Thursday, July 27, 2017

ON THE AVENUES: Irish history with a musical chaser.

ON THE AVENUES: Irish history with a musical chaser.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Regular blog readers recently have been burdened by accounts of my 1987 summer idling on the European continent, as occasioned by the long overdue digitalization of slide film from the period. as an example, this randomly selected image never before seen on the internet.


Not exactly breathtaking, though it brings back memories of the coast near Cork.

The year 1987 marked the second time I'd spent my savings on post-graduate educational wanderings. The first came in 1985, and it is no exaggeration to say that this experience profoundly changed my life. 32 years later, I'm still trying to make sense of it.

Beginning in 2015, I wrote about the 1985 journey, with the series running to 34 installments at Potable Curmudgeon. For those who are interested, the final 1985 trip summary includes links to the 33 episodes preceding it.

Prior to the initial excursion in 1985, my cousin Donald Barry showed me the ropes, and we were able to meet in Italy and Germany once "over there."

In 1987, I was able to repay Don's favor with my old friends Barrie Ottersbach and Bob Gunn, introducing them to places I'd seen in 1985 -- Munich beer halls, a Rhine River cruise, Jim Morrison's grave in Paris, and the D-Day beaches on the coast of France.

Barrie and I then proceeded to from France to Ireland by ferry, replicating my 1985 route apart from a different channel port (Cherbourg, not Le Havre), and arriving on Irish soil 30 years ago today.

Ironically, it had not been my original intent to visit Ireland in 1987, but we were having such a great time that I junked the "official" itinerary and went with my gut. It was the right decision, if for no other reason than seeing U2 perform in Cork during the mid-point of the band's lengthy Joshua Tree tour.

Today's column previously appeared as part of the 1985 series: The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser. It serves as a useful background for both landfalls, and is reprinted with only light topical updating.

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As I sit at my desk in the year 2017, writing this account of travel in far-off 1985, roughly 4,000 compact discs surround me, arranged in shelving units of varying sizes and shapes. I’m told they’re obsolete, but then again, so were the LPs packed into my tiny bedroom back when Ronnie Raygun was President, and I was planning my first trip to Europe.

Nowadays vinyl once again is sought-after, although not cassette tapes, which also took up storage space in the cramped living quarters of my youth. At least I never bought into the ethos of the 8-track tape, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud.

At the age of 55, I’ve yet to learn how to play a musical instrument, and if I so much as tried to carry a tune across the street, the likeliest result would be two broken legs – or the wailing enmity of every dog in the neighborhood. Still, my earliest childhood memories are about music, and it is impossible to overstate the role music continues to play in my everyday world.

During the years prior to the summer of 1985, my musical consciousness was filled with the usual markers of a male in his early twenties, with rock, pop and MTV the dominant influences. Perhaps unusually, my parents had raised me on swing and jazz, and these were viable complements. Just after college, formal composition began to please me, and I was a regular listener of WUOL, the University of Louisville’s classical FM station.

As genres go, “world music” wasn’t on heavy rotation in metropolitan Louisville at the time, and this is where Don Barry’s tutelage re-enters the narrative.

My cousin always brought albums of Irish music with him whenever he’d drive back from Florida to visit his mother (my aunt). I’d copy these albums onto cassettes: The Dubliners, Wolfe Tones, Tommy Makem, Clancy Brothers and other Irish folk bands, mostly from original pressings Don had purchased during his previous journeys to Ireland.

Of course, music wasn’t the only cultural touchstone in my informal education about all things Irish. As a pedagogue in the finest of constructive senses, Don provided ample homework, with reading assignments that extended far past our summer interludes: James Joyce ("Ulysses" is one thing; "Finnegan's Wake" quite another), Seamus Heaney, John Synge, W.B. Yeats, and "The Green Flag," Robert Kee's masterful history of Ireland.

Irish music helped tell Irish history, and it all became interwoven. Don and I listened to bawdy tunes, weepy ballads and riotous calls to action. We also drank gallons of beer while doing so, and these were the best seminars ever.

My family background is almost entirely sharecropper German from the Pomeranian plains, with a smidgen of English tossed into the mix, but once I'd experienced Irish culture from these secondary sources, it always seemed there must have been at least one stray shot of Irish DNA somewhere -- a rogue, a wanderer, an outcast from the great Irish displacement, who’d contributed to the family tree and then disappeared into the mists.

Musically, Ireland felt very comfortable to me, even if discomfort was the source of so many of the more overtly political songs, given that in terms of history, Ireland hasn’t always been such a happy or peaceful place.

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By 600 AD, the island’s original Celtic inhabitants had been converted to Catholicism. During the Dark Ages, Viking and Norman incursions were disruptive, but the visitors generally assimilated. A far more portentous invasion began in the 16th century, as launched by the bigger island to the east.

In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and established his own Church of England. In 1541, he added the Irish throne to his list of royal titles, and thus commenced more than 150 years of “plantation,” a policy wherein Protestants (primarily from England and Scotland) were settled in Ireland and afforded rights disproportionate to those of the indigenous Catholics, who steadily were disenfranchised.

The area of heaviest Protestant settlement was Ulster, a cluster of six counties to the north. Today, this is Northern Ireland, which remains joined to the United Kingdom. Ireland’s other 26 counties were subject to the same Protestant favoritism, but retained Catholic majorities. These make up the contemporary Republic of Ireland.

In the early 1800s, sectarian strife grew amid the institutionalized disparities, with seemingly endless patterns of revolt and subjugation, culminating with a wild card blithely tossed by Mother Nature: A potato blight in the late 1840s, which deprived huge numbers of impoverished Irish Catholics of their sole source of sustenance.

The tragic ensuing famine either killed or caused to emigrate more than 2,000,000 people, or one of four Irish men and women, and yet throughout the crisis, farms controlled by outsiders (most of them English) continued to export food, even though people nearby were starving.

Not for the last time, London’s inept performance during the famine reignited a slow, smoldering movement for greater Irish autonomy. Through the remainder of the 1800s, this movement for “Home Rule” grew stronger, but because of its Catholic orientation, Protestant-dominated Ulster threatened counter-measures of its own to remain under British sway, and little changed.

Just before the outbreak of WWI, it seemed as though Home Rule might at last come to pass, but the conflict intervened. It was broadly agreed that domestic considerations would be placed on hold for the duration. Spotting an opportunity to force the issue while the British were preoccupied with the war, radical Irish nationalists struck.

On April 24, 1916 (Easter Monday), rebels seized key buildings and installations of importance in Dublin, including the post office, and declared a free Ireland. It was called the Easter Rising; however, the Irish nation did not “rise up” as the rebels expected, and the revolt was mercilessly crushed by British troops.

Yet again, London completely misread the situation, responding with calculated harshness toward a populace that for the most part had not heeded the revolutionary call. All but a handful of the rebels were executed, and the brutality managed finally to turn Irish public opinion against British rule, at least among Catholics outside Ulster. The stage was set for ugliness, which dutifully followed.

From 1916 through 1923, the contemporary configuration of Ireland was determined through a series of parliamentary maneuvers accompanied first by a triumphant war of independence against the British, and then a divisive civil war among the Irish themselves. By the early 1920s, the exhausted island was divided, and a template of periodic violence established for the ensuing decades.

It has been more than a century since the Easter Rising, and just about everything else in Ireland has changed save for the division of the island into two entities. In theory only, “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland ended with a brokered settlement in 1998.

Meanwhile, the Irish Republic has weathered a burst real estate bubble following its “Celtic Tiger” period of modernization, and a new chapter (the UK's Brexit effects, real or imagined) is being written as you read these previous ones.

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My major point with respect to this upheaval-laden travel narrative is that when I first stepped onto Irish soil in 1985, quite a few of the elderly men and women seen reposing on park benches in Dublin had active memories of the tumultuous 20th century.

They had lived through the infancy of the Free Irish State, and at the time, as I prepared to board the train from Dublin to Sligo and a planned 5-day jaunt in the countryside, emigration remained the norm almost 150 years after the famine. Their country still was reckoned among the poorer relations of the European Union.

Perhaps their experiences, and those of their kinfolk abroad, explain the powerful longing for home that surfaces in so many of the classic Irish folk songs, as in my favorite, “Carrickfergus,” as performed by my favorite group, the Dubliners, with vocals by the late Jim McCann.



These excerpted stanzas speak to the melancholy of this incredible traditional song.

I wish I was in Carrickfergus
Only for nights in Ballygran
I would swim over the deepest ocean
Only for nights in Ballygran
But the sea is wide and I can not swim over
And neither have I the wings to fly
I wish I had a handsome boatman
To ferry me over, my love and I

My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy times we spent so long ago
My boyhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on like the melting snow
And I spent my days in ceaseless roving
Soft is the grass and my bed is free
Oh to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long winding road down to the sea

Now in Kilkenny it is recorded
On marble stones there as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her
But I'll sing no more now till I get a drink
'Cause I'm drunk today and I'm seldom sober
A handsome rover from town to town
Ah but I'm sick now, my days are numbered
Come all you young men and lay me down

As a final note, Carrickfergus is in Northern Ireland. In terms of the Irish diaspora, it isn’t at all clear whether this fact is ironic.

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Recent columns:

July 20: ON THE AVENUES DOUBLEHEADER (2): A book about Bunny Berigan, his life and times.

July 20: ON THE AVENUES DOUBLEHEADER (1): Listening to "Dixieland" jazz, and thinking about drinking a beer.

July 13: ON THE AVENUES: Using Deaf Gahan’s dullest razor, we race straight to the bottom of his hurried NAHA putsch launch.

July 6: ON THE AVENUES: Beercycling with or without Le Tour.

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