Gene Kerrigan: Our Christmas woes committed to tune
There's nothing like a good festive song to reveal ugly truth about the state of the nation, writes Gene Kerrigan
There are lots of great Christmas songs, but very occasionally, a song comes along that not only catches the Christmas spirit but somehow clicks with the mood of the times. Such songs use heightened seasonal sentiments to connect with the deeper emotions of the era. For instance, White Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Happy Xmas (War is Over), Fairytale of New York.
This year, we can acclaim a unique Irish voice as it seeks to join the pantheon of Christmas classics. Where the great Irving Berlin has gone before, along with Shane MacGowan, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, John Lennon, Nat 'King' Cole and Mel 'Chestnuts Roasting' Torme. I speak, of course, of Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly. Writer, singer, drinker, bowsie, last of the red hot republicans, with the emphasis on pub.
Denny's song, Merry Christmas on Merrion Road, lacks the subtle dynamics of White Christmas. In fact, Denny's name and the word subtle have never before been mentioned in the same sentence. Nevertheless, this time Ding Dong has produced a song that captures a moment in the history of this great little nation.
White Christmas is a great song, its greatness dulled by over-familiarity with decades of syrupy performances. The music superbly serves the words, alternately lifting and subverting the mood. It was written by one of the truly great American songwriters, Irving Berlin, who was both relentlessly commercial and an artist. But however good the song, it would not have become iconic if it didn't catch the mood of the times in which it emerged.
The lyrics sketch a supposed idyllic Christmas, "just like the ones we used to know". Berlin had no such memories -- he was a refugee from the unspeakable horrors of the Russian anti-Jewish pogroms. White Christmas was originally a satire. By the time he developed the final version of the song, in 1942, America was at war, the troops were away. Berlin cut the satirical elements and produced a moving reminder of the human urge to recall, and the long to relive, a simpler, happier time (real or imaginary).
By 1944, the saddest of Christmas songs, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, reflected the melancholy of a generation overwhelmed by war and loss -- loved ones dead, missing or still in the line of fire. "Some day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow./Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."
In 1971, John Lennon caught the mood of a generation that wanted an end to the Vietnam war. In 1987, in a deep recession, Fairytale of New York emerged -- a bitter narrative of love befuddled, dreams mislaid and the bells still ringing out for Christmas day. Hopes crushed, hope still struggling to survive.
And what would a Christmas song sound like today, one that tried to capture the spirit of these times? How would it encompass the impoverishment of the many, the continued flaunting of great wealth by the few, the excesses, the lies and the contempt casually displayed by our leaders?
There are always voices of dissent. In the Eighties, Moving Hearts and the Blades. Today, Damien Dempsey and the Mighty Stef. The latter sings of the destruction wrought by the liars and thieves, and when he launches into his chorus, "We want blood!", I'm sure he's being metaphorical.
As always, we can assume that there are things going on underneath the radar, invisible to those of us over the age of 22. I was amazed when some young people popped up on Vincent Browne's TV3 show and launched into a bounc-ing version of the late Liam Weldon's majestic Dark Horse on the Wind. "Now, charlatans wear dead men's shoes/Aye, and rattle dead men's bones./'Ere the dust has settled on their tombs/ They've sold the very stones."
Somewhere, Weldon's spirit was dancing.
I'm not sure where Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly is coming from, politically. And I'm not sure I want to know. He began as the invention of Paul Woodfull, musician and comedian (part of the I, Keano crew). Denny started off as a pub republican, subverting nat-ionalistic bombast (The Cra-ck We Had the Day We Died for Ireland). His song on the Famine was, it can truly be said, an original take on the subject (The Potatoes Aren't Looking the Best).
A recent song, The Ireland We Loved, laments the arrival of our European masters and the collapse of the country we loved. "From now on we're going to be doing things their way." He then notes that the Ireland we loved included 18-hour hospital queues, Magdalene Laundries and priests raping children.
Denny isn't radio-friendly, his language is direct. You really don't want to hear precisely how, in search of drink, he'd take a shortcut through Brian Cowen. His solution to the current debt crisis? Upset "the Krauts", he sings in Germany Calling. "If we do what they want, we'll get no bleedin' thanks, we'll all be eating nettles to pay their poxy banks." His answer is mass emigration to Germany, and "make Berlin like Temple Bar at 12 on a Saturday night". Stay there drinking until they give in.
It's a bowsie version of the "let's get stroppy" strategy recently canvassed among our intellectuals.
Merry Christmas on Merrion Road won't be on any radio playlists, and wouldn't be even if Denny cleaned up the language. The song reminds us that it's not all doom and gloom this yuletide, then it lists the lucky residents of the titular road, the barristers, doctors, bankers, higher civil servants, judges, developers, brokers, consultants, academics and politicians -- and their celebrations amidst the ruins. "The crack will be manic, the turkey organic."
Mind you, this isn't just rhetoric, it's documentary. "No danger they'll reap from the seeds they have sowed."
Although lacking any Christmas references, Denny's earlier song, S'pose a Riot is Out of the Question?, is possibly his masterpiece. "Well, they gambled and royally cavorted/They drank and they shagged and they snorted./They cheated and bribed, they extorted and lied, and when it went wrong they were sorted."
The song is about widespread timidity in the face of wholesale robbery. The tone is regretful, resigned. The fighting Irish don't do anger, Denny sings, except when Thierry Henry handles a ball, or someone throws the head over Pat Kenny's wages.
The video (available on YouTube) is strong -- a middle-aged, overweight man, standing in front of the GPO, the Garden of Remembrance, the Dail, keeping time on a drum slung from one shoulder. "These wankers are sousing on Bolly/Folks are dying on hospital trolleys." Asking if a response is out of the quest-ion, and answering in the negative. "I just thought, sure, t'was worth a suggest-ion". A shrug: "It's your cou-ntry, your money, your call."
The treetops glisten, and children listen to hear sleighbells in the snow. This year, some of those kids are children of a lesser Santa. Their presents come in cheap plastic. The turkey will be chicken roll, the halls will be decked with cheap tinsel. And in the new year the kids will be fed from the bottom shelf of the supermarket, where the "white mince" is kept, 28 per cent fat.
It's good that such a state of affairs is noted in song.