Tag Archives: Dominic Behan

If the Pipes Call, Take a Message

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Our son had called the tune when the singer invited requests. “The Rocky Road to Dublin” was the second of the boy’s picks honored that night (the first, “Galway Races”). The crowd of pensioners packing the small hotel bar in Tuesday-night Donegal took a shine to the wee lad from America with a taste for Irish tradition. It was well past 10, but the boy was fighting sleep – afraid to miss a minute.

When he reached the end of that verbose “Road”, the singer called out for more. An old lady piped up.

“‘Danny Boy’,” said she with a tone of good-natured frustration. “I’ve asked for ‘Danny Boy’ three times now.”

Like Ronald Reagan dodging questions from the press corps at the door of Air Force One, the singer pretended, for the third time, not to hear. Instead, he issued a musical plea to be taken home by way of “Country Roads”.

Go raibh maith agat, I thought, for I share his evident disdain for “Danny Boy”, the go-to anthem for every dyed beer-swilling frat boy in a green plastic derby, the obligatory sendoff for every ward-boss before he’s planted in the ground. Ironically, this insufferably sappy tune – held dear by Irish communities around the world – was, in fact, penned by an Englishman. These traits, when juxtaposed with the infinite canon of fine Irish music new and old (or even the John Denver catalogue), permit no justifiable cause for suffering “Danny Boy”.

Frankly, I just don’t get it.

Though often reduced to drunk and downtrodden caricature, Irish music is, in fact, rife with a kind of exuberance that is at once comic and tragic, and it often employs a dark, inherent brand of humor which, at its best, may be equitably applied to both cirrhosis and the RIC.

“It’s not that the Irish are cynical,” author Brendan Behan once noted. “It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.” Behan certainly fit that bill, as did his brother, Dominic. The latter, himself an author, singer, and songwriter, had a paradoxical sensibility that could at once convey humor and sorrow, loyalty and insolence. It fully manifests in his recording of the jaunty “A Grand Old Country”, written by the Behan boys’ uncle, renowned rebel songwriter Peadar Kearney:

We’ll pray for mother England while I’m waiting on the day
I’ll pray for mother England ’til I’m blind and bald and grey
I’ll pray that I and she may die, and drown that she may drown
And if ever she tries to lift her head I’ll be there to push it down

But Behan is but one voice in a musical oeuvre that includes Planxty, the Dubliners, the Wolf Tones, the Clancys and Tommy Makem (who introduced the world to Irish music), but also Enya, Thin Lizzy, The Cranberries, Van Morrison…to name very few.

Just not U2, who might be the only humorless lot in the bunch.

I don’t know if the old lady’s request was ever fulfilled, as the craic was still going full bore when we retired for the night. But it was not the last we saw of her. The next morning, we crossed paths in the hotel lobby. She and a friend of similar age engaged our son with a few friendly words, and complimented us on his conduct. Many Irish, we observed throughout our travels across the Emerald Isle, seem to have a soft spot for children.

Maybe that explains “Danny Boy”?

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Thank God We’re Surrounded by Water

Clontarf Castle
Clontarf Castle

Davida and I first crossed paths with Bram Stoker in January 2000, on the moors of North Yorkshire. With daylight bleeding out and many miles till Edinburgh, we arbitrarily decided to seek lodging in a brooding little waterfront town on the North Sea.

It was by chance, for us, that Whitby bears the literary distinction of being the point at which Stoker deposited his greatest creation, Count Dracula, on Albion shores. Although I had read Dracula, it had been many years since, and I had no recollection of the town or its role in the novel. However, this connection, we soon learned, has made Whitby, with its lurid tourist draws and ruined cliff-top abbey overlooking the sea, the Coney Island of goth culture that it is today.

We still travel this way – every January, often spending the night wherever the day has taken us. Ireland in the off-season, we figured, would be no exception. In fact, when planning our January 2015 road trip of the Emerald Isle, we had booked lodging for only one of our seven nights – the first, not far from Dublin Airport.

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Clontarf Castle

 

Online, Clontarf Castle had appeared a bit more upscale than our usual digs, but we figured some comfortable sprawling room might be in order following a full day and night of travel; plus, our son would enjoy the prospect of spending his first night abroad in a castle.

Clontarf Castle
Clontarf Castle

Now an affluent suburb on the north side of Dublin, Clontarf was, a thousand years ago, the site of an epic battle that in the annals of Irish history commands a hallowed status comparable to that of, say, Gettysburg for Americans. It was here, in 1014, that Irish Ard Ri (or high king) Brian Boru defeated a joint force of Viking marauders and contentious Irish factions from the kingdoms of Dublin and Leinster. Nearly every commander on all sides , including Brian, died that April 23 – Good Friday – but the bloody Battle of Clontarf effectively ended 200 years of Viking raids in Ireland. Unfortunately, with Brian’s death, it also spelled the end of the fragile alliance between various Irish clans that he had spent a lifetime crafting, setting the stage for socio-political unrest that would pave the way for invading Normans in 1169.

Battle of Clontarf
Battle of Clontarf

In the 1960s, songwriter Dominic Behan (brother of author and playwright Brendan Behan) poetically summarized the Battle of Clontarf in his oft-covered tune, “The Sea Around Us”:

The Danes came to Ireland with nothin’ to do
But dream of the plundered old Irish they slew
“Yeh will in your Vikings,” says Brian Boru
As he pushed them back into the ocean

Those combatants would recognize nothing of Clontarf today…save, perhaps, for nearby Dublin Bay. However, the extant Clontarf Castle, which dates (only) to the 19th century, might be a familiar sight for the area’s most renowned native son – one Abraham Stoker, born here in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine. Fifty years later, Stoker would turn loose upon the world one of the most enduring icons of gothic horror with the publication of his magnum opus, Dracula.

Bram Stoker's childhood home
Bram Stoker’s childhood home

While I knew Bram Stoker was Irish by birth, I could not have told you his particular place of origin – that was, until Clontarf, where, to our mutual astonishment, we once again found ourselves in his presence. Fifteen years and who-know-how-many-thousands-of-miles had found us on the very grounds of the ruined church in which he had been baptized, and but a short walk from his birthplace. Indeed, it was enough to render the most rational mind superstitious.

But that could be said for much of Ireland – and this was only the beginning…