“You know what would be perfect right now?” my father inevitably says at some point at each party my parents host. “Some Clancy Brothers,” he declares as if it’s a rare thing–as if this particular moment in this particular party uniquely calls for the Irish folk group.
About half the time we reject his suggestion, and because he can’t work a record player or a CD player, we stick with the Willie Nelson or Duran Duran. But Dad usually persists, and so the Clancy Brothers LP is played at every party I can remember, going back to when I was tiny.
And so, while Wolverine, Rocky, and Luke Skywalker were the champions in our TV den, Kevin Barry, Roddy McCorley, and Willie Brennan were the action heroes of our living room. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I could sing “Men Behind the Wire” and “Fiddler’s Green” before I was ten.
To this day, when I am tired and lying in bed, my mind tends to drift back to our apartment in New York. I vividly recall dozing off to sleep as my parents and their friends, all audible but muffled on the other side of the wall, reveled amid the strains of “Show me the Way to Go Home” (which was originally an English drinking tune, but was adopted–and perfected–by the Irish).
Visiting my brother a few months back, my newborn niece started fussing instead of sleeping. Naturally I turned to the lullabies of my youth. Despite my unfortunate singing voice, it worked, and she slept. My wife, however, found something a little weird about singing an infant to sleep with the words:
Just before he faced the hangman, In his dreary prison cell, British soldiers tortured Barry…
After some reflection, I see her point. The lyrics to these Irish ballads on which I was bred, it turns out, are a bit funny.
David Allan Coe pointed out that any respectable Country-Western song needs to expound on (1) Momma, (2) Trains, (3) Trucks, (4) Prison, and (5) Getting Drunk. A decent Irish song, similarly, has some requirements. It must contain (1) Death, (2) a dishonest woman, (3) the evil British, and (4) whiskey. The more tightly you can wind these mandatory elements, the better the song is.
Take the Irish favorite, “Whiskey in the Jar.” You’ve got the “water of life” there in the title, and also in all the refrains. The other elements all unfold throughout the song. The singer mugs some evil British dude (yes, the hero of this one is a thug), and gives all this British money to Jenny. Clearly, this singer didn’t have the same upbringing I did, otherwise he would have known how things would end. Sure enough, Jenny betrays him. She steals his rapier, soaked his gunpowder charges and “sent for Captain Farrell [the evil British dude] to be ready for the slaughter.” Then, in prison, the narrator–to ensure he has fulfilled his responsibilities to the rules of Irish music–irrelevantly announces: “I take delight in the juice of the barley and courting pretty fair maids in the morning bright and early.”
Another common criminal celebrated in the songs of my childhood is Willie Brennan. Brennan also used to rob people on the highways. At one point, the mayor catches and arrests Willie. Brennan’s wife smuggles him a blunderbuss (a small rifle), and he promptly robs the mayor. Brennan escapes the authorities for years until: “By a false-hearted young man he was basely betrayed.”
In the coming years, as I hold my children in my arms, will I sing to them of Willie Brennan, the criminal? Will I serenade them with the ballads of Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry (both with unhappy endings involving ropes, gallows, and the evil British)? What effect will these perhaps-morbid tunes have on a young soul?
Upon further consideration, it is clear to me that weaving these lyrics into the consciousness of a youth will have a salutary effect.
All of these songs instill a healthy distrust of authority and government power. “Men Behind the Wire” tells of the aftermath of Britain’s notorious “Special Powers Act,” a “counter-terrorism” measure of 1971 that led to the internment, without charges, of many Catholic republicans in Northern Ireland. Beginning startlingly with the lines, “Armoured cars and tanks and guns/ Came to take away our sons,” the song instilled an image on the minds of the Carney boys of government police power gone bad.
The rebel song “Foggy Dew” combines that antagonism towards authority with a distrust of foreign adventures, telling the story of the 1916 Easter Rising–which amounted to a suicide mission for many of the participants. Any Irish lad who hesitated to join in this rebellion was convinced by the Crown’s conscripting them to fight in World War I. They now had nothing to lose. “Foggy Dew” lays it out clearly: “Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than Souvla or Sud El Bar,”–the far-off Turkish battlefields which would become the graveyard for so many of England’s subjects.
“Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” another old favorite among the Irish, laments the costs of war to the soldier, (“where are the legs with which you run/ when first you went to carry a gun?”) and his family (“why did you skedaddle from me and the child?/ Johnny we hardly knew ye”).
Despite all this evidence on behalf of the Clancy-Brothers-as-Lullaby idea, there are still three problems.
First, these Irish rebels often were socialist–not the sort of role models I want to introduce to my kids.
Second, my wife is still creeped out by all the death in these songs.
Third, when I look at how my brothers turned out, maybe I should take a different tack.
Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money. He is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire