Yeah yeah, it’s St Patrick’s Day across the planet, but I won’t give you an Irish proverb for the day that’s in it, or one of those madey-uppy “Irish” proverbs by the Trump regime. Instead I give you a brilliant song about Paddy’s Day itself by Damien Dempsey.
The song is a universe away from all the hooplah and green hats and ginger wigs and all that palaver. It’s a piece of art that should be on the Leaving Cert and studied by scholars in years to come.
Though its official title is “St Patrick’s Day”, its lyrics only ever refer to “Paddy’s Day”. At the start it’s not clear when the song is set, though it later turns out to be the early years of the Irish State, probably the 1920s.
I’ll concentrate here on the lyrics rather than the music, and leave that to the critics and experts who know far more about these things. Except there’s one key thing about the musical structure that I’ve gone on about before: it’s one of those songs that have a refrain but strictly speaking no chorus.
In a typical ballad or rock song in the key of D major, you’d expect to reach a chorus eventually and hit an A major chord (or even an A minor) somewhere along the way. But this song never does.
The general effect is of things unresolved. A bit like Irish history as it were.
The first verse
Its first verse paints a thoroughly Irish domestic scene.
Mammy sings wonderfully
Daddy comes home from work
He falls in and goes berserk
The song we’re listening to is a lament too. It has a “wonderfully lamenting” melody. But I said I wouldn’t talk about the music so let’s stick strictly to the lyric. The “falls in” bit gives a hint that the Da might be staggering in from the pub, but you never can tell. And this isn’t any old “work” that rhymes exactly with the second syllable of “berserk”. It’s work sung with a Dublin accent.
Then attention switches to a visitor:
The priest calls around for tea
He always seems so terribly lonely
The language sounds informal, yet everything is meticulously constructed. It’s not “a” priest but “the” priest – the definite pronoun – perhaps because he’s not any old priest but THE priest, a very definite figure in the parish and in this particular home. Possibly a very familiar visitor if he is in the habit of calling around for tea.
Tea. It sounds innocuous, just a friendly chat about this and that, or maybe the man really is just “terribly lonely”, as he “seems” to be in the eyes of the kid narrating the song. The word “terribly” stands out because it’s one of the ways that Dempsey sometimes stretches the second line in these rhyming couplets to become slightly longer than the first.
But it’s the next couplet that’s the real killer:
Talks of industrial school
As he looks at me so cruel
“Talks” here could be a noun or a verb. So it’s not clear here whether it’s just the priest doing the talking or more people are involved, as in talks between him and the parents. Either way, talk of industrial schools is in the air, and the PP – for all his loneliness just a couple of lines ago – is giving the kid a cruel look.
Perhaps the kid has yet to learn – either at first hand or less directly – about the cruel and evil nature of the industrial schools of Ireland in those times. Maybe the priest is issuing a threat. Maybe some other kid in school has just been sent to one of these penal centres.
All these maybes. Again, it’s left to the listener to work out exactly what’s going on and to fill in all the details and camera angles. It’s the kind of thing that makes a good song great.
Then comes the refrain. It zooms out from this particular family in their domestic space to a global stage: all the marches and dancing and singing around the world on Paddy’s Day. Or more specifically the celebrations in Amerikay, Botany Bay and Cricklewood way. Taking these three places in turn…
“Amerikay” often pops up in old Irish folk music. It was how some Irish people pronounced “America” in English. It was also one of “several eccentricities of pronunciation” of the American President Lincoln, apparently. It’s also a damn handy way to create a certain rhyme in a poem or ballad (“-kay”, “bay”, “way”).
“Botany Bay” refers to the place in Sydney, Australia. It’s not just a geo-location. In two words it evokes the British empire’s starting point in its colonisation of an entire continent, as well as the initial site of the penal colony of that name.
So you’ll come across Botany Bay references in many a song about transportation, from “Jim Jones” or “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” – an Australian ballad from the 1820s but later made more famous in recordings by Ewan MacColl and Bob Dylan – to more modern songs such as “The Shores of Botany Bay” (by the Wolfe Tones) and “The Fields of Athenry”.
Cricklewood was once a major hub of the Irish in London, and immortalised in “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”. Dominic Behan wrote the ballad for The Dubliners in the 1960s, and it tells of the generations of Irish builders and labourers who went across the water to work in Britain shortly before and after the second World War.
The crack was good in Cricklewood
And they wouldn’t leave the Crown [a famous pub, now a hotel]
With glasses flying and biddies crying
Sure Paddy was going to town
But back to Damien Dempsey’s song. The “Paddy’s Day” refrain ends not with all the communal activities of marching and singing and dancing but the line “For my sanity I pray”, a solitary figure in all the madness.
The second verse
The second verse dives into the Irish War of Independence, specifically the war against the Black and Tans from 1919 onwards:
Da fought the Black and Tans
So did our uncle Dan
Then there was civil war
And we ne’er saw Dan any more
The song gives hints and glimpses of major turning points in Irish history, with all the matter-of-factness of a young narrator as it becomes family history too. Uncle Dan disappears during or after the Irish Civil War. Like many a disappearance, his might be a mystery. We’re not told what side he was on, whether he was on the same side as the Da, whether he’s dead or in prison or abroad.
Finally the entire family have to emigrate, presumably to North America rather than Britain.
We all have to walk to Cobh
A family of fourteen, both young and old
Transport our poverty
To a room and a ditch cross the sea
If the family are coming from Dublin it would be a very long trek by foot to the town of Cobh in County Cork, at the other end of the country. Its port is a sad and special landmark in terms of Irish emigration as people fled from hunger, disease and austerity.
Emigration continued after independence in 1922, as the new Irish State went into a decade of recession and austerity. Emigration increased every year up to the 1930s, when everything ground to a halt in the Great Depression.
Then with the combination of the second World War and US legislation, Irish emigration shifted more towards England and the Kilburns and Cricklewoods of this world.
I’ll leave it at that. For more modern patterns of emigration from Ireland – as well as research about history and Irish traditional music – I’d recommend an excellent blog by social and cultural historian Sara S. Goek that I recently came across.
And if you want more of Damien Dempsey’s songs and a few live videos too, check out his website at DamienDempsey.com.