oppose a war of choice.”

And so we did at every gig until your stomach would churn going onstage and you’d be thinking, “Maybe tonight we’ll give it a break. Maybe tonight we’ll just do songs of drinking and dancing, loving and leaving, and forget about the bloody politics, just have a good time.” And then your stomach would feel better and you’d blast out the party songs and everything would be hunky dory. But then something would start to nag at you and pull you this way and that, and before you knew it, you had lashed out the opening chords of Downtown Baghdad Blues and every barstool patriot was looking up from their drinks and glowering at you. But you didn’t give a goddamn because it wasn’t just you speaking. It was that crazy Irish soul nipping at you and worrying you and saying, “To hell with your drinking and dancing, let’s hear about real life and American kids in Baghdad and Irish kids in Belfast, and before you knew it your fanatic heart was ratcheting way up past 160 and pumping out of your chest, and you didn’t care what the wannabe marines thought about you because you knew the real marines in Ramadi and Fallujah, and Kabul and Kandahar, were listening to your songs and hearing their own stories and grooving along with them and that was all that counted.

And that’s how this finishes – with a song from Black 47’s last album, IRAQ, about an Irish-American kid from the Mid-West who loves old movies. He’s stationed in Baghdad and his job is to drive an armored vehicle through hostile Sadr City. He becomes obsessed with the murals and pictures of Moqtada (Mookie) Al Sadr, leader of the militant Shiite religious party. Whenever the young soldier looks at Mookie, he sees Orson Wells with a beard. And as the danger thickens, he can feel his fanatic heart beginning to beat faster, and that crazy Irish soul that he inherited from dispossessed 19th Century immigrants is alive and focused and ready to kick arse any old day of the week in downtown Baghdad.

I’m going down to Sadr City
Ain’t expectin’ much of a good time
I’m goin’ down to Sadr City
Check out the scene of the crime
Only one thing on my mind, babe
Gotta get out of this joint alive

Hey, Mookie run the show there
That man ain’t big on gettin’ high
Hey, Mookie run the show there
Ain’t exactly a down home kind of guy
Don’t go in for drinkin’ or dancin’ much
Got God on his mind, big time

Hey, I wish I was back in the Green Zone
Where the whiskey’s runnin’ free
Instead of sittin’ in a Hummer
With the Mahdi shootin’ at me
Oh, Sadr City,
Hillbilly armor protectin’ me
If I gotta be in this sweat-box
Least you can do is look out for me

Hey, I wish I was back in the US
Where the ladies look divine
Instead of checkin’ out burkas
47s in their linin’
Oh, Sadr City,
I wish you would let me be
Hey, Mister Mookie, man,
Someday you’re gonna be the death of me

I’m going down to Sadr City
Ain’t expectin’ much of a good time
I’m goin’ down to Sadr City, babe
Check out the scene of the crime
I came over to liberate your ass
Now all I want to do is get out of here alive

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome short comments on Belfast Media Group blog postings but you should be aware that, since we've put our names to our articles, we encourage you to do so also. Preference in publication will be given to those who provide an authenticated full name — as is already the case in our newspapers. Comments should be short and relate to the subject matter and, of course, shouldn't be libelous. And remember, if you find that there isn't enough space on our blogs for your views, you can always start your own. There are over two million blogs out there, another one can only benefit the blogosphere.