Jackeens, Dubs and Liffysiders. Songs for the city of Dublin by Andy Royston
I first arrived in Dublin late in the year, November.
I remember it was chucking down, and the place I stayed was on the northside, a block from the river, right up beyond the old Jameson Distillery. The whole place is all gentrified now, and posh trams run right through the place, but back then the area was all run down and deserted, and after dark the place was full of ghosts.
Walking along those shining cobbled streets, with Stephen Dedalus and Leo Bloom for company, the songs and the stories feel much more alive. The rare auld times indeed.
Dublin really does make a mark if you love old cities. Few cities within the British Isles escaped the old Luftwaffe re-fit as blitzkreigs tore into the English urban centers during the war. What the Jerries missed, the local councils flattened and re-developed.
Dublin’s old Victorian streets lived right through that by virtue of Irish neutrality. Right up into the 1990s parts of the city were as crumbling as Havana – all the modernisation of Europe hadn’t touched the old place at all. One big, skanky rough diamond it was. Sure, on the outskirts there were places like the Ballymun Towers thrown up by Dublin Corporation in the 60s, but for the most part the Dublin of Joyce and Behan and Beckett was still there, bold as brass.
A very young Phil Lynott, in his ballad Dublin wrote
“How can I leave the town that brings me down
That has no jobs
Is blessed by God
And makes me cry…”
Here’s my songs for Dublin, reading not so much chronologically but listening to the old favorites that you’ve all heard a million times and long to hear again.
Sinead O’Connor – Molly Malone
Molly Malone, or Dublin’s Fair City is a fictional tale of a fish hawker who plied her trade on the streets of Dublin, but who died young, of a fever. There are claims that the song was based on a real woman – indeed the Dublin Millenium Commission picked out one of many historic Mollys, gave her her own civic day and a nice statue of Grafton St ( “The tart wi’t the cart…” said our Kenny). The first recording of the song was by a Scot in 1884 in the music hall tradition and it’s been on our lips ever since.
The Trollope with the Scollops somehow got the reputation of being a lady of the night. A woman of voluptuous beauty, they said. She plied her trade from Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green all the way to the ivory tower at Trinity College. She was even the mistress of Charles II said some.
Her ghost wheels her barrow,Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
Damien Dempsey – Rocky Road
Here a song with a little more provenance – the words were written by D.K. Gavan, a.k.a. ‘The Galway Poet’, for the English music hall performer Harry Clifton, who made it famous.
It’s about the travels of a migrant laborer from Tuam in the west of Ireland heading for Liverpool in England, perhaps heading for an emigrant ship. A classic irish jig in 9/8 timing, it’s reputedly damn difficult to perform so is best left to the masters. Fiddlers love it, as do the penny whistle brigade, but for singers it’s murder.
Damien Dempsey is by far and away the most captivating of contemporary Dublin singers. Born in the 1970s in a rough area of Dublin he’s emerged as a highly original and fierce modern folk singer, as influenced by Bob Marley as any local talent. His songwriting is immense – personal and moral, with a natural baritone voice that gets better with age.
Glen Hansard – The Auld Triangle
This is a fine song attributed to poet and playwright Brendan Behan which was performed as part of one of his plays, The Quare Fellow. The triangle in the title refers to the large metal triangle which was beaten daily in Mountjoy Prison to waken the inmates – Behan himself had once been a prisoner there so he knew what he was talking about.
This stirring rendition dates from a State visit over to the UK, President Michael D. Higgins. The Ceiliuradh in London’s Royal Albert Hall saw Irish artists and descendants of Irish emigrants performing songs, dance, music and poetry and this, by Glen Hansard brought the house down. He was joined by Imelda May, John Sheehan, Paul Brady, Donnal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Elvis Costello, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
The charity version that Glen did with Damien Dempsey is worth a listen too. See that here. Another showstopper is The Punch Brothers – Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowert – with Marcus Mumford – accapella as it was in Behan’s play – at New York’s Town Hall. See that here.
Luke Kelly – On Raglan Road
A poem about heartbreak and an angel’s impossible love Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘On Raglan Road’ was always suited for song. Kavanagh was living at a guesthouse there and fell in love with a medical student called Hilda Moriarty. The poet would loiter in places where he might ‘accidentally’ meet his love. It had been written partly with a view to being sung to a much older traditional air, Fáinne Geal an Lae (The Dawning of the Day).
Given the similarities between Kavanagh’s poem and the already well known traditional lyrics to the air, it’s very probable that Kavanagh wrote the peom with the air in mind (the line dawning of the day appears in both lyrics).
The story goes that the poet met Luke Kelly in a pub, who helped him refine the poem to fit The Dawning Of The Day. Kelly and the Dubliners went on to make the song famous – since seens as a significant musical achievement and a major point of reference in Irish folk music.
Van Morrison – On Raglan Road
Van Morrison’s version is also worth a look. It was done with such passion in collaboration with The Cheiftains on their Irish Heartbeat collaboration in 1988, described by one critic as “some of the most haunting, rousing, downright friendly music of the year”. Love to see Van on the drums, there, making himself useful.
This preoccupation with the past – it is not sentimental. As with Raglan Road – it’s an ordinary street with rows of houses, but you go away thinking this as an incredible place, it must be… the lives that have been lived in this place, the things that have happened… Van Morrison
Bagatelle – Summer In Dublin
Bagatelle were an Irish rock act who had a good few hits in Ireland in the early 80s. They are not known internationally, but are well known in Irelend – not least for their number one hit ‘Summer In Dublin’ and by virtue of being one of the first bands to tour the country with an original set, after decades built around the showband circuit. Some go so far as to call it a contender for alternative National anthem. View this here if you’re outside Ireland.
Phil Lynott – Old Town
This song isn’t specifically about the city, but this wonderful video filmed in and around the city is a true gem. It’s a lovely capture of the city’s youth culture and the love that folks had for their most prominent rock star. Great scenes of him on the Ha’penny Bridge and on a ferry boat off the South Wall. Just weeks later the ferry closed, and within four years Phil was dead from a drugs overdose.
His extraordinary ballad Dublin – Watch it here, though was a much more serious, and sad song. Lynott signs of being on the boat to England and watching Ireland disappear. He misses the girl he loves, his home city yet understands that he’s leaving unemployment, prejudice and the constraints of Catholicism. In times of high unemployment many folks went though this rite of passage…
Mike Scott – City Full of Ghosts
Newly acoustic after a decade with The Waterboys, Mike Scott finally got a little more personal, and the album this song comes from is an examination of his past, his music and his relationship with God.
Pogues – Dirty Old Town
Ewan McCall may have written the song about Salford, but The Dubliners and then The Pogues gave it a strong Irish flavour. It’s been covered widely and resonates with listeners who can appreciate real work and the hardships that come with it.
The opening lyrics are iconic:
I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed a girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Flogging Molly – Dublin in the Rare Old Times
Yet another song made famous by The Dubliners, there are thousands of guinness-down-me-jumper versions of this song, but I much prefer the approach of Flogging Molly, Irish punk band based in Los Angeles, who turn it into a right old hoedown.
The song is surprisingly new, written by popular Dublin folkies Dublin City Ramblers, in a lament for the changes aleady changing the face of Pete St. John’s Dublin. He dislikes the “new glass cages”, the modern office blocks and flats being erected along the quays, and says farewell to Anna Liffey.
U2 – Ballad of Ronnie Drew
This is a single by U2, The Dubliners, Kíla and A Band of Bowsies, recorded as a charitable project, with proceeds going to the Irish Cancer Society – owing to Ronnie Drew’s cancer condition.
Ronnie Drew of course was well known as singer with the Dubliners – his is the voice of ‘The Irish Rover’. Drew died within months of this being recorded St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin following his long illness.
Darren Hayes – Dublin Sky
Darren Hayes is an Aussie, the former singer of the group Savage Garden. In his own words:
First song I ever wrote on my own. Sat down with a guitar in Dublin one day and howled deep from my heart about my woes. It’s entirely literal. I was at a crossroads and sensing the end of a relationship that I didn’t want to let go of. It’s a song about loss, and regret; of sentiment and all the things we should have done.
Joe Ely – Dublin Blues
Performed in tribute to Guy Clark, who wrote the song. Here’s the original. Clark was a texas folk and country singer who recorded more than twenty albums over the years, and pretty much invented the progressive country genre. Just a good old boy, miles from home, missing his love.
Antje Duvekot – Dublin Boys
Another song about leaving town and leaving lovers, this time from Antje Duvekot, straight outta Delaware.
Damien Dempsey – Sing Our Cares Away
To help close this list I come back to Damien Dempsey, whose lyrical portraits of modern Dublin are never less than powerful. This is the opening song from Damien’s third album, Shots.
When you’re with people in the inner city, you think, ‘they’re my people’. They go back thousands of years and look at the state of them; that could have been me if my family had stayed in the inner city; if my family had stayed in Ballymun Flats that could have been me. When I was 12, all of my friends were doing what they could to get out of their heads – sniffing glue, gases, acid… if I had stayed there, I could have ended up on heroin. People say colonisation, that’s in the past. I think it has affected us, mentally, and I think we [the Irish] still have a lot of demons. Damien Dempsey.
Pharrell Williams (Dublin is) Happy
A fine upstanding Irish record by a man from, er, Virginia. Of course they’re happy – it’s not raining!
A few folks didn’t make the cut, like Paddy Macaloon, Nick Kelly, Mary Coughlan, Rory Gallagher all of whome doubtless will appear on a future Songs For Ireland article.
Dedicated to the Murphy family of Enniscorthy, particularly Christine and Nellie who made me so welcome on that first memorable trip, and the memory of Bridie O’Reilly on the Ha’penny Bridge who said ‘yes’.
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