BY EARLE HITCHNER
Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. This article was originally published in the March 16, 2000, issue of The Wall Street Journal and is reprinted here by permission of Earle Hitchner.
St. Patrick's Day is Irish culture to dye for: green potatoes, green bread, green cupcakes, green beer, green river (in Chicago). It also features a glut of green entertainment, whether "St. Patrick: The Irish Legend," last Sunday night's tedious TV movie that had me actually rooting for the snakes driven off by the title character, or the Irish Tenors, three John McCormack-wannabes steeped in sentimental songs now endlessly flogged on public television fund-raisers.
But not everything in this annual emerald immersion is cultural kitsch. Happily, the season of St. Patrick offers a wider showcase for good Irish music, including songs that display a literate, cheeky sense of Hibernian humor. They have come a long way from, say, the 19th-century novelty hit of "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?"--later covered by America's most popular singer of Irish lineage, Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby.
Not surprisingly, a number of the better comic songs are about drinking, and often it's whiskey they're singing about, the word itself derived from uisce beatha, Gaelic for "water of life." The most potent is poteen, Ireland's version of American moonshine, and its "medicinal" properties have become the stuff of legend. In the traditional Irish song "Stick to the Craythur," it cures "the vapors, the scratch and the gout" and can "make the dumb talk [and] make the lame walk." A drop of poteen spilled by a nurse over an infant also produces this hilarious scene:
"On the floor I lay crawlin' and screamin' and bawlin' / Till Father and Mother soon came to the fore / Conceived I lay dying, all wailing and crying / They found I was only a-cryin' for more."
Other songs of tippling wit are "Tim Finnegan's Wake," where the deceased is suddenly revived by a "noggin of whiskey" that shatters during an altercation, and "Whiskey, You're the Devil," where the elixir, described as "sweeter, stronger, decent-er and spunkier than tea," leads the narrator "astray" to America. Some comic Irish drinking songs deal not with revelry but recovery, be it the dreaded "day after" or an outright attempt at abstinence.
In "Delirium Tremens," written and sung by one of Ireland's most respected solo performers, Christy Moore, the narrator reviews a parade of apparitions induced by his condition: "The Pope and J. F. Kennedy were starin' in me face," and "the Child o' Prague began to dance around the mantelpiece." It's a serious subject with a literally sobering point--"I knew I'd never ever ever drink again"--made through a long skein of humor, something Irish writers do so well.
The workaday world also provides ample material for mirth. Construction is still a trade pursued by many Irish immigrants to America, and it's tapped for Three Stooges-like pratfall fun in the song "Dear Boss." In a letter explaining his absence from the job, an Irish laborer gives a detailed account of the short-sighted shortcut he took to remove bricks from the 14th floor of a building. His hapless use of a barrel and rope to haul the bricks has him hurtling up "like a rocket," banging his head on the pulley, crashing down to the ground, and getting hit by falling bricks and, finally, the empty barrel.
"It broke three ribs and my left arm, and I can only say / That I hope you'll understand why Paddy's not at work today," he pleads.
Musicians themselves can
become comic fodder, especially players of the bodhrán, a hand-held Irish frame
drum. Jokes about this instrument and its practitioners abound: What's the best
way to play a bodhrán? With a penknife. What's the definition of a true Irish
gentleman? Someone who
can play the bodhrán but doesn't. But turnabout is fair play, and bodhrán veteran Gino Lupari of the Irish traditional band Four Men and a Dog boldly defends his fellow percussionists in "Wrap It Up," a song composed by Irish journalist Neil Johnston and guitarist Arty McGlynn. The peppery cadence of rap combines with Irish cool in Lupari's singing.
"I'm a raker, I'm a shaker, I can make that white top hum /I'm the man who puts the iddery in the skiddery-aye-dee-dum," he insists, later adding, "You paying? / I'm staying."
Tim O'Brien, an American musician better known for bluegrass, wrote the comic song "Talkin' Cavan" about an April 1998 trip he took to Ireland in order to dig up his family roots ("you can call 'em tubers"). Adopting the picaresque, talking-blues style of early Bob Dylan, O'Brien drolly recounts the search for his great-grandfather's cottage in County Cavan. Along the way he discovers Molly O'Brien's bar, where he quaffs Guinness stout. "It's like drinking bread," O'Brien sings. "There's a loaf in every pint." He also meets some colorful local characters, including one who says of his great-grandfather, "A Cavan man then? You know, a lot of people wouldn't admit to that." The whole stranger-in-a-strange-land experience, O'Brien writes in a liner note, "was at once ludicrous and heartwarming."
The ludicrous, not the heartwarming, greeted Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, singer-songwriter Robbie O'Connell on his first trip to the United States. His culture shock was profound, not because he was an Irishman in America, but because Irish Americans had a different interpretation of what an "authentic" Irish song was.
In the autobiographical "You're Not Irish," found on his CD of 13 "Humorous Songs--Live" (available at www.celticamusic.com), he recalls getting on stage in a Boston Irish bar and launching into a Gaelic song.
But the audience "looked at me suspiciously," he sings, "and I didn't know what was wrong / Then all of a sudden they started to shout, 'Now sing a real Irish song.'" O'Connell gets the same treatment at Irish bars in other U.S. cities, arousing his own suspicion of "a secret society" clamoring for the likes of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "Toora Loora Looral."
I suspect other talented performers, bearing the best in songs from or about Ireland, will face a similar test tomorrow in America. But, funny enough, I still harbor hope.
Earle Hitchner is an award-winning journalist who writes for The Wall Street Journal, Irish Echo, Irish Music, Billboard, New Choices, The Oxford American, and many other publications.