Sitting in Cork City Grieving a Close Stranger
I suppose I should be glad, in a bitter sort of way, that Ronnie Drew died the afternoon before I came to the far-famed land of my people.
The death of an old man is not a tragedy, but when that old man is one of the towering figures of Irish music... you might be able to see where I’m going. I won’t lie to you: when I clicked on BBC News Online yesterday at about six o’clock, I was already in a bit of a sad mood... and when I saw that Ronnie had bought it, I sat in front of the computer and cried. I wasn’t surprised, because your man had been ill two years – I got over the shock of it when I saw him on Irish TV with all his hair and famous beard gone from the chemo back in January.
Like all my favourite voices (and Ronnie is firmly in that group), I don’t remember hearing Ronnie the first time. I remember once being very young and stupid and hating Irish music. When I was a child, I associated Irish people, Irish music and Irish things with the Roman Catholic Church... and I detested the Church. The Irish in England are a very particular species of people and I didn’t realise that those people in the Church’s Family Centre weren’t representative of the entire gang. Fortunately, the love and pride and affection for Ireland were hard-coded and the yearning pulled me closer. Further away from the Church, but closer to Ireland.
Some years ago, I downloaded ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ by the Dubliners, probably because of Thin Lizzy. I didn’t like that particular version nearly as much as Lizzy’s... but I can tell you that something sparked in my brain.
An article about the Pogues in MOJO magazine helped, although I think it was before that when I downloaded some of their songs too... including at least two versions of ‘The Irish Rover’. I do remember loving the Pogues-Dubliners cover and I also remember not much liking another version by the Dubs. I remember wondering who the hell this guy was who was putting the emphasis on the wrong place on the refrain. He was singing Irrrr-ish Rover instead of Irish Rooo-ver. It wasn’t wrong, it was just different. That was Ronnie, you know. I’ve since rediscovered the version I think that was and I like it perfectly well.
Whatever it was, and whyever I searched for them, I ended up buying Spirit of the Irish at the now-gone music store in town – the same place I bought two little records called Led Zeppelin IV and Jailbreak.
Anyway, when I finally went to see my Jim in August 2004, I wasn’t listening to the Doors or to Lizzy or to Zeppelin or the Beatles. All the way from London to Paris and back, I listened to the Dubliners. It was Ronnie’s voice that pulled me in and his voice I fell in love with. The late, near-sainted Luke Kelly had a clear, wonderful voice which I really adore, but it was Ronnie’s deep, gravelly, coal-being-ground-underfoot voice that I really fell in love with. It was voice that sounded like it had been dug out of the earth of mother Ireland herself.
For all that, I never tried to find out who he really was. In some ways it seemed unimportant – you’d only to listen and know.
He didn’t give a fuck. He was absolutely himself whether it pissed people off or not. He was the towering measure of man that rebellious rock types hire PR companies to help with. The Dubliners weren’t solely responsible for the resurgence of Irish folk music, but they were the figureheads. Until yesterday afternoon, I had maintained the hope that Ronnie would return to the Dubs so I could see live the power he had. As it is, I’ll have to resign myself to two excellent shows by the (one of which I travelled to Dublin specifically for) without him
As is so often the case when a celebrity (for want of a better word), my grief is selfish. I shan’t get to see him, I won’t, I can’t... but I know that my slight sorrow is a pale reflection of a shadow of how his family and friends must feel.
Last year, in what might be called an ‘emotional state’, I compared how I felt about Jim to the agony of losing my granddad. If Ronnie’s family feel for him even a fraction of what I did for Granddad, they have my complete and most sincere condolences.
There was just a Ronnie Drew documentary on TV here and I’d never have seen it if I was in England. He was blunt, foul-mouthed, honest and fierce as fuck. It didn’t tell me much about the Dubs that I didn’t already know, but it was interesting to learn more about him. Sans beard, he almost reminded me a little of Granddad – but most people over 70 seem to do that these days.
Much as Cork seems like a nice little city, I really just want to get up to Dublin. I’ll be there on Tuesday, and when I get there I’ll find myself a pub, maybe O’Donoghue’s but maybe not. I shall buy a glass of something and raise it to Ronnie Drew.
I was listening to the Dubs on Saturday morning, just as I had been the day before. Ronnie’s performance of Sean O’Casey’s ‘Red Roses for Me’ makes me want to cry. His go at ‘The Parting Glass’ has done in the past.
There are songs best done by the Dubliners that I’ve myself performed or working on getting performance ready. They’re often songs that Luke sang because I have no chance of singing like Ronnie.
That said, I sang ‘Love Is Pleasing’ and it became a different song. In his hands it was cynical, tired and resigned. In mine it was probably plaintive. Whatever he sang it sounded honest, whether it was or not. I don’t know how. He sang as if he was just talking to you – that’s how much effort seemed to be put in – and yet it was always undeniably brilliant and familiar. His voice felt like it was an old friend, even if you’d never heard the song before.
The thing for me is the voice. A group can have a master guitarist, or a songwriter par excellence, or whatever their gimmick is... but if there’s not a great voice for me to latch onto, there’s little hope. I didn’t latch onto Ronnie’s voice, I clung to it for dear life.
I hope... I hope you understand what this is for me. It’s not just some old guy or some celebrity. This is one of an incredibly select group that I do not want to (probably cannot) exist without. Jim Morrison. Philip Lynott. Dean Martin. George Harrison. John Lennon. Dylan. Robert Plant. Ronnie Drew. That’s it. That’s all there is, of all the voices in the world. I could live without Luke Kelly, Steve Marriott, Lanza and Connick. I wouldn’t wither if I never heard Elvis again.
I’m really lucky – the death of Ronnie is not the death of his voice. That will go on, as far as I’m concerned, forever. But understand that the world just got a bit grimmer, less interesting and less honest.
I came to Ireland to celebrate the birthday of one dead Irish singer – I will have to add ‘mourn another’ to the list of things to do. Still, there really is nowhere I’d rather be for Ronnie. He really is one of Those Voices. He was before he died, will continue to be so after it.
Ronnie, may you be reunited with those you loved and lost, may you be given a good spot in the celestial house band. With all my gratitude and affection, Clare.
Cork City, Sunday 17th August 2008.
On the way to Cobh – Monday 18th August 2008
I always feel most English when I’m in Ireland. Mind you, I feel more Irish everywhere else...
For all my tricolour-waving, rebel-song-singing and entrenched disdain for The Empire, I’ll never really belong here. Not because I’m not Irish enough but because I’m too English. I was born in England to an Irish woman – I can only assume she returned to Ireland but have no absolute idea – and I was raised in England by people who were second and third generation – I don’t know for sure. My granny grew up in Derry before and after Partition but left in 1934 and never lived there again.
Maybe I’m part of the diaspora, I don’t know. I have no family left – anyone my mammy knew is dead or contact was lost forty years ago.
My personality has many what you might call ‘Irish’ traits. The fucking melancholy, for one. The gob on me. Some of my Irish traits have been ‘developed’ by me, some are just there. But I’m too English – I’m too uptight, too concerned with time, too closed off. That I may have taken these traits from my Granny is an irony not lost on me.
Question, then: that thing we call the Irish Personality – isn’t it just a stereotype? There are all sorts here – uptight bastards, blarney-peddling charmers, boozers, prohibitionists, nationalists, anglophiles, geniuses, bitches, bores, whores, users, losers, grafters, swindlers.
I love this country. I could’ve left it behind completely, been absolutely English. It was a choice I made to be Irish. I’ve had what basically amounts to racism flung at me (most notably by a teacher at school), but I chose to be this person. I’ll never truly, absolutely belong here, but I’ll never be truly at home in England either.
Maybe I should use my handy third option and bugger off to Croatia.
I don’t belong anywhere and never have... the closest thing is that tiny pocket of London where the Worleys have been for at least a century... but I don’t belong. It used to really bother me, but maybe... just possibly it means that I can see all sides as they really are. I’ve kept myself an outsider in so many years, and in this way it was foist upon me.
Maybe it’s liberating: if I don’t belong anywhere, I can take myself everywhere. For now, I’ll explore the motherland. One day I want to cycle the entire coast of Mother Ireland – this will take some time.
I am a Worley of St Luke’s, an O’Driscoll of Cork. I’m a Hassan of Derry, a Cobaich of Pula. I’m even a Hayward of Shoreditch, and even a Walsh of Galway.
Belonging is overrated and I’ll tell myself that until the aching goes away.
On arriving in the Black Pool, Tuesday 19th August 2008
It has to be said that I’ve felt the presence of some black clouds since Saturday. I can’t say it’s all because of the lately late Ronnie Drew, but that even certainly made me impatient to get back to Dublin. I must even admit that it hampered my ability to enjoy Cork – though the great exhaustion I felt surely played its part.
This is not to say I had a bad time – I had a good time, but I also felt the constant knowledge that it could’ve (should’ve) been better. I will certainly return there – possibly with friends.
Now, I’ve been in Dublin for just over an hour. I got on the bus from Heuston Station, checked into my room, almost bought an Elmo cuddly toy (baulked at the price), and did buy my dad some tea, my mammy come coffee and I now sit in possibly my favourite restaurant in the entire world, Gallagher’s Boxty House.
And for the first time since Saturday, I feel something akin to joy. Sure, wasn’t I smiling as I crossed Dame Street into Temple Bar? Didn’t I grin up at Philip and Luke as I passed the Music Wall of Fame?
I love all of Ireland, the bits I’ve seen and the bits I haven’t. There are few places though, that give me such a smile as Dublin can. It’s changed, even in the few years since I’ve been coming here, but I think a sizeable slice of my heart will always belong to her.
It’s Philip’s city after all. When I’m done with boxty I’ll head north over the Liffey to the Collins Barracks. Later, I’ll get a new O’Driscoll keyring and go see Philo’s statue. Tomorrow is his birthday and I’ll go and see himself out in Sutton. By the end of tomorrow, though, I’ll be back in London. I very much suspect that I’ll have lost this joy I feel right now.
“I’ve been spending my time in the Old Town... It’s not the same honey, now you’re not around...”