Ten Albums That Get to the Heart of Ireland

Mean green machine: Irish music has had its finger on the pulse of the nation.

Mean green machine: Irish music has had its finger on the pulse of the nation.

Originally published in Rí- Rá, The Irish Post’s entertainment supplement

DOMINATING as we do in the field of literature for works that have reflected the society in which they were conceived- the plays of Brian Friel and Sean O’Casey, the poetry of W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, the novels of James Joyce and John McGahern- Ireland has also consistently produced some stunning LPs over the last 45 years that have captured the Irish experience: life in small town Ireland; life in “The Smoke”; issues of identity spurned by emigration. Some records, quite simply, captured the spirit of the age.

1. Same Oul’ Town by The Saw Doctors 

Though more of a ‘Singles’ band than a band that one listens to album- by- album, the title track of The Saw Doctors’ best album to date anchors the mood of the entire record; a paean to small- town Ireland that almost everyone could recognise instantly (“same oul’ hanging around the square / same oul’ spoofers, same oul’ stares”).

Including as it does stompers such as ‘World of Good’ and ‘To Win Just Once’, the then unofficial anthem of the 1996 Irish Olympic Boxing team, perhaps the most striking song, apart from that of the title track, is ‘Everyday’. A Springsteen- esque tune chronicling as it does the journey of a young woman in “trouble” travelling across the Irish Sea for an abortion, the song is utterly chilling in its depiction of the perceived- shame of the subject and the clandestine fashion in which she seeks resolution: “She’s the girl you know from down the road / She’s your one from out the other side / There’s a rumour she’s in trouble / She’s all mixed up inside”.

 

2. Paradise in the Picturehouse by The Stunning

Steve Wall once claimed, with no short amount of wry humour, that The Stunning were “Ennistymon’s answer to The Saw Doctors”, referencing Keith Richard’s claim that The Rolling Stones were “London’s answer to The Beatles”. The Stunning’s feel good vibes and gang- like mentality had them pegged, accurately, as an Irish Squeeze: a band brimming with power- pop tunes drenched in sexual imagery.

Featuring ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, a favorite of almost every pub covers band of the last twenty years in Ireland and a favorite for ‘Best of Irish Rock’ compilations, the song is about a local lad gone wrong, morphing into a Frankenstein- like figure (“his eyes are wild / and it can’t go on”).

If anything, though, Paradise… is full of the type of rich, sexual imagery that could only be produced by a band of young men moving out from small town Ireland and playing gigs “up in the smoke”. Songs such as ‘Romeo’s On Fire’ and ‘The Girl with The Curl’ detail a generation pulling away from the sexually tame, church- controlled 1980’s and moving towards a more liberal lifestyle. Equally, one of the band’s best known tunes, ‘Half Past Two’ shows a band that can convincingly manage the soulful rhythms of Van Morrison while ‘This Happy Girl’, the spirit of the entire album, is the song that best shows the band’s chemistry at its most magical.

 

3. Hard Station by Paul Brady

Everybody knows Paul Brady. Without doubt the only Irish songwriter alive with a long, enviable catalogue of original songs spanning four decades, Brady’s first solo record since departing from The Johnsons, Welcome Here Kind Stranger, consisted of covers, the most remarkable being a definitive version of ‘The Lakes of Ponchatrain’, which inspired Bob Dylan to revive the American ballad during the 1980’s.

Hard Station, Brady’s first album of songs completely composed by the Strabane man, features many of the same blues, soul and old- school rock n’ roll references as The Stunning’s Paradise in the Picturehouse. Most of all, however, it is the sound of a singer- songwriter breaking out of the blocks; songs such as opener ‘Crazy Dreams’ and ‘Nothing But the Same Old Story’, one of the greatest songs about Irish identity ever written, have become set staples for the Tyrone man and, undoubtedly, successive generations of Irish songwriters will reference his songs.

4. Heartworm by Whipping Boy

As recently as 2013, Whipping Boy’s masterpiece, Heartworm, topped a poll of the best Irish albums of all time, conducted by Phantom FM, beating out competition from U2, Van Morrison and My Bloody Valentine. Heartworm’s status as Ireland’s Nevermind is still very much in tact.

Arriving as it did it in the mid 90’s, Heartworm, fittingly, has a foot in both grunge and britpop: the tsunami of layered guitars, angst and aggression of the former mixed with the direct, instant and focused pop craft of the latter. Guitarist Paul Page and bassist Myles McDonnell built musical canvases that took the best from The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3 and Echo & The Bunnymen. Vocalist and lyricist Fearghal McKee wrote of an Ireland that seemed uncharted and uncovered, describing in terms befitting of an Irvine Welsh novel the seedy side of life in Dublin, crooning as he does in a Dublin accent.

McKee’s lyrics, though dark and claustrophobic, have an inclusive strand that made fans feels part of a gang: ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’ became a raison d’etre for the band and fans alike, while ‘When We Were Young’ meant to The Pope’s Children what The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ had meant to the generation before. If Heartworm is the sound of a band in transition, moving into the next dimension, it’s also the sound of a generation in transition between the early- 90’s hangover from the recession- stricken 80’s to the Celtic Tiger years, which really began in 1997, by which time the band had, sadly, imploded and run out of steam.


5. Turf
by Luka Bloom

Having signed to a Reprise / Warner Bros. in the US, New York- based Kildare man Luka Bloom (that’s Barry Moore to the taxman) crafted a collection of songs that, although somewhat over- produced and over- laden with reverb and chorus effects, gave a voice to New York based Irish immigrants in the 80’s and 90’s when they didn’t have a voice. Indeed, it was a time when the 90’s, New York coffee- house singer- songwriter schtick was alive and well, to which Moore brought a uniquely Irish twist.

Like any number of songs about travelling or emigration, sea imagery features strongly in Bloom’s songs: in ‘Diamond Mountain’, “The cruel sea calls the unwilling traveller / Who would look for the road to survival”; penned by Waterboys legend Mike Scott, the excellent ‘Sunny Sailor Boy’ finds the singer gazing “Over the western sea / startled and struck, / frightened to look / when a mermaid called to me”; ‘To Begin To’ finds Bloom at his wanderlust best, starting out in Properous in 1972, taking in Paris, Amsterdam and, finally, California; all, as the great Tom T. Hall might say, in search of a song.


6. Shots by Damien Dempsey

Drenched as it is in Irish history and social commentary observed from Dempsey’s native northside Dublin, all of which Dempsey infuses with his own blend of Irish folk and reggae, the Donaghmede man’s third studio album- and his best to date- finds a songwriter who articulated the conscience of an Ireland very much marooned between the its past and its present.

Recorded and released in 2005, songs such as ‘St. Patrick’s Day’, ‘Colony’ and ‘Choctaw Nation’ feature a reading and understanding of Irish history that leaves many of his Irish contemporaries looking tame and unremarkable. Similarly, Dempsey’s understanding of where Ireland was at his time of writing and recording of Shots, that is, still riding the wave of the Celtic Tiger, Dempsey is equally attuned to the culture of the day: album opener and set staple ‘Sing All Our Cares Away’ is full of piercing portraits of characters who didn’t benefit from the Celtic Tiger and who were blighted by despair, domestic violence and addiction; similarly, ‘Party On’ describes the ugly aspects of Ireland’s drug culture, which intensified during the notoriously decadent Celtic Tiger years.

A statement of intent and his most fully realised collection songs, Dempsey caught the spirit of the age on his own terms, or as he sings in ‘Patience’, “From my room in Donaghmede / I’m ‘bout to kick all your asses / stick your pink champagne / and fuck your backstage passes”.

 

7. Planxty by Planxty

Referred to as “The Black Album” among Planxty fans, you get a sense of just how important Planxty’s music was to a generation of Irish music fans in Ireland. Featuring the classic Planxty line up that would reunite for a series of gigs in Vicar Street in 2004, the band’s 1973 début, according to biographer Leagues O’Toole, “crystallises the 1972 set” of Planxty’s tour. The band’s remarkable début opens with ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy/Tabhair Dom Do Lámh’; the former a ballad of a rich woman who leaves her life of luxury for a life to live with itinerants, the latter a tune of joy and, in the context of ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, freedom. Both offer, perhaps, the most appropriate introduction to any band: while the rich lady is joining the itinerants on a journey, you, the listener, are joining Planxty.

‘Arthur McBride’, a live favorite at the time of recording and performed heavily by Andy Irvine, Paul Brady and, indeed, Planxty, was a song steeped in the Irish tradition, yet it also chimed well with those singers, songwriters and listeners of folk music, energised by the protest songs of the 1960’s, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan, who would later cover the song for 1992’s Good As I Been to You.

The most tender ballad on the album, Ewan McColl’s ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ feels like a song that Shane McGowan, at the peak of his powers, could have written and performed, written as it is with the tourist’s eye for London.

Perhaps the only song that dates the album in any way is Kerry- based Fermanagh man Mickey McConnell’s ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free’, written as it was to reflect the social and political crisis in the north of Ireland; that song aside, Planxty remains a timeless and unforgettable document of Irish music, refreshing the genre as it did in the 70’s with a prodigious degree of musicianship that is all- too- rare.

 

8. Rum Sodomy & The Lash by The Pogues

If Planxty’s natural musicianship and live shows were keeping the flame alive for Irish folk in the 70’s, The Pogues’s fusion of punk and Irish folk energised the genre in the 1980’s. Through a series of records that have dated remarkably well when compared to records from the same period, The Pogues’ blend of Irish folk myth with punk and Irish trad was the sound of a band proud of their Irish identity at a time and place when public expressions of Irish nationalism could land one in trouble.

Of all The Pogues’ records, though, it’s their 1985, Elvis Costello- produced second record that finds the band stressing the extremities of their songs, veering from the romantic and sentimental (‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, ‘I’m Not A Man You Meet Everyday’) to the explosive and raucous (‘Sally MacLennane’, ‘Billy’s Bones’). The duality of the Pogues sound, which could shift from romantic and elegiac to defiant and up- tempo within two tracks, was, as could only be the case for an Irish band from London, marooned between two different places.

The album starts with ‘The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn’, a song of transition that finds MacGowan at his most lyrically wry, with songs that blend as much imagery from blues lyrics as they do from Irish folk (“At the sick-bed of Cuchulainn we’ll kneel and say a prayer / And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair”). Without doubt one of MacGowan’s finest moments, ‘The Old Main Drag’ is a picaresque tune of adolescent destitution and addiction that, sadly, wasn’t uncommon (“When I first came to London I was only sixteen / With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag”).

If The Pogues are the undisputed band of the diaspora, then Rum, Sodomy and The Lash is the sound of a band comfortable with that tag.

 

9. For The Birds by The Frames

Half recorded with Nirvana/Pixies producer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, half recorded in a house that the band had decamped to in Ventry, Co. Kerry, Dublin’s The Frames’ 2001 masterpiece For The Birds, as was the case for The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and The Lash, found the band at a musical crossroads, blending two distinct styles together: the homespun folk of flagship ‘Lay Me Down’ and the post rock bliss of ‘Santa Maria’, named after a shipwreck near where the band were recording. The Frames’ third album found the band moving away from the Pixies- influenced Dance The Devil… and towards what can only be described a post- rock influenced folk.

The entire record finds the singer seeking closure, assurance and progress from, amongst many themes, bereavement (‘What Happens When The Heart Just Stops’) and relationships (‘Giving Me Wings’).

If For The Birds belongs anywhere, however, it is in every small town and village in Ireland. What hangs over the songs are feelings of restraint and release. In ‘Fighting On The Stairs’, Hansard sings “But if I don’t get out of this town now/then something is gonna break/ ‘cause I gotta find my own way now/through this thick malaise”. Similarly, Hansard sings on ‘Disappointed’ “And I’m just ambling on in this town/I can’t get out and it drags me down/And these words don’t fit what I’m feeling now”.

The idea of restraint and release is given further emphasis by the band, influenced heavily by guitarist, multi- instrumentalist and producer Dave Odlum: the release of the brass section in the largely solo ‘What Happens When the Heart Just Stops’; the distortion pedals and the kitchen sink on the excellent ‘Headlong’; the band outro on majestic album closer ‘The Mighty Sword’. Those listeners who couldn’t release themselves from the grip of this stunning album attended a ten-year anniversary gig in Dublin’s Vicar Street in 2011, which celebrated this incredible achievement.

 

10. The Lion and The Cobra by Sinead O’Connor

Recorded when O’Connor was merely 20 years- old, The Lion and The Cobra takes its title from Psalm 91:3, in which God promises protection from danger: “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” That O’Connor repeats the Psalm, as Gaelige, with Enya, on ‘Never Get Old’ reinforces the themes of vulnerability and identity that run through the record (“Young man in a quiet place/Got a hawk on his arm/He loves that bird/Never does no harm”, sings O’Connor on ‘Never Get Old’).

One of the most auspicious debuts from a solo artist in the last 30 years, The Lion and The Cobra is, in parts, O’Connor at her most raw. On opening track ‘Jackie’, vulnerability, identity and loss, again, loom large in a song that tells the story of a widow whose husband died at sea, twenty years before (“I remember the day the young man came/Said Your Jackie’s gone he got lost in the rain”). It’s a haunting folk tale that, lyrically, is in the vein of Planxty, The Pogues, Paul Brady; in fact, any songwriter who has drunk from the wellspring of Irish folk. It’s all the more haunting with a ghostly vocal from O’Connor that escalates from a whisper to a scream.

Like Dempsey, O’Connor’s lyrics are high on rhetoric and social observations. In ‘A Drink Before the War’, restraint and violence and entwined like peace and war, past and present: “You refuse to feel/And you live in a shell/You create your own hell/You live in the past/And talk about war.”, which, as they say, “is more Irish than the Irish themselves.”

Ten Country Singer- Songwriters Everyone Should Know

Ireland’s long love affair with country music goes much, deeper than Garth Brooks gigs at Croke Park. Here are 10 country artists that everyone should hear.

Ernest Tubb's iconic record shop, 417 Broadway, Nashville, TN.

Ernest Tubb’s iconic record shop, 417 Broadway, Nashville, TN.

 

Originally published in the print edition of The Irish Post, 6th August 2014. Please click here to read the feature on IrishPost.co.uk. 

10. Guy Clark

Although 72 year- old Texan songwriter Guy Clark started his career late (Clark released 1975 debut album, OId No. 1 when he was almost 35 years of age), his influence on Nashville song-writing and what later became known as “progressive country” has been considerable. Old masters and young guns alike, from Johnny Cash to Kenny Chesney, have recorded Clark’s songs, of which ‘L.A. Freeway’ and ‘Desperadoes Waiting for a Train’ are the best known.

Clark’s reputation is that of a master songwriter, though he has also worked as a mentor for many young writers. Steve Earle benefitted greatly from Clark’s mentorship, gaining his first writing job in Nashville through Clark’s recommendation. Similarly, Guy and Susanna Clark’s home in Nashville was an open house to songwriters and performers who came of age, among them Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and Clark’s best friend, Townes Van Zandt.

9. Gillian Welch

Berklee School of Music graduates Gillian Welch and David Rawlings had a rough start in Nashville. Initially dismissed as “blow- ins” by purists, Gillian Welch- effectively the moniker of duo singer / guitarist Gillian Welch and guitarist / backing vocalist David Rawlings- were two middle- class graduates from New York and Rhode Island, respectively, eschewing the rough and ready delivery of their forebears and projecting an image that was more clean-cut and professional. Early reviews of Gillian Welch records accused the duo of “manufacturing emotion” and “writing folk songs about writing folk songs”.

Gillian Welch’s response? Time (The Revelator), their 2001 album, which is a beautiful collection of songs of hope and longing, ending with the majestic, 14 minute closer ‘I Dream A Highway’. Gillian Welch would capitalise on the strenght of Time (The Revelator) with their contributions to the T- Bone Burnett produced 2002 soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which claimed the 2002 Grammy for Album of the Year, as well as selling 8 million copies in the US, alone. In 2011, the duo released The Harrow & The Harvest, their first studio album of new music in 8 years. It’s their best yet.

 

8. Emmylou Harris

A veteran no less than peers such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Guy and Susanna Clark, Emmylou Harris has dueted with almost every major name in country and rock music over the decades, often bridging the genres together as Gram Parsons, her one- time partner, did as a solo artist and with The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Harris’ seemingly endless dueting, with everyone from Neil Young to Mark Knopfler, Dolly Parton to Conor Oberst, often overshadows a stellar solo career. Records such as 1975’s Elite Hotel and 1995’s Wrecking Ball boast of repertoire of covers that take in a variety of songs, from Hank Williams to The Beatles; from Gram Parsons to Jimi Hendrix, all performed with Harris’ stunning voice.

Harris’ rebirth as a composer in the 2000’s revealed all the skill and wisdom a singer- songwriter who had spent much of the previous decades covering and studying the work of other songwriters. Released in 2000, Red Dirt Girl features eleven songs either written / co- written by Harris and just one cover.

7. Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard really was at Johnny Cash’s 1958 show at San Quentin Prison. The then 21 year- old Haggard was serving time for the attempted robbery of a roadhouse in Bakersfield, California.

Haggard’s songs are full of sympathy and empathy for the outlaws, the down and outs, the drifters who revert to a life of crime as they see no other alternative. Songs such as ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’, ‘The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Branded Man’ and ‘Mama Tried’, all number one hits, cemented Haggard’s reputation as the one- time con done good.

Haggard’s gifts lay in his ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and construct a convincing back-story to the characters who populate his songs . One of the most chilling songs ever recorded, ‘Sing Me Back Home’ is sung from the point of view of a guitar playing prison inmate (Haggard, perhaps?) who is called upon to sing a final song prior to the execution of a condemned prisoner, at the death row inmate’s request on his way to the chamber.

6. Patsy Cline

Willie Nelson once famously said that “Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.” Patsy Cline, who died tragically at the age of 30 in a plane crash, was blessed with a contralto voice that sang the songs that cemented Nelson’s claim, not least Nelson’s ‘Crazy’, which remains the song with which Cline is best known.

Others songs drenched in the Nashville Sound of which Cline was a loyal and brilliant exponent include ‘Strange’, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ and Harlan Howard’s ‘I Fall to Pieces’, all of which feature Cline’s unique and booming voice. Both inside and outside the recording studio, Patsy Cline, without question, both raised the bar for female vocalists in country music and kicked down some doors. Such was her popularity, Cline became the first woman in country music to headline billing ahead of her male counterparts on tour. Furthermore, Cline became the first woman in country music to play New York’s Carnegie Hall. Country music, as we know it, wouldn’t be the same without Patsy Cline.

5. Loretta Lynn

In a genre of music brimming with rough and ready men, Loretta Lynn remains one of country music’s most remarkable women, singing songs from a uniquely female perspective. To listeners, Lynn has personified the angry, bored housewife (‘Don’t Come A- Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’), sung about birth control (‘The Pill’), the stigma often attached to divorced women (‘Rated X’), the jealousy of wives (‘You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)’) and from the perspective of a widow of a Vietnam veteran (‘Dear Uncle Sam’). A friend and contemporary of Patsy Cline, she wrote and recorded I Remember Patsy, a tribute album dedicated to her late friend.

Lynn’s stock rose considerably in 2004 when Jack White, then of The White Stripes produced Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. At 72, the album was one of Lynn’s biggest hits of her 45 year career, coming in at number 2 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best albums of 2004.

4. John Prine

No less an authority than Bob Dylan once claimed that “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.” Not for the first time, Dylan is bang on the money. In 1971, Illinois native Prine wrote and recorded his brilliant, self- titled debut album, which everyone from Dylan and Springsteen to Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williamseveryone from Dylan and Springsteen to Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams has referenced as one of the finest singer- songwriter records of the last 50 years.

Prine’s ability to zoom in on the lives of seemingly ordinary American’s is every bit as sharp as that of Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn: ‘Sam Stone’ tells the story a returned Vietnam veteran whose life has been ravaged by heroin abuse (“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose”), ‘Hello In There’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery’ chart the lives of Americans of an advanced age who feel older than they are, while ‘Far From Me’ is a bitter-sweet love song. Prine is that rarest of things: an American songwriter who reminds you of the greats and, yet, is unique.

3. Lucinda Williams

Routinely referred to by Rolling Stone as “America’s Greatest Songwriter”, Lucinda Williams is what can only be described as maverick. After recording 1979’s Ramblin’  and 1980’s Happy Woman Blues for legendary American roots label Smithsonian Folkways, Williams would spend the next eight years touring the States relentlessly, playing every bar, venue and café that she could to ply her trade.

In 1988, Rough Trade issued Williams’ self- titled major label début, which would spawn hits such as ‘Passionate Kisses’, ‘I Just Wanted to See You So Bad’ and ‘Changed The Locks’.

Remarkably, Williams’ breakthrough record and her stone- cold classic album would not arrive until 1998. Williams’ magnum opus remains Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, a twelve track country album steeped in the influences that first established Williams as an artist of note: the influences of Robert Johnson, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds,  The Band, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn can all be traced on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.

Songs such as ‘Right in Time’, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’, ‘Drunken Angel’, ‘2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten’ and ‘Greenville’ all chart the loneliness and desperation faced by characters who fight against struggle on a daily basis.

More recent efforts such as 2007’s West, 2008’s Little Honey and 2011’s Blessed haven’t quite hit the heights of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, though Williams remains a major talent: someone whose work is drenched in the blues and folk that inspired Bob Dylan’s generation and, yet, someone who herself is hugely influenced by Dylan and The Band.

2. Townes Van Zandt

Steve Earle once boldly claimed that “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Dylan, himself, seems to have found clout in the claim and went as far as covering Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ on tour, which was a hit for many artists including Emmylou Harris, as well as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded a duet of the song in 1982.

Van Zandt wrote country songs that were directly influenced and focused by the folk and blues that he played as a kid. Two of the strongest influences on Van Zandt’s writing were The Times The Are A- Changin’ era Bob Dylan as well as country blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Van Zandt’s songs often reflected his troubled life, which was spent living with addictions to alcohol and heroin as well as having lived with the trauma of surviving electro convulsive shock therapy, which erased memories from his childhood. Songs such as ‘Nothin’’, ‘Waiting Around to Die’ and ‘Pancho and Lefty’ chronicled the lives of drifters who, like the characters in the songs of Merle Haggard, lived worn- out lives.

Though Van Zandt passed on New Year’s Day in 1997, his popularity has increased in recent years with many songwriters such as Norah Jones, Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, Lucinda Williams and Ray LaMontagne all crediting Van Zandt’s influence. In 2009, Steve Earle, Van Zandt’s one- time protegee, friend and publicist, recorded Townes, a 15- track covers album of Van Zandt’s best known songs, in which he pays tribute to his former mentor. A master.

1. Hank Williams

The country singer dubbed The Hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams remains the single most formidable presence in country music: an artist whose slim body of work is enough to ensure both his greatness as well as no small degree of myth and mystery.

Williams’ songs, ranging from spiritual discovery (‘I Saw The Light’) to vivid depictions of heartbreak (‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You), ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart) struck a chord with those who tuned into WSFA radio and watched Williams’ televised performances on the Grand Ole Opry.

More so, however, Williams remains the single most namechecked influence on American songwriters: there is no songwriter in this list who, either directly or indirectly, hasn’t felt the influence of Hank WIlliams. As recently as 2011, Sony issued The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a project overseen by Bob Dylan, in which Dylan, Lucinda William, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crow all put music to unfinished lyrics that were found in the backseat of the Cadillac when Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953, while being driven to a show in Ohio.

Williams’ brilliance as a singer- songwriter, threatened at times by alcoholism, severe back pains and marriage problems, was effortless. One day, after having been fired from the Grand Ole Opry for being unreliable and intoxicated while on stage, Williams wrote ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)’, at the Acuff- Rose building in Nashville, while Fred Rose walked out to get a cup of coffee. When Rose returned, Williams played the song to a stunned Rose. Williams, it seems, has had that effect on all of us.

Paul Simon pays tribute to Seamus Heaney in Dublin

The late Seamus Heaney, whose life's work was celebrated, last night, by his devoted readership and by a cast of poets, musicians and friends.

The late Seamus Heaney, whose devoted readership and long list of fellow poets and friends celebrated his life’s work, last night, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

LEGENDARY singer- songwriter Paul Simon was among those paying tribute, last night, to the late Nobel Prize- winning poet Seamus Heaney at a celebratory event in Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

Others who paid tribute on the night, which Dublin City Council’s One City, One Book initiative as well as Poetry Ireland supported, included poets Paul Muldoon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Longley and Colette Bryce as well as musicians Lisa Hannigan, Martin Hayes and Paul Brady.

To read my piece, which the Irish Post commissionedclick here.

Interview: Damien Dempsey

Originally featured in the print edition of the Irish Post, February 8th, 2014

The Last Dubliner: Singer- songwriter Damien Dempsey

The Last Dubliner: Singer- songwriter Damien Dempsey

THE BUILD of a heavyweight champ, the heart of a saint, the soul of a gritty street- poet; Despite his connection and understanding of his hometown, Damien Dempsey isn’t your average Dubliner.

The Donaghmede native- who has lived for spells in New York and Kilburn- darkens the door of the Library Bar in the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street, a quiet enclave in the heart of Dublin city centre, his 6 foot 2 inches frame clad entirely in black, save for a sandy- colored flat cap.

Dempsey conducts himself like a pro and pleasantries are exchanged ahead of what is his first engagement in an afternoon of press interviews in support of his ‘Best Of’ compilation, which collections 15 years of highlights.

Softly spoken and considered in his answers, Dempsey’s pregnant pauses after answers portray an image of someone who understands the responsibility that come with being in his position as a singer- songwriter who has, over 15 years, reflected the ever- changing nature of Irish life…

PC: I’d like to ask you, firstly, about John Reynolds, who’s been on this 15-year journey with you and with whom you have collaborated extensively. When did ye first meet and how was it that you hit it off?

DD: I met him at a house party in London. I was doing a gig in London- supporting The Hothouse Flowers in Shepard’s Bush Empire in 1999. It’s gonna be great to be going there and doing my own show- it’ll be like the 33rd county, that night! Anyways, I went to a house party after The Hothouse Flowers show with Fiachna Ó Braonáin from the Hothouse Flowers. I didn’t know anyone there, so I just stayed in the kitchen. You go to a house party, where I’m from, you put beer in the fridge…it’s gone!!! People on the rob! So I just stayed in the kitchen keeping an eye on the beers. And you always get a good chat in the kitchen; you’ve got a bit of quiet away from everything else that’s going on in living room. John was in the kitchen cooking up food and we just got chatting away.

He said to me: “I’ve got a little studio upstairs” and he brought me up. It was in his bedroom. I had no idea that he was such a great drummer or that he had produced some of Sinéad O’Connor’s big records; he never said it to me.

I think I was in the Shepard’s Bush Empire, again, the next night and he said that he was going to come down and take a look at me. He came down and, afterwards, I asked him what he thought of the show. “The sound wasn’t great”, he said. He said he asked the sound- man to turn it up a bit, but the sound- man wasn’t even there during at the desk; some of them care, some of them are arseholes.

So the same night, the Flowers were staying at the Columbia Hotel, so we all went down there. I remember John Hurt and all was there and a few other heads. The guitar was going round and someone said “here, give it over to the this fella: give him a shout”. And we sang and the whole room stopped and all; John saw me then and thought “wow…that’s it.” I didn’t meet him much, then, during that night, but it was during that night that he heard me properly and he thought: “Jesus…this guy’s got something.”

I went back to Dublin and, about a month later, John gave me a call out of the blue. I heard this cockney accent on the phone and thought…what the fuck? “It’s John, from London. Y’know, from the house party?” I thought “what the fuck is he doing ringing me (laughs)?” I thought “Has something been robbed from the house and does he reckon it was me?!!!” He goes on, anyways: “Listen, I was just wondering if you’d like to come over to my bedroom studio in London and lay down some tracks?”

So I went over. I didn’t realize he was the producer that he was and that he had worked with so many big names; I just thought that it was a part- time thing for him. I had nothing else going on, so I went over, stayed for a week and just put stuff down- whatever good songs I had at that time.

PC: And how where the songs coming along at that time: thick and fast?

DD: Yep, absolutely. I had a glut of songs- about 26, 27 in all. I only had one record out- They Don’t Teach This Shit in School- so I had a load of other songs waiting to go. I stuck down my strongest songs, he thought they were brilliant and he went mad over them.

I left the songs with him and he said: “Leave them with me and I’ll see what I can do with them; let me work on them.” He sent me on a cd with Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno, Caroline Dale, Claire Kenny and all playing over it and when I heard it, I was crying. I couldn’t believe what he’d done with the songs.

PC: There’s a massive leap in the sound of that second record…

DD: You’re right, there is definitely a leap in terms of sound. And the voice, too; John really brought my voice up. The voice on the first album is a bit dull and muffled. The headphone mix wasn’t right. I was so shy in the studio that I couldn’t hear what they were doing. I didn’t have the balls to say: I’m singing anymore until I can hear myself. I didn’t know to keep one part of the headphone on the ear and the other off the ear so that I could hear myself sing. So a lot things that got done on that first record kind of just went over my head for the sake of getting it done. I had so little say in anything because I was so nervous.

PC: There’s always been a strong reggae influence that’s come through, particularly that of Bob Marley, in your music. Where did that come from?

DD: When I was growing up in the 80’s in Dublin, reggae and SKA were absolutely huge in Dublin- it was the main music that people were listening to, rather than rock or trad. It was always reggae on the ghetto blasters in the parks, in the fields.

Bob Marley was similar to Luke Kelly: They were singing for the downtrodden, I suppose. The war up the north was raging at that time, too, and you had people fighting for their civil rights. And Marley was talking about Jamaicans fighting for their rights. There is a link there, definitely. And when Marley came to Dalymount Park in July 1980, his music spread like wildfire through Dublin.

PC: Speaking of the north…one of the most recent events that brought your native Donaghmede into the press was the assassination of Donaghmede local Alan Ryan, the former Real IRA chief in the south. The subsequent IRA- style funeral procession that went through the main street of Donaghmede made the font pages of the national papers and was commented on by Minister Alan Shatter.

DD: Em…(long pause, laugh) I don’t know how to answer that…I have to be careful; I see some of these heads in the shopping centre…haha…that’s a tough one…I don’t think the funeral impacted all that much on the community, though having said that, I’m not out there looking for a job, so I don’t really know. I think that the address “Donaghmede” might have a bit of a name for itself, now, and it might be harder for younger people to get a job.

After Alan Ryan got shot, people in Donaghmede were very much on edge. They were waiting for the Real IRA’s retaliation for Alan Ryan’s murder.

PC: Is it fair to say that you’d be happier seeing young fellas joining Donaghmede Boxing Club rather than the Real IRA?

DD: Yeah, sure, absolutely. I think that politics is the only way that their goal is going to come about. I think cross community activity and getting to know the Loyalists and building bridges with the Loyalist community is the only that anything is going to change; bringing those people together. The days of the gun are over and dead in the water- that’s my view. A lot of them [Real IRA] are of the mindset that Padraig Pearse’s way is the only way: that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace” and a lot of them are going by what he said.

Certainly, it’s [Alan Ryan’s murder / funeral] has left house prices in Donaghmede. There have been other murders in Donaghmede, too, unrelated to the Real IRA: gang related stuff, drugs related stuff- mostly cocaine. I don’t know why it happens in Donaghmede and not in some of the surrounding areas. But I still live there and I feel that there’s an awful lot more good than bad in the community: there’s a great spirit amongst the people there. I find it’s a very friendly place and the neighbors and the people look out for each other. I didn’t find that when I was living in the city. There’s a great sense of community in Donaghmede and, hopefully, it stays like that.

PC: You lived in Kilburn, some years ago. How did you feel as an Irish person in Kilburn?

DD: I loved Kilburn. I found it to be very diverse, especially up the High Road, where you can just sit in a café and watch everyone go by. And didn’t find that many Irish people there, except in the bars where you would find older fellas- guys who went over in the 40’s and 50’s Young Irish people in London aren’t going to Kilburn like they used to; they seem to be scattered all over London, which is fine, but I think when the older generation when over to Kilburn- to a specific place- people probably looked after each a bit more.

I did a show for the Aisling Centre over there, where we raised a hundred grand. Finbar Furey was there, Dermot Desmond gave something like a hundred grand on the night- small change! I’m working with the Camden Irish centre, doing a couple of gigs there, and they were trying to get the Irish community together, which as I said is scattered. A lot of them [that are scattered] wouldn’t have a sense of Irishness or Irish history. Maybe it’s the way it’s thought in schools…we’re not really taught the real history of Ireland.

And, now, for the Junior Cert, history is not going to be a compulsory subject, which I think is a fuckin’ travesty. The history of Ireland gives us a sense of why we are who we are, why we like we think, y’know? And to see the similarities that we have with other colonized people around the world.

PC: What aspect of Irish history stimulates you the most; the period that should, absolutely, be taught to Junior Certs?

DD: (long pause) Around 1798 / 1916 / War of Independence. The Cromwellian War, 1641 rising…The Battle of Clontarf…the time before that where there was a seat of learning. People used to come from all over Europe to send their kids to college in Ireland- the monks of Clonmacnoise and all. And the Brehon Laws, which are never taught in school. The Brehon laws were much fairer laws than what we have now: you see the law nowadays and they favour the wealthy. The wealthy never seem to go to jail for all the white collar crimes. You see what’s gone on here [Anglo Irish, Seanie Fitz, etc.] how many of them actually went to jail? The Brehon laws brought down High Kings in Ireland. If a High King did you wrong, there’d be a hunger protest on his doorstep and the rest of the community would boycott him; they’d blank him.

PC: 2013 marked the centenary of the 1913 lockout and we’re steadily approaching the centenary of 1916. Do we celebrate our history as we should? I felt there was very little done, last year, in the way of public commemorations of the centenary of the lockout…

DD: There was very little done. I don’t think kids don’t know about James Connolly or the lockout, they’re not being taught in school, passionately, about who these people were, I don’t think. It’s not in the history texts. We’ve just been homogenized. American culture and the Internet has gripped young people. And people wonder why Irish people aren’t out protesting on the streets.

And you see now that fluoride has been in Irish water since the 50’s. It’s been tested and experts have found that fluoride makes you docile- maybe it’s the water (laughs)! In most European countries, fluoride has been taken out of the water as it’s seen as toxin waste.

So I’m going to make stand, now, when they try to charge me for water: take the fluoride out or you’re not getting my money. I’d be part of the anti- fluoride campaign and the campaign to take the fluoride out of the water. It’s poison and it the proof is there: it lowers the IQ in children, it makes you docile, it makes you sick. Experts have made comparisons have been made with the six counties where fluoride isn’t in the water and the difference in the levels of sickness, dementia is off the charts.

PC: Just to go back to the point you made about Irish history and how the significance of Irish history has been lost on the younger generation: If you were to go into a class- full of Junior Certs- who are not being taught history- and you were to play them three Damien Dempsey songs that encapsulate you passion and interest in Irish history and your sense of Irish identity, what would those songs be?

DD: ‘Colony’, ’Chris & Stevie’, because it’s about being proud of who you are, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, whatever…and maybe…’Sing All Our Cares Away’…(long pause again…) yep, I think them three, just show kids how singing is therapeutic, y’know?

PC: ‘Ghost of Overdoses’ is such a vivid song. Our relationship with drugs in Ireland is quite strange: alcohol has always been a problem across every social strata; heroin has been a huge problem, broadly speaking, for the working classes since the 70’s / 80’s and cocaine was the drug of choice for those who benefitted most from the Celtic Tiger. Does it surprise you that you were able to write ‘Ghosts of Overdoses’?

DD: No, not all. When you’re at people in the inner city, you think “They’re my people.” They go back thousands of years and look at the state of them; that could have been me, there, if my family had stayed in the inner city; if my family had stayed in Ballymun flats, that could have been me. When I was 12, all of my friends were doing what they could to get out of their heads- sniffing glue, gases, acid…if I had stayed there, I could have ended up on heroin.

I’ve one cousin who’s on the heroin, now, another cousin who died of the heroin: it’s fairly close to me. I think the past is still with us now. People say “colonization: that’s in the past”. I think it has affected us, mentally, and I think we [the Irish] still have a lot of demons- Irish men, in particular. I think women are a bit stronger, but Irish men are very vulnerable. Look at the huge suicide rate that we have here. We’re the first generation to come out of the Catholic Church: the power that they had, even when I was a kid, was huge. So we’re only after breaking out of that. And the north was huge in the 80’s and 90’s. We’re the first generation that has seen the skeletons come out of the cupboard. You don’t just get over that stuff overnight: all that shit that has gone on over centuries and centuries, from the Roman Catholic Empire to the British Empire. We’re only just trying to come to terms with all that stuff now. I think we all need counseling- we should be probably be all getting free counseling!

You look at the suicide rate: stuff is being passed on from generation to generation in the Irish psyche. I think’s why we’re so crazy for the drink and drugs and we have the highest rate of alcoholism.

PC: What’s coming after the ‘Best Of’? Are there any artistic ambitions that haven’t been fulfilled, yet?

DD: A couple of duets, maybe. I have another album bubbling up, now, which should out next year. There’s two new songs on the best of: a song called ‘Happy Days’.

The next record is definitely taking on an influence from Latin America. I find the history of Latin America fascinating. But I’m also trying to write song about how in 1966, in Australia, these Aboriginal Australians walked off this place called Wave Hill- they were all stockmen, like cowboys. They were being paid a pittance and being paid much lower wages that the whites. They walked off and they had a strike for 9 years until 1975. They tried to double the wages and they said: “No: we want our lands back”. The Gurinji people, they were called. A liberal government got into power in 1975 with a fella called Gough Whitlam. There’s an iconic picture of Whitlam pouring land with a fella called Vincent Lingiari and that’s when the Aboriginal Land Rights Movement took off and they started get some of the land back. So I’m writing a song about that: the anniversary is in 2016. So I might go down and do a gig in Wave Hill. It’s way up in the Northern Territory.

So I’m trying to write more about the world- have a more global scope rather than just focusing on Irish stuff. That said, I’ll be writing about some Irish focused stuff. Bullying is a big one at the moment, particularly online bullying. Kids bullying other kids with texts and online messages. I want to write a song that gives a voice to those kids that have been affected by cyber bullying.

PC: So Shepard’s Bush is going to be coming up soon. What can fans expect?

DD: Well, the place will be hoppin’, I’ll tell you that now! It’s been a dream of mine to headline Shepard’s Bush for a long time. I always maintained that someday I’d go back there and headline. I supported the Hothouse Flowers there, Sinead O’Connor, The Frames.

I’m just going to enjoy these next few years, instead of thinking “I wish I was up here, I wish I had that audience, I wish it was easier, financially…” I’m just going to cherish what I have. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, so anything else is a bonus. I’d like to get the music to more people. I don’t necessarily want more fame, more money…I just want to get the message to more people.

It’s All Good: The Best of Damien Dempsey is out on February 17th.

Five Remarkable Poetry Collections from 2013

Originally published in Rí- Rá in The Irish Post, Thursday December 12th, 2013

Loath as I am to pick just five books, here are some collections of original poems from poets writing in the English language that made my 2013

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan (Faber)

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan

A long- time resident of south- London and a native of Lisgoold, Co. Cork, Riordan, like James Joyce, never fully left Ireland. In ‘The Cross’, one of the collection’s more remarkable poems, Riordan conjures the image of a hurling match being “broadcast live from Thurles or Birr” from a toy model car in a model village. It is Riordan’s seemingly effortless ability to blend the traditional with the modern that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Similarly, Riordan’s elegy to Michael Donaghy, the late Irish- American poet, is one of the more memorable elegies composed in memory of the much- memorialised and much- missed poet.

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell (Picador)

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell

Narrowly missing out on this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection, Glyn Maxwell’s Pluto confirm’s Maxwell as one of the most original and under- appreciated poets of the current era. Brimming with language of the day and subtle rhetorical flourishes, the rhythm of opening poem ‘The Bye Laws’ is rooted in song, making it feel like an overture for the poems of consistent technical skill and formal versatility to follow. In ‘The Case of After’, the centre- piece of Pluto, Orpheus reaches into the underworld by logging on to a dating site: “She wore dark glasses in the only photo / I could access yet. I was peering at that window / like peter sodding Quint I had the blue glow.”


Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape Poetry)

Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts

Described as a “religious poet for a secular age”, poet Michael Symmons Roberts followed good on the peaks of previous collections Corpus and The Half Healed with Drysalter, his sixth collection of poems, which won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection. A novelist and a librettist as well as a poet, Drysalter finds Symmons Roberts working on a smaller canvas than he is used to; all 150 poems were composed to the formal constraint of 15 lines. Symmons Roberts’ great skill is in reinvigorating the familiar with striking images. Take ‘Hitchcockian’: ‘The birds are taking over. Not in rows on high wires / chittering on rooves at passers- by, fixing a lone child / with their red- ringed, sink hole eyes…”.

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan (Bloodaxe)

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan

Cork poet Leeane O’Sullivan aligns herself as closely to the Irish lyric tradition as is possible with The Mining Road. The strong influence of the late Seamus Heaney weighs heavily in O’Sullivan’s fourth collection of poems, but O’Sullivan has the confidence and experience not to allow the great man’s influence overpower her work. The theme of discovery recurs again and again in The Mining Road. In The Boundary Journey, a two-part poem- the first mentioning the Atlantic ocean, the second alluding to the Irish Sea- finds O’Sullivan wedged between two different places, two different zones (‘Not to the boundary waters / that part our two counties’). In these subtle, slow- burning and sensuous poems that reward with successive readings, The Mining Road is a step in the right direction for O’Sullivan and, indeed, for Irish poetry.

Consent by Kimberly Campanello (Doire Press)

Consent by Kimberly Campanello

Dividing her time between both Dublin and London, American poet Kimberly Campanello’s first collection of poems from Galway publisher Doire Press is one of poetry’s most auspicious débuts in recent years. Formally exciting and full of surprises, Campanello is a poet who knows that darkness is a necessity in order to appreciate lightness; her poems veer from humorous observations (opening poem ‘Consent’ contains the nugget “My bowels are bound / by cheese and fear”) as well as poems that pack a powerful emotional punch; in ‘Grandma’, Campanello uses the conversational register so prevalent in her work to devastating effect, when describing a woman’s deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease: “You burn the bottom / of four coffee pots. / You serve your grandchildren / raw sausages on Sunday / When you’re hungry / you eat ice cream.” A stunning début from an exciting talent.