Monday 24 October 2016

In search of Jimmy Crowley's Cork

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Jimmy Crowley's classic collection of Cork urban ballads, Songs From The Beautiful City, credits my distant relative, Dick 'Cardy' Forbes, with writing the lyrics for The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee.

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Forbes later found fame writing the weekly war-time sketch show for the Theatre Royal, Dublin, before dying, before his time, of TB and too much work.

Jimmy Crowley's book, which deserves a doctorate for its annotations alone, has been on my bedside table for the past week as I prepare for my annual Christmas trip to Cork.

Naturally I am up and down to Cork all year, from either the Baltimore or Dublin end. But the Christmas trip is mostly a journey into memory.

That's because I'm the eldest of nine children. Like most large families, with wide age gaps, our biggest bonds are in the past.

Jimmy Crowley records that it was in the "Harris rambling house" in Douglas that he met his first musical mentor, my brother John Harris. With another brother of mine, Mick Harris, he formed his first ballad group, The Die-hards.

Jimmy does not forget his mentors: "John Harris gave me the golden key that opened the door to the hidden, untarnished Ireland."

This weekend I'll be returning to the Crowley-Harris rambling house, beginning in Baltimore, and passing through Skibbereen and Bandon, both badly hit by floods.

But first a brief detour to last Monday's Claire Byrne show. It featured two superb civic spokespersons, Cathal O'Donovan, of Skibbereen, and Gillian Powell, of Bandon, who made a lucid case for long-term flood relief.

In passing, I should mention that people in both towns seem to have been very impressed by the visit of the straight-talking Minister of State for the OPW Simon Harris.

Pity Harris wasn't in the Claire Byrne studio instead of Alan Kelly. He would have flushed out the waffling Matt Carthy, MEP of Sinn Fein.

The programme was a prime example of the RTE bad habit of putting Sinn Fein spokespersons up against the Government, thus giving that party a profile it does not deserve.

Carthy has no form on flooding. So why was he put sitting like an cuckoo in the chair that should have been occupied by Michael McGrath, of Fianna Fail, who has done sterling work on the insurance issue?

Minister Alex White should be asked about this. Last week he turned up on The Week in Politics with his usual great welcome for himself.

Aine Lawlor wasn't having any. She brushed off his chummy overtures and chewed away at him as if he was just any other minister.

Returning to Jimmy Crowley's Cork, let me stress my visit is not so much a trip to a modern city as a retrospective of the six years, 1960-1966, which left three indelible marks on my imaginative life as an adolescent and young adult.

First, as Jimmy Crowley recalls, the Harris rambling house was open to all, provided they could play, sing or present interesting angsts to my Roscommon mother, Margaret Beirne.

For all her flamboyant fertility - she proudly popped out nine children with as little fuss as a factory conveyor belt - my mother was a proto-feminist in that she refused to cook and only did cursory housework.

She preferred to spend her days surrounded by family and friends, her bare feet stuck in the cinders of the tiled fireplace of her badly built bourgeois house, a fiddle tucked under her chin.

With only a national school education she would then lay down the fiddle, take a few lines from the Bible or Shakespeare, and preach a sermon on them.

Her charisma, cheerful personality and caustic sense of humour gave her guru status with musicians, malcontents and troubled teenagers.

But if my mother was lovingly loquacious, my reserved father was an even more moving example of what the poet Philip Larkin called "tremendous inarticulate love".

Tom Harris was torn between his socialism and his doomed struggle to keep his small business alive. As a boy I never suspected this preoccupied man noticed my profound passion for the Billy Bunter stories of Frank Richards.

But one year, hidden behind the high cistern in the bathroom, I found a treasure trove of 50 new books in the Billy Bunter series, pristine pages in glowing, colourful covers.

On Christmas morning when I found the box of books under the tree I put on a good show as befitted a theatrical family which had produced Dick Forbes and Paudie Harris who wrote the popular Swans on the Lee series for the Opera House.

The second formative influence on my life came from military camps with the FCA army reserve, which I believe to be the best system for breaking down class barriers.

The FCA forced me to share freezing huts, firing ranges at Fermoy, field kitchens and trench latrines with a wide range of working-class and rural tearaways who soon squeezed any precious pimples from my persona.

Today, I still think there is a case for a short, compulsory term of military service when I consider the class divide in Dublin.

Seldom does a young Ross O'Carroll-Kelly meet and socialise with people from the same class background as Conor McGregor, still less eat, sleep and defecate with them as was the norm in the FCA.

Finally, between 1960 and 1966, my cultural education was completed by Cork's Everyman Theatre, the brainchild of John O'Shea, to whom I owe more than I can hope to repay.

In the six years before I left for Dublin I saw the best of European theatre on the Everyman stage, ranging from Max Frisch's The Fire Raisers to Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

Accordingly when I left Cork to join RTE in 1966 I was able to hold my own in a station still largely dominated by American and British producers.

Most were brilliant men and women. But they were not equipped to engage with the sharper parts of modern Irish history which had tentatively emerged with the 1966 celebrations.

My first 10 years in RTE were fertile in programme terms. This was helped by my struggle to escape from nationalism to socialism.

The tensions can be seen in three well-received programmes from that period. The first is The Testimony of James Connolly, a dramatisation of Connolly's debates wth Fr Kane SJ.

The second is a Feach film documentary on Liam Mellows' abortive rising in Galway. Shot in one day, it includes a moving interview with the last surviving volunteer who fought with him.

Above all there is The Greening of America, a Brechtian television cabaret telling the story of the Irish in America from the Revolution to the visit of John F Kennedy.

In any normal national broadcasting station, these pioneering programmes would be showcased by RTE for the 2016 celebrations. We shall see.

Meantime, I can console myself that my family's theatrical tradition is still going strong, and not just through my daughter Nancy.

Next week I hope to have a chat with my nephew, Tommy Harris. He'll be playing Jimmy Boyle in the Everyman production of The Plough and the Stars which starts in February.

May I wish my old friend Jimmy Crowley and all my readers a Happy Christmas.

Sunday Independent

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