A Brief Survey of Choice Traditional Irish Ballads:
Or how to be a truly sad and lovesick bastard
(1) Danny Boy
(Classic Irish heartstring-puller, in which our dear Danny Boy is heading off to war, pretty much guaranteed never to see the singer, or a good day, again.)
"And if you come, when all the flowers are dying,
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
You'll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me."
(2) Fields of Athenry
(That same old story in which a young lad is arrested for stealing the lord's corn, and thus set adrift on a prison ship bound for Australia, leaving his true love a single mother...)
"Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity."
(3) I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen
(In which a beloved wife dies a slow and painful death, and her devoted husband escorts her body back to her native Ireland. Incidentally, my grandpa Van used to sing this song to me when I was but a wee lass. Because we liked to keep it real and not sugar coat it.)
"The roses all have left your cheek, I've watched them fade away and die..."
(4) An Emigrant's Daughter
(A haunting sea shanty in which a daughter is put on a boat to America. But she gets a fever. She starts hallucinating. And, because this is an Irish Ballad, she dies. The they throw her body into its watery grave.)
"Oh please ne'er forget me though waves now lie o'er me
I was once young and pretty and my spirit ran free,
But destiny tore me from country and loved ones,
And from the new land I was never to see."
(In which a man starts hitting the bottle after being cuckolded by a bawdy and humorous ditty.)
"But I'll sing no more now till I get a drink,
For I'm drunk today and I'm seldom sober..."
(6) My Dark Rosaleen
(Here a man gets his serious pine on while missing his boo, Rosie.)
"Woe and pain, pain and woe,
Are my lot night and noon,
To see your bright face clouded so,
Like to the mournful moon."
(7) I'm Stretched on Your Grave
(I think this one pretty much speaks for itself...mel-o-drama!)
"I am stretched on your grave and I'll lie there forever..."
(8) The Wind That Shakes the Barley
(In which a doomed young rebel loses his love and marches into the 1798 Irish Rebellion, pockets stuffed with oats to munch along the way. Of course, it all ends badly. *Interesting side note: Random patches of barley popped up all over the countryside post-rebellion, indicating both the mass unmarked graves of Irish soldiers (barley in pocket), and symbolizing that stubborn Irish tenacity and a big fuck off to British rule. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is also a gorgeously sad film starting the extremely easy-on-the-eyes Cillian Murphy. In layer upon layer of fine Irish tweed.)
"While sad I kissed away her tears, my fond arms round her flinging
The foeman's shot burst on our ears from out the wildwood ringing
A bullet pierced my true love's side in life's young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died while soft winds shook the barley."
(9) Four Green Fields
(This song is in it to win it. It pretty much delivers all the goods... plundering, pillaging, loss, starvation, dead family, blood, guts, screaming children, British invasion...)
"There was war and death, plundering and pillage
My children starved, by mountain, valley and sea
And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens
My four green fields ran red with their blood, said she."
But, for all their suffering, and proclivity for reliving that suffering nightly through song, the Irish also have a tremendously big-hearted, admirable, and irreverent sense of humor.... and so I leave you with this gem..
(10) Lily the Pink
(In which the dubiously named witchy woman Lily the Pink prescribes her medicinal compounds to cure whatever ails the locals, for which she is immortalized in a drinking song.)
Quotes won't do it justice, so you'll just have to listen and watch this amazing cover here.
from the January/February 2005 issue of Orion magazine
MY SON LIAM was born ten years ago. He looked like a cucumber on steroids. He was fat and bald and round as a cucumber on steroids. He looked healthy as a horse. He wasn’t. He was missing a chamber in his heart. You need four rooms in your heart for smooth conduct through this vale of fears and tears, and he only had three, so pretty soon doctors cut him open and iced down his heart and shut it down for an hour while they made repairs, and then when he was about eighteen months old he had another surgery, during which they did more tinkering, and all this slicing and dicing worked, and now he’s ten, and the other day as he and I were having a burping contest he suddenly said, “Explain to me my heart stuff,” which I tried to do, in my usual Boring Dad way, and soon enough he wandered off, I think to beat up his brother, but I sat there remembering.
I remember pacing hospital and house and hills, and thinking that his operations would either work or not and he would either live or die. There was a certain clarity there; I used to crawl into that clarity at night to sleep. But nothing else was clear. I used to think, in those sleepless days and nights, what if they don’t fix him all the way and he’s a cripple all his life, a pale thin kid in a wheelchair who has Crises? What if his brain gets bent? What if he ends up alive but without his mind at all? What then? Who would he be? Would he always be what he might have been? Would I love him still? What if I couldn’t love him? What if he was so damaged that I prayed for him to die? Would those prayers be good or evil?
I don’t have anything sweet or wise to say about those thoughts. I can’t report that God gave me strength to face my fears, or that my wife’s love saved me, or anything cool and poetic like that. I just tell you that I had those thoughts, and they haunt me still. I can’t even push them across the page here and have them sit between you and me unattached to either of us, for they are bound to me always, like the dark fibers of my heart. For our hearts are not pure; our hearts are filled with need and greed as much as with love and grace; and we wrestle with our hearts all the time. The wrestling is who we are. How we wrestle is who we are. What we want to be is never what we are. Not yet. Maybe that’s why we have these relentless engines in our chests, driving us forward toward what we might be.
Eventually my son will need a new heart, a transplant when he’s thirty or forty or so, though Liam said airily the other day that he’s decided to grow a new one from the old one, which I wouldn’t bet against him doing eventually, him being a really remarkable kid. But that made me think: if we could grow new hearts out of old ones, what might we be then? What might we be if we rise and evolve, if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain, if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger, if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison, if we smash away the steel from around our hearts, if we peel the scales from our eyes, if we do what we say we will do, if we act as if our words really matter, if our words become muscled mercy, if we grow a fifth chamber in our hearts and a seventh and a ninth, and become as if new creatures arisen from our shucked skins, the creatures we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of becoming…