Bill Whelan
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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An Irish Summer

As we draw to the end of what in Ireland must be one of the cloudiest summers on record, I realize that I have not written a word on the site since I recorded a trip to Inishlacken in the sunshine of early June. It is true to say that the weather in the west of Ireland since then has been mostly grey and rainy. Gales have lashed the coast regularly, and flooding seems to have affected everywhere. Coupled with the transformation of the much-vaunted (but never quite credible) Celtic Tiger into a mangy alley-cat scavenging the bins around the crumbling mansions of the Western economy, our normal Irish joie-de-vivre has been taking something of a pasting. However, we have been here or hereabouts before, and as the sages of Limerick used to say when I was a kid - “We never died of a winter yet”. Despite the almost surreal non-debate around the Lisbon Treaty, when we decided to transform Kathleen Mavourneen into the girl who refused everyone at the dance – not because she didn’t want to, but because she was asked – we harbour a belief that things will be fine in the end.

The summer was not without its personal sadness though. As well as a bereavement in my family, last month also saw the passing of Ronnie Drew – a man who I had worked with on many occasions, and whose company I enjoyed over the years. I had the pleasure to produce the Dubliners “Prodigal Son” album, an experience that was somewhat like being caught in a washing machine with some Dadaists, Flann O’Brien, Frank Zappa and Jackson Pollock. The stories of Ronnie are legion, so I won’t add to them here other than to say that his passing sees the departure of a unique figure – the product of a very particular time in Irish folk music with its songs of boozing, working on English building-sites, political heroism and falling poetically in and out of love. Ronnie’s gravel was an essential part of that mix and will never be replaced. (I am attaching below John Sheahan’s affectionate “Ronnie’s Heaven”, written just after his long-time fellow band member died.)

Not to dwell too much on sad events, but I must mention Davy Hammond. At his funeral on last Thursday in Belfast, Seamus Heaney movingly declared that his longtime friend “will forever be accounted true brother of the company of the great imaginative spirits of his Irish time and place”. How true it was of this man whose gentle and roguish reach was gargantuan and whose influence on the lives and music of so many people will continue for generations to come. There are those who move in the glare of strong light, and those whose influence emanates from the quieter, subtler places. Davy was such a man, and the grief that was evident in the church last week, was only surpassed by the enormous love, affection and respect that rang around him as he departed. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas dá anam uasal.

Finally, just a word about the Electric Picnic, which I attended on last Friday . It was my first experience of this event, and I don’t think I have been to an open-air music festival in quite some time. I think it is true to say that it is not about the music very often on these occasions, and more about the community experience. I remember (somewhat hazily I admit) Lisdoonvarna and Ballisodare in the 80s, but the Electric Picnic resembled these events only inasmuch as there were people, fields, music, alcohol and food. After that, it was was chalk and cheese. The EP combined music, theatre, cuisine, comedy, sculpture, and all things in between, set in a comfortable environment that was well organized, easy to navigate and spacious. I was delighted to hear (and I was able to hear her) Wallis Byrd who I had admired on recordings up to now. Her live set is engaging, energetic, musical and highly entertaining. This young singer/songwriter/guitarist is showing and growing her expertise as each year passes, and I will be surprised if she does not have a major international career in time.

I also saw, but wasn’t able to coherently hear, Goldfrapp. Somehow the big stage, with all its turbo decibels makes it difficult to engage musically, and you are just as well forget about that and mosh about to your hearts content. I couldn’t get within an ass’s roar of Christy Moore’s tent so I went over and enjoyed some of the theatre and comedy. Entering the mentally liquid world of Aindrias de Staic is a dangerous activity without some sanity life-jackets, and should only be undertaken under supervision. Hilarious in that unsettling way of his. ( )

I also saw Lucent Dossier which was full of imaginative and arresting imagery, but didn’t seem to sustain after about 10 minutes. Elsewhere, I could have had a massage, reiki, drunk endless herb teas, chilled out, meditated and engaged in countless other pre- and post- hippie pursuits. As an antidote to the mangy Celtic Tiger, having an Electric Picnic was a wonderworld of a remedy.

More soon.


“Ronnie’s Heaven”
© 2008 John Sheahan

What’s it like Ronnie – your new life?
Is it the way the old masters painted it –
Floating on a damp cloud
In the company of winged creatures
Listening to non-stop music?

I could paint you in,
But not your expectations:
“Would somebody for Christ’s sake
Get me down from here and show me
The fountain of champagne –
I thought this
Was meant to be a celebration!”

I’ll paint a different picture instead:
I see your spirit, freed at last
From earthly shackles,
Soaring to a new consciousness –
Communicating with Kavanagh
Without the encumbrance of words;
Without the embarrassment of being barred
From four Baggot Street pubs.

All is clear now.
Ulysses simpler than the Lord’s Prayer,
Beckett no longer waiting for Godot,
And Joe O’Broin sidling over
With an impish grin:
“How’rya Ronnie, you brought me fame at last.
I heard Cliodhna and Phelim picked me poem
For the end of your mass,
But you needn’t have hurried…
There’s no closing time up here –
Just one continuous holy hour”

Now Deirdre comes into focus,
Bridging a painful gap of fourteen months.
Unhindered by bodies,
Your spirits embrace and entwine
In a never-ending spiral of joy,
Leaving behind the three great imponderables
That tortured you:
‘What is life?’; ‘What is art?’
And ‘Where the fuck is Barney?’!