Sunday 16 June 2019

Television review: Back to the Old Country

  • A Little Bit Country (TG4)

Stage legend Declan Nerney is still keeping it country
Stage legend Declan Nerney is still keeping it country
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

In vacant mood last Monday afternoon, I chanced across a programme on TG4 called A Little Bit Country. And I was transported back to a place barely remembered, to a once-mighty civilisation which is not mighty any more, but which is not yet gone. Or apparently even thinking of going.

The programme itself was made in 2006, and features the voice of Shay Healy describing the lives of various giants of the country music scene in Ireland, the Country 'n' Irish scene, call it what you will. This particular episode featured Declan Nerney.

Thus I found myself being drawn back into this culture which I had long forgotten, by the unimpeachable authority of the voice of Shay Healy, who knows everything about this way of life, and who looks on it with the insight and the compassion of a fellow trouper.

But wait… along with re-runs of A Little Bit Country, it turned out that TG4 was also showing various editions of The Foster & Allen Show, while elsewhere you could find country nuggets such as Opry Dhoire Duets, billed as "a compilation of music from the country stars who have taken to the stage at the Millennium Forum throughout this series. Featuring Susan McCann".

It's a strange thing, country music, because it can encompass everything from the towering genius of Hank Williams or George Jones, to the equally towering badness of the more cynical stars, to the stuff you can see on this TV channel called Keep It Country, which features modern songwriters and performers who have clearly never been in "the country" in their lives. They don't even have a minor drink problem to their name, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why they are not as interesting as their more illustrious forbears.

Indeed Declan Nerney alluded to this part of the ancient culture from which he sprang, when he spoke about his own decision early in his career to stay away from the drink. Oh what a wise move it was, in Ireland of that time.

Nerney is still out there, playing various hotels in Ireland where the people still come to jive, or going to Spain for the famous Hooley In the Sun.

But there is another kind of wisdom which was possessed by the Irish country singers of yore, one which is rarely discussed in the many conversations about "the arts" in Ireland.

They knew something all the time, something that many are still unwilling to admit - they knew that it was almost impossible to make a living in Ireland, by producing original work.

Last year the highly regarded author Donal Ryan had to return to his job with the Workplace Relations Commission, because even as a well-known writer of literary fiction, he could not pay the bills.

From this we may extrapolate that if Donal Ryan was unable to survive on his art alone, essentially it can't be done except in the most freakish circumstances - and yet we like to imagine it otherwise, we like to think that we are lovers of the arts, that not only do we recognise work of high quality, we support it.

But of course we do not, and we never have done, which explains why so many of our most celebrated artists spent most of their lives in other countries, where it is possible, at least in theory, for such people to have enough to eat.

Which is all the Country 'n' Irish folk wanted - indeed sometimes eating was not even the priority, as long as they didn't have to be pulling a bullock out of a drain in the middle of the night.

And they found a way to achieve this, by, shall we say, staying within certain parameters.

And since you can still find them all over TG4 in the week before Christmas, it seems that they're still finding a way.

I think of a line attributed to Andy Warhol: "You know it's art when the cheque clears."

By that measurement, maybe these people were the only true artists we ever had.

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