We will drink a toast to the Irish. The men whom God made mad. All their wars were merry. And all their songs were sad."
Thus said GK Chesterton, one of the great philosophers of his day. Wars are never merry. And not all of our songs are sad. However, in the generations after the Famine it was inevitable that many of our songs were sad.
Teresa Brayton wrote a song that has lasted down through the years. It tells the trauma of a man working in America who couldn't afford to go home to his mother's funeral:
For here am I in Broadway/ A-building bricks by load/ As they carried out her coffin/ Down the old bog road.
The Rose of Tralee is our best-known song internationally. The narrator is a young man from Kerry who is serving in the British army in India: The grim hand of war has now torn us asunder/ I'm lonely tonight for my Rose of Tralee.
Some of the songs that spoke of the '98 Rebellion are melodramatic. There is a special verse in Kelly The Boy From Killane: The bright sun of freedom grew dark at New Ross/ And sank beneath the Slaney's red waves/ And poor Wexford stripped naked hung nailed on a cross/ With her heart pierced by traitors and slaves.
Thomas Moore was the greatest songwriter of the 19th century. Not all critics admired him. One said that he had taken the wild harp of Eireann and turned it into a musical snuffbox. However, many of Moore's melodies have survived.
The coming of the gramophone wasn't welcomed by lovers of classical music or folk music but in the bad times of the '30s, '40s and '50s it brought great pleasure and consolation to many people who otherwise led lonely lives.
It popularised some great singers, especially Delia Murphy. She resurrected an old Kerry song, The Spinning Wheel. It tells about a young girl who was trying to steal away from her grandmother who was minding her.
The girl to her lips puts her fingers, throws a fleeting glance at her drowsy grandmother/ Slower and slower now the wheel rings, slower and slower now the reel spins/ Ere the reel and the wheel stopped the ringing and moving/ Through the grove the young lovers in the moonlight were moving.
The gramophone brought in a new wave of songs, many of them patriotic and rather one-sided.
Here's to the boys of Kilmichael, those brave men so gallant and true/ They fought 'neath the green flag of Eireann. And conquered the Red White and Blue.
That song didn't tell the story of the 16-year-old soldier who escaped the ambush and spent three days trying to get back to the barracks. His feelings while on the run can hardly be imagined but when the IRA caught him they showed him no mercy. He was executed and his body was thrown into a boghole. Wars are seldom merry.
Margaret Barry, like Delia Murphy, brought back some old songs. Her best is probably The Factory Girl.
As I roved out on a bright Summer's morning. The birds in the bushes did whistle and sing/ The lads and the lassies in couples were all sporting, going back to the factory their work for to begin/ I spied one amongst them. She was fairer than any/ Her cheeks were like the red roses that bloom in the Spring/ Her brow was like the lillies that flower in yonder garden. She was only a hardworking factory girl.
Of course, the gulf in social classes is expressed in a famous song called Young Willie And The Farmer's Daughter. Was this how she hoped to break the social gap? Sometimes exile doesn't make the heart grow any fonder.
One day as young Willie was ploughing the bann. And whistlng to his horse to cheer them along/ The farmer's daughter was watching him and said to herself "You are deep in my heart love, this many long day/ "We will go to Americ-A, so far far away, and I'll be true to my plough boy forever
Margaret Barry had a strange career. She reached her peak when she was singing, accompanied by a brilliant fiddler from Sligo called Michael Gorman. They performed in the Craven Arms in Camden Town and they were loved by London's intelligentsia, the poets and the painters and all others engaged in creativity. She came back to Ireland and embarked on a tour that was only a part success. Some people thought she was a tinker or a Traveller and weren't enthusiastic about her. Her manager, Neilus O'Connor, decided to go to America.
The Irish people there didn't fancy the image of a woman who sat up at the counter and drank pints. They came back to Ireland and she got by as best she could. She passed away out of this world while living in a cottage in Co Tyrone. Like many other great Irish singers she was almost completely ignored by RTE.
You could say the same about Dolly McMahon and Eibhlis Moore. I have lost touch with Dolly, a magic singer and a good friend. I last met Eibhlis at Dublin airport when she was on the way to do a series of one-woman shows in Scotland. I couldn't but admire her courage.
Fogra speisialta: The best of Kerry wishes go to Catherine Nelsey in Middlesex who is setting out on a new project