The songs which have been selected for this, the second Dubliners Songbook, cover the broad spectrum of both folk song in general and the Dubliners repertoire in particular. This is especially so when they are taken in conjunction with the volume which has gone before. Ah, but what is folk song? you may ask. What indeed. The libraries of the world doubtless contain volumes which explore the subject at great length and indeed the subject is one well worth the exploration. To put it at its simplest folk song must, of necessity, have been the popular music of its day, for amongst a copulation which was largely unlettered,oral transmission of song, music ana lore would have been the rule rather than the exception. The songs usually fall into five or six distinct categories; love, seduction, nonsense, emigration, as well as protests against injustice and rallying cries during the periods of mass unrest, if not downright rebellion, which to the present day is writing Irish history in blood.
That doesn't of course mean that a 'life is real, life is earnest' atmosphere pervades the average Dubliners concert. In fact quite the contrary. Whether one is listening spellbound to Luke Kelly singing Raglan Road or Jim McCann singing Carrickfergus, or deflating the man or woman from Rent-A-Heckler Ltd. with remarks like "I don't know what he's drinking but I can recommend it to the rest of you", from the outset most of the audience are In Their Granny's. The latter is the Dublin vernacular for having a great time.
Some of the songs keep alive events in history and the men and women who were part of them. Kelly the Boy From Killan and The Rising of the i*icon date from the time of the 1798 Rebellion. For months beforehand pikes were forged in secret ana men drilled and trained in remote areas. For a time it looked as if the rebels, ill-equipped as they were to face the artillery and professional soldiers, might just triumph. This was especially true in the Wexford area where they were led by John Kelly from Killan, Fr. John Murphy and Bagnal Harvey. It is a common misconception that the rebels were invariably Irish peasant Catholics. Certainly with regard to this rebellion this was far from the case. The most respected of the leaders, apart from those just mentioned, were Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Addis Emmet, and Lord Edward Fitzgerald of the Geraldine Clan (dubbed the Beloved Geraldine by the plain people of Ireland)and the brother of the then Duke of Leinster. All were Protestant and all believed passionately in the right of the Irish people to govern themselves. Ironically it was this rebellion, or rather the acts of coercion with which it was put down which led directly to the ending of the so-called Grattan's Parliament (in which the Duke of Wellington sat at one time) and the Act of Union in 1801. All of the leaders mentioned, with the exception of Emmet who went to America, died violently and, to the Irish way of thinking, shamefully. These men caught the public imagination and their heroism in the face of great odds lived on to inspire generations to come.
Charles Stewart Parnell who inherited the Avondale Estate was another such popular hero, nearer to our own time. His love affair with Kitty O'Shea, a married woman, scandalised Victorian Society. One cannot help but see the hands of political opportunists in his eventual downfall for he had been living openly with the lady for the best part of ten years before political expediency dictated that he should be publicly disgraced. Yet another Home Rule Bill was thrown out as a result and the hopes of the common people of Ireland were dashed yet again. Captain O'Shea divorced his wife and in due course Kitty and Parnell were married. A week or so later Parnell was dead — of a broken heart many said. Avondale's Proud Eagle though has not been forgotten for not only is there a street named after him in the centre of Dublin, there is also a magnificent monument to him at the top of O'Connell Street (Dublin's main thoroughfare). When Nelson's Pillar was blown to smithereens in March 1966 it was said by some wags (a breed which proliferates in Dublin) that this now put Parnell on a higher station.
Parcel of Rogues was of course written by Robbie Burns, Scotland's national poet. It effectively shows what anger and disgust was felt in that country too, not so much against foreign rule, which was of course part of it, but against the political Jobbers and time-servers, the traitors and knaves who sold their own people in return for money, position, or power, or all three.
The Scots and the Irish have seen, for the most part anyway, uprisings as the only way out of their difficulties, whereas the English working classes — who were every bit as oppressed as their fellows to the north and west — used other means to get what they wanted.
The whole picture is brought up to date with Tommy Makem's four Green Fields and Phil Coulter's The Town I Loved So Well. Both the writers are Ulstermen. Tommy, the son of Sarah Makem, renowned for her traditional singing, was born and reared in Keady in County Armagh while Phil Coulter, internationally famous as co-writer of such songs as Puppet On A String and Congratulations, is a native of Derry — the town he loved so well. Tommy's song goes further back into history than Phil's but both express the writer's deep concern for what is happening in Ireland as well as their hopes for the future.
It has long been assumed that the national disease in Ireland is alcoholism. Granted drinking has been a major problem for centuries. To my mind though the bane of Irish life is, and always has been, emigration. While some went to join foreign armies and thereby perhaps gain the chance to have a crack at the hated English, most Irish people left home in search of a better life for themselves and their families. That being so our folk music is liberally laced with songs of emigration. Jim is wont to introduce the song Spancil Hill with a flippant "Instant homesickness, just add Guinness" then add reflectively "I've even known it happen on the Isle of Man Ferry". Remarks like that are not intended to wound. They are simply a way of emphasising that in that particular context Entertainment is the name of the game.
In Spancil Hill the young man is dreaming of the home and the people he left behind him while in Bunclody the young man is thinking of emigrating because the young lady he'd set his heart on wants nothing to do with him because of his lack of material wealth. This latter situation was an all too common one in the social history of these islands. These days it is very difficult for us to comprehend the social pressures which were brought to bear on women particularly to marry money, or position.
Again folk song is rife with broken token songs when a young man comes home after a number of years abroad and tests his sweetheart's fidelity by pretending to be someone else and saying that her lover has died. There was no Women's Liberation Movement in those days or any young man who tried that one would be sent away with the proverbial flea in his ear.
Jim McCann publicly states that the song Killieburn Braes proves without any doubt that the women are worse than the men. With a grin he will often say as much from the stage to annoy any Women's Libbers in the audience. On one occasion there was a comeback. This was in the Fairfield Hall in Croydon. When Jim asked if there were any Women's Libbers in the audience I quickly replied "Yes. Me". With comic amazement he came back with "Since when?" "I've just joined!" — I very nearly did too.
The Spanish Lady is another nonsense song in this sense. Despite its title it is in fact native to Dublin and in the fifth verse the singer takes his listeners on a mini, verbal tour of the city. Three of the references have great historical significance; Patrick's Close, The Gloucester Diamond and Mapper Tandy's House. The first is in the heart of the Liberties, the oldest part of the city and the place where all true Dubliners are said to be born. It is the close of St. Patrick's Cathedral, whose most famous incumbent was of course Dean Swift, who over the years became very bitter about his lack of preferment. Fortunately, as far as the world of literature is concerned this in no way prevented him from adding such classics as Gulliver's Travels to the world's riches.
The Gloucester Diamond has also gone down in history as James Joyce's Nightown. It is not something of which we are particularly proud but at one time that area was one of the most notorious Red Light Districts in Europe.
Napper Tandy was a political activist, and thorn in the side of the Establishment during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Despite his many run-ins with authority he died in his bed of natural causes.
Ireland is not noticeably to the fore in the World's Greatest Lover stakes. As Jim, again, has been heard to remark when introducing the song Matt Hyland on stage; "You can tell he's an Irishman. He has this beautiful girl in his bedroom for half an hour and all they do is hold hands.'" That is not to say that we don't have some beautiful love songs. One would have to go a long day's march before being able to match the beauty of Carrickfergus, The Enniskillen Dragoon, or the contemporary Raglan Road. The latter was written by Patrick Kavanagh, the poet. It is said that he wrote this very beautiful song for a student with whom he fell in love — a love completely unrequited. Set to the traditional tune The Dawning of the Day the song has a haunting beauty which lingers long after hearing Luke sing it in concert.
While these songs are very Irish in feel and sound, songs like False-Hearted Lover, The Banks of the Sweet Primroses and The Unquiet Grave, even when performed in the inimitable style of the Dubliners have definite English overtones. By the very nature of things where people travel song will too, and thankfully ethnic origins do not preclude one from either singing a song nor yet from enjoying it and perhaps drawing a measure of intellectual stimulation from it.
The folk purists are, to this day, arguing about the origins of Seven Drunken Nights which took the Dubliners into the Pop Charts more than ten years ago. Seamus Heaney who gave it to them always insisted that the song concerned, not an unfaithful wife but in fact a man who on returning home after some twenty years roaming the world in search of fame and fortune (the time honoured emigration theme again), finds a fully-grown son, whose existence he'd newer even suspected., sharing the family bed. Even the most cursory study of social history will show that that is not in the least far-fetched. The song sold in its thousands, mainly because folk hoped that the other two nights of the week would be mentioned. They weren't.
Songs of seduction are common to most folk traditions. Tommy Makem summed it up very succinctly recently when he said that women sow their wild oats during the week and then go to church on Sunday to pray for a crop failure. The universal theme of songs like Ploughboy Lads, or The Lark in the Morning, (or as Jim will have it "a bird in the forenoon"), is boy meets girl, teaches her more than her prayers, then takes off and leaves her first to talk her way round her pregnancy and then with a baby to dandle on her knee.
How many times has one heard the phrase "It's all part of life's rich pattern" uttered with wry humour and a sense of irony? I can recall any number. But in fact there is a rich pattern to living with many colours and facets and not a few surprises. It is our hope that with this present selection of songs from the Dubliners repertoire at least a little of that rich pattern is reproduced for your interest and pleasure.
The job of compiling this book was made easier for me thanks to the help of my friends the Dubliners, Jack MacGowan, Kevin O'Connor, Mel Macleod and Ken Stewart who, as we would say in Dublin, "held my hand till the tram passed."
Mary Hardy – 23 March 1978