Touch of the Irish

(c) Mary Boukouvalas

It started with Steve Earle‘s one man show at The Corner Hotel in Melbourne. Steve introduced one instrument he was playing as the bouzouki. ‘It’s a Greek instrument,’ he said, ‘but I play it Irish-style. The Irish have a long tradition of picking up whatever instruments wash up on their shores and playing them better than where they came from.’

Steve went on to play a number of Irish-style songs in his set, including Dixieland, a song about a Kilrain Fenian from County Clare who fled Ireland for America and ended up fighting with the 20th Maine regiment at Gettysburg — one of an estimated 150,000 Irishmen who fought in the Union army.

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and did I tell you friend I’m a fightin’ man/
And I’ll not be back this way again, ‘cause we’re all goin’ down to Dixieland.

The sad postscript to ‘Dixieland’ is that many Irish heroes of the American Civil War returned home to the same prejudice, poverty and unemployment that saw them drafted into military service in the first place.

I’m crediting Steve Earle with kicking off a week for me where everything seemed to have a touch of the Irish.

The night after the gig, we happened to watch ‘Nights in Ballygran’, Episode 5, Season 1 of  Boardwalk Empire, set on the eve of St Patrick’s Day in 1920. Boardwalk Empire, our current HBO series of choice, is set in Atlantic City during Prohibition and centres on gangster-politician Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, played with equal parts charisma and repugnance by Steve Buscemi. ‘Nights in Ballygran’, my favourite episode to date, sees Nucky reluctantly organising a dinner to celebrate what he refers to as the annual festival of ‘crying, arguing, and public drunkenness’. At one point the little people he employs threaten to go on strike unless they’re paid more for the indignity of dressing up as leprechauns at the dinner. Nucky responds by cutting a deal with their chief negotiator.

For all his wealth and power, I doubt Nucky Thompson could have cut a deal with Bobby Sands and his fellow political prisoners, whose story is brought to the screen in Steve McQueen’s excellent 2008 film Hunger, which we watched the following night. Sands and nine other IRA inmates starved themselves to death in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981 in protest against the Thatcher government’s insistence in treating them as common criminals rather than political prisoners. I remember the hunger strikes vividly — I was 15 in 1981 — though I wasn’t aware that prisoners were ‘on the blanket’ for several years beforehand, wearing blankets instead of prison uniforms and smearing their cells with excrement when prison guards refused to allow them to use the toilet.

Hunger is simply one of the best films I have seen in a long time, and not just because it stars my latest crush Michael Fassbender as Sands. As my astute partner Andrew Nette writes in his review on Pulp Curry, it is a blistering film made with remarkable restraint: ‘Fassbender’s depiction of Sands is nothing short of astonishing, given that the meat of the character hangs on just one scene in the 96-minute film, a conversation between Sands and a sympathetic priest.’ I later read that the 17 minute scene in question was shot in one continuous take on the fourth attempt — apparently a world record for a single take on film. A significant portion of the rest of the film has no dialogue at all, serving as an object lesson for writers in the art of ‘show, don’t tell.’

McQueen’s is only the third English language film made about Bobby Sands and the Maze Prison hunger strikes, though I know of at least ten songs written on the subject. The one I remember growing up was ‘The Ballad of Joe McDonnell’, performed by the Wolfe Tones, about the fifth of the hunger strikers to die.

And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you look down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you have done
You have plundered many nations, divided many lands
You have terrorized their peoples, you rule with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land.

It was ultimately with music that my Irish week came to a climax with The Pogues in concert at Festival Hall on 4 April 2012.

It’s been two decades since they last (dis)graced our shores and rumours circulated for months about whether the original Pogues line-up would make it — specifically whether lead singer/songwriter/drunken Irish poet Shane MacGowan would be there and, if he was, whether he’d be upright/sober/coherent as distinct from his last visit.

I felt the crowd at Festival Hall holding its collective breath as the band filed out. Shane had made it, though he shuffled like an old man. When he opened his mouth to speak, he was unintelligible. But then he sang — ‘Streams of Whiskey’ for starters — and was transformed. As @jpevans12 on Twitter said, ‘Like his talking brain is fried but his singing brain’s still there. He even remembered the words.’

And Shane’s words are worth remembering.

So drunk to hell I left the place
Sometimes crawling sometimes walking
A hungry sound came across the breeze
So I gave the walls a talking
And I heard the sounds of long ago
From the old canal
And the birds were whistling in the trees
Where the wind was gently laughing
(A Pair of Brown Eyes, 1985)

Here’s what my learned friend Tim Shaw, who also saw The Pogues that night in Melbourne, has to say about Shane MacGowan’s song writing.

“With the exception of the works of Turlough O’Carolan, many of the great Irish ballads were never attributed to a writer. It’s as if these songs had always existed and came from the very core of the universe itself.

“To maintain its karmic balance, the universe found Shane and gave him a direct link to essence of the cosmos so that he could continue the work of those anonymous bards.

“This can be the only explanation for why Shane’s melodies are simultaneously traditional yet original and why his lyrics can beautify a gritty, post-industrial setting with timeless longing.

“Van Morrison has been allowed, on occassion, to briefly enter the little room that holds the secret to our humanity. Shane never has to knock.”

All these touches of the Irish, they lead to this same little room with its fleeting whispers of the secret to our humanity. I cannot catch it all. But with each touch, I become more determined to keep listening.

For Catherine Norah Josephine & Dimity Jane of the Pogues Posse, with special thanks to Tim Shaw.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel, Mother of Pearl, is published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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