It’s St Patrick’s Day, so our writers have chosen favourite songs from Irish artists. Oh, and this: dear Ireland, repeal the 8th, would you? Thanks.
It’s a bold claim I know, but I’m pretty sure that without Thin Lizzy’s version of Whiskey in the Jar, The Pogues would never have existed; traditional Irish folk music would have remained clad in Aran four-ply, jauntily strummed on a banjo by stout balding men.
So thank God for Thin Lizzy. Eric Bell’s plaintive electric intro and Phil Lynott’s louche charm and heavy-lidded menace invest this old ballad with the kind of danger the Clancy Brothers or The Dubliners never quite pulled off.
It’s easy to imagine Lynott as a swaggering highwayman, robbing and killing the conveniently named Captain Farrell with both barrels, but it’s harder to understand why the faithless Molly would forfeit rapturous nights in her chamber to betray her bandit love. What did Captain Farrell offer her in exchange for information? A portion of his recovered fortune? Possibly. Better sex? I doubt it.
Still, putting aside the plot holes it’s a rollicking song and a perfect excuse to knock back a glass or two of Irish whiskey. Sláinte!
The Dubliners – Carrickfergus
“I wish I was in Carrickfergus.” I literally wished I was in Carrickfergus for about four years as a teenager. Didn’t know where it was (sounded a million miles away from the Kent mudflats), but it sounded brilliant.
I wished I was there, “Only for nights in Ballygran”. What were nights in Ballygran like, I wondered. The singer loved the place so much that she was willing to get someone (a handsome boatman, no less) to ferry her over there JUST TO DIE.
It’s been covered by everyone in the whole world. I grew up inhaling the Joan Baez version, pressing rewind again and again (yeah, I’m that old). I learned the chords on my guitar and I sang it in a completely implausible and unCeltic way. Still do. Still love it. Still no idea what it’s really about.
Van Morrison’s covered it, Charlotte Church and Ronan Keating have also had a crack. I absolutely adore the version by Bryn Terfel because Bryn Terfel, but also the idea of nights out in Ballygran with him make me do a small swoon.
But it’s St Patrick’s Day, so let’s have The Dubliners’ definitive version.
Of The Cranberries’ big hits I would argue this is the most timeless, possibly because it feels like the band are being themselves more than on other tracks.
The wallowing chorus seems slightly at odds with the light and whimsical melody, but lingers (no pun intended) in the mind long after the song has finished, in no small part due to how long Dolores O’Riordan’s accent allows her to linger (pun fully intended) on the ‘r’, almost giving it an extra syllable all of its own.
Only she could have made the song what it is, and that’s why it’s my favourite berry from The Cranberries’ punnet.
Westlife – What Makes a Man
I’ve been to see Westlife approximately 15 times. Don’t @ me about this; it’s only embarrassing if you care what people think. Ireland has a rich and glorious history of fuelling the boyband canon, and Westlife were a picture perfect example of the genre. In my daydreams, Shane Filan’s Irish eyes were smiling and, in my youth, I was convinced they were smiling for me.
In a frankly embarrassingly long list of deeply disproportionate responses to petty issues, I still harbour strong feelings of resentment that the ‘Life were held off Christmas number one with the achingly beautiful (to my early teen heart) What Makes a Man by Bob the fucking Builder.
Sometimes, I’ll be walking along, minding my own business, and I will be drenched, no, scalded with impotent rage about the injustice of it.
I did my bit: I bought both CDs – for the sales for my boys, and those all-important B-sides – at Woolworths in the run up to Christmas, optimistic that the right horse would win the race but no, thwarted by children. Thwarted by the voice of Neil Morrissey talking about his bloody toolbox.
What Makes a Man is a gloriously dramatic, sitting-on-stools-ballad about the end of a relationship, complete with the prerequisite key change allowing them to stand up. I know I probably should have grown out of it, but every now and again when I’m feeling a bit blue, I fire it up for pure nostalgia and wallow in whatever completely forgotten and inevitably useless crush it was that made me feel like they were singing about my life.
The Divine Comedy – To the Rescue
Irish musician Cathy Davey runs the My Lovely Horse Rescue, rehoming and rehabilitating maltreated horses. She’s also the long-term girlfriend of The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and this beautiful, delicate song is his hymn to his missus, saviour of the equine, keeper of his heart.
To The Rescue is particularly poignant for me because of another animal. My beloved furry constant of 14 years, a black-and-white cat called Ross, died recently. His big old heart gave out and broke mine. A day later, I heard this song for the first time and, having just about managed to compose myself, howled with grief. Rosscat rescued me from so many heartaches, only to become my biggest one. Damn you (and thank you) Divine Comedy.
There must of course be a shout-out to My Lovely Horse, Fathers Ted and Dougal’s entry into The Eurosong Contest, and Songs of Love, the instrumental break of which comprises the Father Ted theme tune. And then there’s the gorgeous plaintive ode to ageing, A Lady of a Certain Age.
Hannon’s been delivering clever, wry, intimate grownup pop with a nod to music hall for more than 20 years and has lost none of his power to move – to tears, to laughter, to both.
The Pogues – Thousands Are Sailing
On a day when countries around the world celebrate St Patrick’s Day, it’s worth remembering that the Irish weren’t always considered to be a nation or a people worth honouring. Irish migrants faced prejudice from many quarters, including the authorities, and serious miscarriages of justice took place, some within living memory.
Though originally about the trials faced by the Irish, the pain and anger of Thousands Are Sailing speaks to anyone who has left their home country for another and those today honouring their (real, tenuous or strictly imaginary) Irish roots would do well to remember that it’s now the citizens of other lands who are being demonised while attempting to “break the chains of poverty”.
The Undertones – Teenage Kicks
I had Irish grandparents, so I grew up surrounded by what my grandfather referred to as “tie-d’lum music” (Anyone can feel free to correct me on that spelling, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a real word.)
While this also encompassed some pretty chirpy jigging type tunes, they mostly favoured the sad stuff, the stuff that told a story, usually about a lost love, the diaspora, a war or – ideal case scenario – all three.
So, why I am telling you this when I should be talking about Teenage Kicks? Well, what else is there to say about The Undertones’ masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? It is, quite simply – and despite any sentimental attachment I have to other Irish classics – the finest song ever produced by an Irish band. Unless, of course, you count these guys. But I’m guessing you won’t.
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