There comes a time in a man’s life where he says to himself: I need to learn some Irish songs.

It happens to everyone. Even hard-rocker Iggy Pop will be faced with a time when a sing-song is in full swing and someone shouts out “Iggy for a song!”. At that moment, without the thumping baseline provided by the Stooges, he will realise that this is not the time to launch into ‘Lust for Life’

My epiphany occurred at a wedding at the weekend. The groom was from Skibbereen, the heart of West Cork, an area steeped in music and tradition. The second night of the wedding culminated in a marathon eight-hour sing-song in a room full of men and women who had the words of so many folksongs it was like being in a room full of tipsy iPods. I had nothing. As the others lustily sang around me and it was coming to my turn, I desperately Googled the words to the Johnny Cash classic Folsom Prison Blues on my phone. The audience was therefore treated to the unedifying spectacle of a song being interrupted by the singer saying “I can’t sing the last verse until the rest of the page loads”.

I must confess I’ve always been slightly envious of West Cork and its people. Foreign acquantances, on hearing that I am from Cork immediately ask “Oh, are you from West Cork?” Their faces open expectantly and I fancy that women moisten their lips ever so slightly. When I say no, their expressions close, their lips de-moisten and even though I quickly extol the picturesque beauty of Mid-Cork, I might as well have said Grozny.

West Cork is difficult to define.The general rule of thumb is: if the main street in your town contains more than three German shopkeepers who speak fluent Irish then you’re living in West Cork. A typical West Corkonian is a farmer, fisherman, carpenter, electrician and owns a pub where a significant proportion of the patrons have won an Oscar.

What struck me, as I listened to the singers, was the sheer number of songs that exist but they were all familar. Irish ballads have two basic forms:

  • 19th century – Boy Meets Girl, Boy Falls in Love With Girl, Englishman deports Boy to Australia
  • 20th century – Boy Meets Other Boys Behind Ditch, Black And Tans Arrive, Boys Throw Slaps.

There are in fact so many ballads that in many cases, the songs were written before the events spoken about took place, and it was left up to later generations to reconstruct the song. It was a common sight on lonely country roads to see a rogueish gypsy, a flame haired woman called Molly, and an English captain with a purse of coins gathered together trying to play out the events of the song faithfully as they wonder what exactly a ‘musha-ringdumadoodumadah’ is.

Ireland’s traumatic history provided the backdrop to many of these songs. Tales of dispossession and exile made good fodder for melancholia and rousing anthems. What about now – will our current travails lead to a new explosion in topical ‘come-all-ye’s’?

I’ve attempted to write my own ballads, but today’s themes are more misanthropic than heroic so I’m finding it hard to get the blood pumping. Here are the first few lines of ‘The Bould Negative Equity
…Come gather around people ‘till I tell you a tale
The estate agent says “sure you there’s no way you can fail.
Though the neighbours have asbos, and joyride at night,
You’ll sell at a profit” – But what a load of old sh*te

I tried another tack on ‘Twas In Line With Procedures Laid Down, Laid Down
..They talk of a man, from Kerry he came
Who travelled by limo, by hummer and plane
At race-meets and Cannes he was the heart and the soul.
When called to account – he says ‘I will in my hole’.

Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place for new Irish folk songs. Ireland is home now to half a million exiles – Will the new Irish pining for their homes far away start writing of their experiences through the genre of folksong? We may see a time when HMV sells albums with titles like: ‘€5.20 for a Pint? Take me home to Krakow’, ‘I Remember Wearing Shorts in Rio’, or ‘Text me the Kaiser Chiefs Result, Dear Father’

Back at the singsong, despite having to ‘page-down’ through the song, my attemp-slash-assault on The Man In Black’s signature tune was greeted respectfully. I was even told I had a ‘grand singing voice’. It was a gracious compliment. However having a grand singing voice is not the same as being a good singer, just like having a grand Black and Decker drill is not the same as being able to hang a picture without leaving the wall looking like the Burren.

Enough talk, Colm for a song.

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