Tuesday 24 April 2018

Sound man: Christy Moore - a national treasure in plain sight

He's the great poet of Irish popular music, so why has it taken so long for Christy Moore to be acknowledged as more than a folk singer

Contemplating Christy: The singer revisits some of the places and people that informed his body of work in the upcoming RTÉ documentary Christy Moore: Journey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Contemplating Christy: The singer revisits some of the places and people that informed his body of work in the upcoming RTÉ documentary Christy Moore: Journey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Christy Moore in full flight on stage.
Ed Power

Ed Power

To spend time with Christy Moore's music is to receive a crash-course in 30 years of Irish political and social upheaval. Across his career, the Kildare bard has sung about violence in the North, stagnation in the south, the plight of Irish brickies in London and the hypocrisies that, in the darkest days of the 1980s, led to teenagers secretly giving birth in freezing grottos. It's all there in his songbook: everything good, bad, ugly and absurd about Ireland.

But it is arguably only now, in the latter stages of his professional life, that Moore's distinctly Irish brand of genius has been widely acknowledged. He was always popular but not necessarily respected beyond his fanbase. That is no longer the case. Ahead of an upcoming nationwide tour, RTÉ will tomorrow and Monday screen a two-part documentary that looks at his songs through the prism of the events that informed them. Moore has been at last recognised as a national treasure hidden in plain sight.

That is quite a shift from the days when he was perceived - in polite circles in Dublin, especially - as a yokel who had broken some unspoken convention by singing in his native Midlands accent and addressing topics ordinary Irish people might recognise from day-to-day life. That reflexive cringe has gone and Moore is finally receiving his dues. It not longer seems absurd to talk of him as a sort of Irish Dylan.

"He has this media image of being a folksy kind of guy who doesn't think outside the box," says Mark McLoughlin, director of Christy Moore: Journey. "He is deeply intelligent and aware, with an expansive mind that goes beyond the more simple songs for which he is known, such as Lisdoonvarna."

The Moore who emerges in McLoughlin's film is softly spoken, easy-going almost. On the cusp of 71, the singer no longer resembles the firebrand of popular perception. Even when reflecting on several of his most contentious tunes - ballads that warned against a planned nuclear power facility at Carnsore Point in Wexford or the treatment of H-Block prisoners on the north - he comes across as contemplative and humble. Less a protest singer than someone deeply affected by the wrongs he sees all around.

"Christy is motivated by people," says McLoughlin. "He hears things and picks up on it. He has had a number of songs banned - some were political, some human stories. Yet I wouldn't describe him as political and I don't think he would either. He has a passion for humanity - for giving voice to those who have nobody to speak up on their behalf."

Moore was not exactly in a hurry to be lionised on screen. As he explains in the documentary, he has always been shy. This is what led him to close his eyes as he sang - a performance tic for which he is known to this day. However, he had enjoyed McLoughlin's previous documentaries and, after some cajoling, relented.

"No one has ever chronicled the human rights issues and all of the things he has in general stood up for. People have knocked on his door over the years - he turned them all away," says the filmmaker.

"My idea was to take the songs to their sources. I was banging away for a year or two. He finally agreed. He feels that, at 70 going on 71, it was important to drop the guard somewhat."

The film is full of moving scenes as Moore revisits the places and people that informed some of his most important work. In one difficult-to-watch sequence, Moore recalls the background to the heartfelt dirge 'Ann Lovett' - about the Longford teenager of the same name who died giving birth beside a grotto in 1984.

She had kept her pregnancy secret and was found with her baby son dead beside her. Teen pregnancy was a huge taboo at the time and Moore was going where other musicians would not dare venture. It is a testament to his humanity that he conceived of the track not as protest, but memorial. Ann Lovett's name was all over the newspapers - yet nobody, it seemed to him, had paused to consider the frightened young woman behind the headlines. He wanted to restore her humanity - to remind us she was a person, not a symbol of a country crippled by religiosity.

"It was a memorial card for Ann Lovett," he tells McLoughlin on screen. "We've never seen a photograph of her. Even now, we don't know what she looked like... As a society we have become more compassionate. But there are still things going on that are not the hallmark of a compassionate society. We are by no means there yet."

Moore confronted powerful taboos in a similar fashion when singing about the 1981 Stardust nightclub fire, in which 48 people lost their lives. The lyrics to 'They Never Came Home' resulted in the singer being held in contempt of court and the song being removed from his 1985 album Ordinary Man. When families of the dead gathered in 2006 to protest the opening of a pub on a site adjoining the now demolished club, they played it through the night.

"The record was withdrawn,'' Moore says in the documentary. "It gives you a sense of where Irish society was at the time."

Moore was born in Newbridge in 1945 and through his twenties was a leading figure in the Irish folk revival. His early band Planxty was, in particular, regarded as dragging traditional music into the modern era. However, it was through the 1980s that he established himself as a figure on the political landscape, with music that spoke out on behalf of the hunger strikers in the north (a viewpoint regarded as unacceptable by many in the Republic) and the Dunnes Stores workers striking in protest at apartheid.

But he has had to battle personal demons, too, as McLoughlin's film acknowledges. Moore struggled for years with alcohol. He speaks movingly in Journey about his fight for sobriety and the endless lies alcoholics tell themselves.

"That drugs and alcohol are creative substances is an illusion," he says. "That is one of those lies. We are convinced that by ingesting the substances were are helping. We are just conning ourselves. Eventually, it breaks us and sometimes it kills us."

Even today, Moore's voice carries weight. When he branded Diageo's Arthur's Day promotion a crass marketing wheeze in 2013 ("A&E will be like a drunk tank in the firing line while Diageo goes AWOL at closing time."), the entire country stopped and paid attention.

"He isn't stuck in the past," says McLoughlin. "I think people get that. He is even now saying things about the economic crash - asking why aren't we standing up for ourselves, why aren't we trying to change things? There's a power to his words and I think we won't really appreciate that until he is gone."

Christy Moore: Journey will be broadcast on RTÉ1, Sunday and Monday at 9.30pm

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