The Secrets of Irish Music

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Regular commenter cminor, at her blog The Minor Premise, reveals to us how Irish ballads come to be:

The Evolution of an Irish Ballad

Being the surmises of a musical amateur who has lately spent entirely too much time online trying to track down folk music lyrics.

Gen. 1. The Irish take on the British in a battle somewhere on Irish soil. Being seriously outnumbered, they are defeated utterly with great loss of life. Anonymous Irish balladeers compose lyrics honoring the courage of the dead, with individual verses devoted to units from each county involved and to fallen leaders. The result is about 40 verses long, though only six or seven are actually remembered by anyone after the debut.
[Alt. Gen. 1. A minor Irish nobleman takes to the hills after a dustup with British occupiers. Anonymous balladeers compose a mercifully brief ditty depicting the outlaw as a romantic hero and emphasizing his revolutionary cred and sheer heartthrobbiness.]

Gen. 2. The simplified lyric becomes a popular drinking song.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  I would merely add that any true Irish ballad must be certain to contain at least two of the following elements:

1.   Be maniacally happy.

2.   Be maniacally sad.

3.   Blame the English for everything bad that has happened to the Irish.

4.   Celebrate an Irishman who left Ireland as soon as he was able.

5.   A celebration of the charms of rural Ireland written by someone who would have sooner died than leave Dublin.

6.   Mention the IRA, without mentioning that during the 20′s many Irish said the letters actually stood for I Ran Away.

7.   Be about the death of a beloved pet or child.

8.   Idolize near alcoholism.

9.   Mention Saint Patrick or a leprechaun.

10. Throw in a few Irish gaelic phrases for the singer to mispronounce.

4 Responses to The Secrets of Irish Music

  • My son’s a big fan of Shellalagh Law, an Irish band, in NYC. One of his pals is a world-class piper.

    Someone said, “The Gael is the man that God made mad. All his wars are joyous and all his songs are sad.”

    I had never heard the one about the IRA (“I Ran Away”).

    Truth! De Valera absconded to Brooklyn after the 1916 Rising and stayed away while Mick Collins and his martyrs beat the Brits.

    Then, Dev slinked back and started the civil war in which his gangsters assassinated Collins, the man who freed Ireland, and hundreds of others that had stayed and fought.

    Your #3 is totally TRUE.

    “Brittania’s sons and their long range guns, came sailing in the foggy dew.”

    Somewhere in the movie, “Hamburger Hill” one of the bloods totally explains country music in three phrases.

  • For the great Gaels of Ireland
    Are the men that God made mad,
    For all their wars are merry
    And all their songs are sad.

    G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

  • Gosh, Donald, I’m flattered! And I enjoyed the Lehrer video, though that was one Typical Irish Ballad I didn’t have in mind while composing my list!

    Re your item # 3: I take it you listen to The Pogues?;-)

    T., while tracking down the history of “Rosin the Beau” (a song that was much on my mind while writing) I came across a spirited defense of the lyrics’ American origin on the grounds that the title pun clearly required mastery of English and the Irish at the time still spoke Gaelic. Well, maybe. The tune, of course, is Irish.

  • “And I enjoyed the Lehrer video, though that was one Typical Irish Ballad I didn’t have in mind while composing my list!”

    True, cminor, but as we both know the best Irish ballads have always been written by Jewish Professors of Math! :)

    “Re your item # 3: I take it you listen to The Pogues?”;-)

    “The band has received mixed reviews of its recent performances. Reviewing a March 2008 concert, The Washington Post described MacGowan as “puffy and paunchy,” but said the singer “still has a banshee wail to beat Howard Dean’s, and the singer’s abrasive growl is all a band this marvelous needs to give its amphetamine-spiked take on Irish folk a focal point.” The reviewer continued: “The set started off shaky, MacGowan singing of `goin’ where streams of whiskey are flowin,’ and looking like he’d arrived there already. He grew more lucid and powerful as the evening gathered steam, through two hours and 26 songs, mostly from the Pogues’ first three (and best) albums”.

    In regard to item 3 I have always had a fondness for Irish rebel music as readers of this blog can attest, but after a while hearing Irish singer after Irish singer damn the Brits, and I having a passing familiarity with Irish history and all the self-inflicted wounds therein by the Irish on the Irish, I reach for this video clip from the Life of Brian:

    The Irish folksinging scene really needs a This Is Spinal Tap level spoof!

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