SINGING OF A PATRIOTIC SONG
On my first trip to Ireland in 1972 I took with me a romance. Knowing of the "singing
pubs" where everyone is invited to do a turn, to sing a song or recite a
poem, I determined to sing "Kevin Barry" - a patriotic song.
hitchhiked across the waist of the wee country. In one town, halfway between Dublin
and Limerick, I was picked up on the way into town and driven the half mile to
the other side. During our few minutes together I confessed to my hosts, two rough
country diamonds, of my ambition to sing Kevin Barry in a pub. Now this was during
the time of the troubles in Ulster - when was it not? - and in this context the
driver turned at his wheel to face me and my English accent. "I wouldn't
be doing that," he said. "It could be dangerous."
on a Friday morning
High upon a gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
the cause of liberty
hitched on to County Clare on the west coast, and walked the carless countryside.
On a winding road through a hospitable valley I stopped to watch a young man placing
stones in a wall. In a while he stopped to chat, and soon invited me into the
farm cottage for the ubiquitous boiled egg. The young man and his father owned
seventeen cows, but served me Blue Band Margarine, and Wonderloaf, and Hartley's
jam, and Tetley's tea. Tate and Lyle sugar. All brand names, save for the milk
and the egg. The cottages have open hearths for a small peat fire. There is a
"crane" from which to hang pots over the fire. And that's the kitchen.
No running water. My host and his portly father - bursting shirt, worn tweed jacket
- warmed the batteries of their tiny transistor radio by the ashes and embers
to eke out another few minutes of current and transmission.
After spending a few days with some friends in County Clare, I hitched down to
Kerry where I stayed a short spell with another friend, Jonathan Clark, who was
holidaying in Kerry with his beautiful wife, Kate. There were two guests there
before me; two "lads" from Belfast, Provisional IRA, active urban guerrillas,
on a rest and respite. Michael was in his mid twenties and was a gentle, thoughtful
lad. While we others talked, ate, drank, and smoked dope, he sat by the fire reading
James Joyce's Ulysses.
I asked, "are you familiar with a passage that goes something like "a
woman no better than something..."
who was half way through the thousand page text, turned back one page to read,
"Helen, a woman no better than she should be..." Helen as in Helen of
Michael's comrade, Sean, was a harder
study. Now in his mid thirties, Sean had been a shop steward, an activist even
before the troubles moved his activities underground. He was a political man,
a rationalist, pragmatist, cutting through problems with little display of emotion.
a lad of eighteen summers
But there's no one
As he waked to death that morning
Kevin held his head up high.
My second day in Kerry, Matt Murphy and American Debbie, his young plump blond
hippie sleep-in, came to visit. Matt Murphy, now sixty, thin, greying slicked
hair, grown reedy from Guinness and whisky, Matt Murphy had been a drinking companion
of Brenden Behan, the Dublin playwright. Behan and Murphy had decided one evening
that what Ireland needed was for some hero with the balls and wit to walk stark
naked down O'Connell Street. I do not know whether Ireland as a whole noticed,
remembers, or thanked them, but for the cognoscenti it rendered Murphy some notoriety.
At the time I met him, Matt Murphy, down in Kerry, was famous again, not only
as the late playwright's buddy, but also for his cowboy boots, hat, and belt.
But then all the Irish are famous for one thing or another. By this time Behan
had drunk himself into his grave. Matt Murphy, himself, was working on it. But
despite his pallor (and you could see through him on a bright day), there was
still one foot out of the grave. Murphy talked of old times and drank whatever
was in the house.
martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the
After our meeting with Matt Murphy, the Belfast lads were planning
to drive back to Dublin. I begged a ride. Sean was planning to leave at two in
the morning - this in order to arrive at Matt Murphy's, on the tip of the Kerry
peninsula, at three a.m. As we drove in our stolen Ford Escort I learnt of the
purpose of our visit. Matt Murphy owned a gun. An old rifle. A memento of the
First Great War. It had seen service during the Rebellion. And Murphy had inherited
it from an uncle. "So it's a very old gun, but it is serviceable," said
Sean. The Provisional needed every weapon they could lay their hands on. "He
calls himself a patriot. Now we'll see - if he'll give us the gun. It's all fine
We arrived at an old two story
house in the unwatched hours. We knocked and knocked and called, quietly but insistent.
"Murphy, be Jesus. Wake yourself, man. Your country's calling."
Debbie, the plumb little hippie dumpling, tousle-headed,
but not unfriendly, opened the door. Murphy was asleep, deep with pills.
him. We've business."
Groggy Matt Murphy
stumbled downs stairs and entered the room, rumpled but unruffled. "Jesus,
man. I've taken a whole pharmacy. I can't be awake."
come for the gun."
"The devil you
"Is it here?"
buried where it will do no harm. In the hills. I'll nar givit ya."
haggled. "Your country..."
Finally Murphy yawned and stretched.
"Look, man, I'm asleep." It was a hard statement to contest for he was
indeed all but sleeping, and he was adamant. A winning combination. Debbie and
I, half in, half out of the picture, observed the midnight farce with apprehension.
Might there be violence? No, there would not, but the boys would grumble a lot,
Sean anyroad, all the way to Dublin.
himself a patriot!"
We drove to Killarney, arriving at four in the morning. "We'll have to wait
till six for petrol." An anticlimax, three men kipping in a Ford Escort in
the forecourt of the petrol station on the outskirts of Killarney.
then a wild drive to Dublin. Seventy and eighty miles an hour on those Irish roads
is wild enough. Always the crows busy by the edge of the road.
came my time to drive. The Belfast boys in the back were discussing stratagems
to change the fate of nations. The English just wanted them to roll over and play
dead, opinioned Sean, but he wasn't about to oblige them. "You know, thirty
dedicated men can tie down fifteen thousand English troops in Ulster. Indefinitely.
They'll tire of it before we do. They can't afford it."
there I was, boys, chauffeuring the Belfast lads in their stolen car. I felt like
James Dean. And I asked if I might sing for them as I drove our rebel wagon. "Right
enough," said Michael. "Go ahead," said Sean.
me like an Irish soldier
Do not hang me like
For I fought for Ireland's freedom
On that cold September morn
around that little bakery
Where we battled hand
Shoot me like and Irish soldier
For I fought to free Ireland.