In the Irish love triangle there are three parties involved: A man, and a woman – and drink.
And so the girl gives an ultimatum to her boyfriend: It's either the drink, or me.
And he chooses the drink.
But afterwards, he relents. They get married and live happily ever after.
The three of them.
-- in-concert anecdote told by Sean Cannon of the Dubliners
My cousin Don the college professor returned to Southern Indiana one typically balmy summer in the middle 1980's bearing a sack full of vinyl. The albums were old pressings of the Dubliners, the Wolfe Tones, Tommy Makem, the Clancy Brothers and other Irish folk bands, most of which had risen to prominence in the 1960's.
I'd already been to Ireland a couple of times at this point, but the trips were short, and while sufficient to drain numerous pints of the national black elixir and deplete the seas of fish to accompany chips, there hadn't been time for a proper cultural education.
As a pedagogue in the best of all classical senses, Don now proposed to redress the imbalance. I was given reading assignments: 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.
We watched a videotaped episode of the PBS series "The Story of English," which examined the contribution of Gaelic-speaking Ireland toward shaping the language the island now speaks.
Best of all, we listened to the records, and drank quite a lot of beer. It was one whale of a summer seminar, and I'll never forget it. My family background is almost entirely white trash German, with a smidgen of English tossed in, but once I'd developed a taste of things Irish, it always seemed that there must have been at least one stray shot of Irish DNA in the mix somewhere. A rogue, a wander, an outcast in the great disapora. Otherwise, how could I feel so intensely that I'd been there long before I ever actually visited?
It can't be said often enough that Ireland's leap forward in the twenty years since my summer course in all things Irish parallels nothing so much as Eastern Europe's trajectory since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was a very different Ireland then, and once familiar with the music, I could grasp several themes in the Irish experience between the potato famine early in the 19th-century and the Cold War period.
There was a deep reverence for the collective Irish historical experience, slipshod and impoverished as it had been. There was contempt for the British colonial overlord, but also a recognition that Ireland would not be returning to its Gaelic past, even when an often hamfisted theocratic government insisted. There was a sense of gallows humor, mordant and defeatist, yet playfully proud and vibrantly patriotic, looking always to a different and better future in spite of the horrendous pratfalls of the past. There was much good-humored bawdiness about drinking and whoring and the alleged nobility of true love.
Stereotypes aplenty, but as we know, stereotypes become such owing to prescient grains of truth amid the inflation of hyperbole.
And what gifted musicianship! Fiddles and tin whistles, guitars and banjos, all crowded in the corner of a pub somewhere with sod burning in the fireplace even in high summer, pints of Guinness all around, and everyone in the room singing – not just karaoke, but singing far more than capably, often with voices better than the performers.
So it remains, in a country now ranking among the wealthiest in Europe.
A favorite song? As with all music, it's impossible to make a definitive selection, but the Dubliners remains my favorite group (thanks, Don) and among there finest creative periods was the mid-1970's, when the legendary Luke Kelly was at his peak, joined for a brief period by Jim McCann, an impressive tenor whose version of "Carrickfergus" is, for me, better than Van Morrison's.
Here are the lyrics, though they can't convey the simultaneously tragic and uplifting mood 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