Saturday 22 October 2016

Fifty years on, 'Only Our Rivers Run Free' is still flowing beautifully along

Published 10/08/2015 | 02:30

Christy Moore's recording increased the popularity of the track
Christy Moore's recording increased the popularity of the track

Mickey Mac Connell was barely 18 when he wrote 'Only Our Rivers Run Free'. That was 50 years ago this week.

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Mickey's anthem has been translated into 30 languages and there are hundreds of recordings. Most of us know the chorus and the song is sung at least once at every pub sing-along. The young boy's ballad about the Troubles in his home place has stood the test of time.

Mickey maintains that there is hardly a man or woman from the North who hasn't damaged by the terrors of a long war.

"It is my honest belief that all of my generation who grew up in the North during the Troubles were maimed, dwarfed and diminished in myriad ways. We are all survivors of death and madness and are all individually damaged in many ways."

He found redemption and some peace in his music and his family. There was so much fun too that you'd be bursting to meet up.

We travelled to Donegal for a festival in Culdaff, a small village with a big heart. We drank and talked. Two days it took, and if you add in the two days travelling up, well then that made four, plus three in Culdaff.

I knew the real Mickey after that trip. I told him about my troubles and he told me about the Troubles. For me, he is a mix of an older brother and a father-confessor.

By way of a peace offering, I gave a present to Mickey's wife Maura. It was a holy picture of Padre Pio, bought in Knock, where we stopped for a cure. Padre Pio was drained and worn from losing all that blood. Maura said Mickey looked even worse.

Maura keeps Mickey going and tries to mind him by throwing parties at every conceivable opportunity. They have two daughters, Clare and Kerry, named by Maura after the counties where the girls were conceived. Mickey loves his three girls. And they love him.

They're great sport and my heart lifts when the family come into the pub. And his brothers are so brilliantly musical, so generous and so gentlemanly.

The healing is ongoing, though. There are confidences that will never be broken. Suffice to say Mickey was of his time and of his people.

As he says himself: "There was no middle ground back then. You were either with us or against us." And yes, the North cracked him, but he never broke.

'Only Our Rivers Run Free' was written out of a seething anger at the way our people up North were being treated by a regime that denied a minority the most basic of civil rights, such as one man, one vote.

I'm never really at ease when it comes to writing about the Troubles. You can never really understand why people were forced to take up arms to defend their families until you've been through it.

I worked for three days a week in the North about 20 years ago. It was then I saw our people looked South for back-up, but it never came. We blew bugles for sure, but there was no cavalry.

I'm not talking about violence here. I was never for that. My heroes were John Hume and Séamus Mallon. For most of us, the North really was a foreign country, best ignored and a problem never to be solved.

Maybe we never knew how much you loved us. The young boy's song was a cry for help.

Oh where are you now when we need you?

What burns where the flame used to be?

Are you gone like the snows of last winter?

The older Mickey still remains "unapologetically republican" but he's all for the peace now. "I don't want my kids and grandkids to go through what we went through." He is ashamed at times of the crimes committed in the name of republicanism.

Mickey settled in Listowel with Maura back in the 1970s. "I came for a fleadh cheoil and never went back."

When we first met, years ago, I was the conservative know-all, "surely destined for high office", who was certain all republicans were bloodthirsty killers.

Mickey had an image of me as someone singing 'Faith of our Fathers' on the dockside for General O'Duffy as he sailed away to make mayhem in Spain.

I dream now of a united Ireland and of travelling back up North with Mickey when our rivers really do run free.

But he is annoyingly self-deprecating. When Mickey sings 'Only Our Rivers' in John B's, he introduces the song by announcing: "And now for a medley of my greatest hit." We will do another piece on another day about the 50 and more masterpieces he has written.

Mickey wrote the song for his father when he saw defeat in his Dad's eyes for the first time. It was at a riot in Enniskillen, when the bad men of the B Specials were beating up nationalists randomly and without provocation.

Mickey was driven by a fierce sense of social justice. He became a courageous journalist and columnist, who wrote so beautifully for so many years. He saw his song-writing as part of his campaign his campaign to right wrongs.

Christy Moore recorded a superb version of Mickey's masterpiece. Soon enough 'Only Our Rivers Run Free' became the theme tune of the civil rights movement.

Fifty years ago, a young lad's song for his father became the anthem of a dispossessed people.

We'll finish now with a verse from Mickey.

When apples still grow in November,

When blossoms still grow from each tree

When leaves are still green in December

It's then that our land will be free.

I wander her hills and her valleys,

And still through my sorrows I see,

A land that has never known freedom

And only her rivers run free.

Irish Independent

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