Akron Irish: Play on Irish Love Songs
By Lisa O’Rourke
Music is inexorably linked to events in our lives. Christmas is just not Christmas without some Mariah Carey in the air. It’s impossible to have a love story without a soundtrack.
As Shakespeare famously said through Count Orsino in “The Twelfth Night,” “If music be the food of love, play on.” The quote is not quite the romantic trope that it initially seems to be, since Orsino goes on to say that he wants so much love that he is sickened and put off it for life.
Not ideal, but there it is, the link between music and love that is cemented in our imaginations. So, is this true of the Irish? Let’s look at a few classic Irish love songs and see if there is a connection there.
To have not heard “The Galway Girl” at this point, you can count your experiment as a social hermit a big success. In 2007, the song was featured in the movie, “P.S. I Love You.” The film was a cinematic version of the same titled book, written by Cecilia Ahern, daughter of the former president Bertie Ahern.
The homegrown quality of the book and film gave them both cultural glue in Ireland. “Galway Girl” seems to have outlasted the popularity of the movie and has acquired an iconic status.
This was a long road for a song written by a Texan, Steve Earle, for a girl from Howth, County Dublin, musician Joyce Redmond. Earle recorded the song in 2000, but it was not until the Irish artist Mundy did a cover with accordion playing Clare Girl, Sharon Shannon, that the song became a hit. Their version trampolined the song into number one status in Ireland in 2008.
As part of a successful but poorly timed bid to make Galway the European City of Culture of 2020, 15,000 people sang “The Galway Girl” on Shop Street in Galway in 2016, accompanied by Mundy, Sharon Shannon and countless musicians and dancers. The song is a joyful lament that muses about a girl who has that West of Ireland look, black hair and blue eyes. Equally weighted in the song is love of the girl and a strong sense of place.
The song mentions the Long Walk, the quay walk in Galway around Spanish Arch, and the Salthill Promenade, the concrete boardwalk along the beach just outside Galway proper. The romance ends when the protagonist must go home, and the listener is left wondering if he will miss the girl or Galway more.
Fairytale of New York
The next love song that comes to mind is “Fairytale of New York.” Ok, some people think of this as a Christmas song, but its durability and tension come from the relationship in the song. It was written by Shane McGowan and Jem Finer in answer to a bet as to whether The Pogues could pen a Christmas song.
The answer was that they could, but it took years to get it right. The song is a bantering ramble of a lyric that has cultural callbacks invoking Sinatra, Ceili music, and Broadway, among other images. Infamous Pogues vocalist Shane McGowan and the late Kirsty McColl exchange insults until Shane breaks everyone’s heart with the verbal pivot, in which he tells Kirsty that as bad as he is, he’s “built his dreams around you.”
Not a traditional story in the slightest, but very Irish. The song is the most requested Christmas song in Ireland and the UK annually since its debut in 1987.
Patrick Kavanaugh On Raglan Road
Not the most amorous start so far, but this next one; “On Raglan Road” makes up for the lag in romance. It is more noted as Ireland’s favorite folk song.
It was published as a poem in 1946, written by the native poet Patrick Kavanaugh. The poem was a response to a May/December infatuation on his part with a young medical student while they were both living on Raglan Road in Dublin.
Almost twenty years later, the poet met singer Luke Kelly in a Dublin pub and offered the poem to him to put to music. Kelly recorded the song with the Dubliners in 1971; the song became an instant classic. The words are so beautiful, and the music is perfect for it, capturing a fated, wistful mood. The poet does not win the lady fair, but it would be hard to ask for more haunting images of failed love.
A traditional category that should not be overlooked, to be fair, are all the “Rose” songs. For those who might be unfamiliar with these, many big towns have a “Rose” song that venerates all the fabulous traits of the local beauties.
The Rose of Tralee
The most famous one is the “Rose of Tralee.” Some of the “Rose” songs are a little more honest than idealized. The Rose song that I heard the most often was “The Rose of Castlerea,” recorded by Irish country fair crooner Brendan Shine. The classic lyrics include the nugget, “She may not have been a beauty queen, she might never be a rose, but to me she is the fairest flower that in the garden grows.”
While this may be true, it is easy to see why he didn’t win the girl. Nobody wants to hear that. And even though the song ends with our hero’s heartbreak, it seems to be more for his longing for the sheep fields of Castlerea than the girl herself.
Only a Woman’s Heart
It would be bad form not to include the romantic songs of the ladies. I think that two songs encapsulate two differing themes. The first is “Only a Woman’s Heart,” by the wonderful Mary Black.
While beloved in Ireland as both a sad love song and a folk song, I find it maudlin and old fashioned. To my mind, it evokes the image of long-suffering women too much.
A brighter note is struck by the late Dolores O’Riordan, of the Cranberries, in the song “Dreams.” It is an optimistic song about a kind and wonderful person who comes into her life. The song was used by Aer Lingus in years of advertising campaigns, and it fit. “
You’re a dream to me” is a great slogan for Ireland. Ok, so the Irish may not be showy romantics. What did you expect? They are not French.
But clearly there is more to the story. The Irish cannot untangle their love of anyone from their love of their little green island. But like the limestone the country is built on, there is a permanence to that emotion that is rare.
I am reminded of a time when I asked a man in Ireland if he was buying anything for his wife for Valentine’s Day. He did not hesitate to say no. He countered with the remark of why he would give his wife a silly card when she had the contents of his heart already? I was initially a little horrified by that comment, but as time goes on, it sticks. Now I see a heartbreaker worthy of Shane McGowan in it.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats, and fish. Lisa can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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