On Raglan Road - Irish Love Songs and their Inspiration - Transcript

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The following is the transcript of a talk given by Gerry Hanberry on the 23 August 2016 in the Central Library, Ilac Centre, Dublin 1.


Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, writer and poet Gerard Hanberry reveals the inspiration behind well-known Irish songs and ballads. Learn the often surprising, sometimes bittersweet but always absorbing stories of the real women who inspired some of the world’s finest love songs. Recorded in front of a live audience at the Central Library on 23 August 2016 as part of the Libraries' Heritage Week Programme.


Welcome to the Central Library and this afternoon we have Gerard Hanberry and he is a Renaissance man, author, poet, musician and he is going to be looking at his latest book today on 14 love songs, famous Irish love songs, and the women that inspired them.  His book ‘On Raglan Road’ will be out in September I think, isn’t it Gerry?


The end of September yeah.


The end of September and it will be on Amazon and in all of the book shops.  So without any further ado I’m sure you are dying to get going, can I introduce Gerard Hanberry.  (Applause)


Thanks very much.

So that’s the cover of the forthcoming book ‘On Raglan Road’, as you know called after the famous song, ‘Great Irish Love Songs and the Women who Inspired Them’.  This book brings together, might introduce my various activities.  I tend to have a very kind of compartmentalised world.  I’m involved in poetry.  I have four collections published and I’m also involved in music.  I’m involved in writing.  So this book sort of intersects all three I think, the lyrics and there’s a man, Kevin Maguire, I just want to name check him because he gave me a lot of help in researching.

Some of the high points in the book would include the song ‘The Galway Girl’:

I took a stroll on the old long walk
Of a day -I-ay-I-ay
I met a little girl ... or I met a pretty girl

Is this fiction or fantasy?  Well the reality is it is true.  There is a Galway girl and I was lucky enough to be able to trace her and we’ll see her coming up now shortly.

And the real story behind Nancy Spain as well is very interesting.  It’s not at all what you would imagine.  I often think of the people standing up and Christy Moore singing ‘I love you Nancy Spain’ and their hands on their heart, when they hear the real story (laughter) I’m afraid another Irish myth will be shattered.  (laughter)

What I really enjoyed about putting the book together was speaking with the composers and the artists and the recording artists and all of that.  But very often little asides came out as well as their generosity and their honesty in revealing who the actual females were and in some cases they wouldn’t reveal it and told me ‘I don’t really want to be in the book.  I don’t really want to go back there’ for understandable reasons given their current relationships maybe.  So some people declined.  But there were a few little nice stories on the side.

One of them was Mundy telling me as a young man of 19 and the girl that inspired his very first song which was used in the film ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the song is called ‘To You I Bestow’ and it was the night following her farewell party, she had to go back to the United States, she was an American here for a few years and he fell madly in love with her.  But he was in bed and as he said in this freezing cold house and the words came to him in the middle of the night and he didn’t want to get out of bed but he remembered Bob Dylan had said in some interview that very often your words will come in that moment between half sleep and half wake and no matter what happens you have to write them down.  So he told me how he got out of bed in this freezing cold house in the middle of winter and found a biro and wrote the words on the back of a Golden Pages phone book (laughter).  Yeah and that became his very first hit which set him on the road to success.  It was featured in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, as I say, and that album went on to sell 11 million copies.  So if he hadn’t got out of bed that cold ... if he hadn’t and said ‘Ah, I’ll think of it in the morning’ but you won’t think of it in the morning.

So those little asides I really enjoyed hearing and one of the most famous songs in the whole world today is a song called ‘You Raise me Up’ and I’ll have a little surprise towards the end of the talk, hearing the actual story of how that came about and the inspiration for that.  I had another song by the same author ‘Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears’ about the same woman who came through Ellis Island but unfortunately we were cut down to 14 songs, 14 chapters, so that didn’t get through on this occasion and Mick Hanly’s great song ‘Past the Point of Rescue’.

That’s the contents.  It begins back in the 1600s with an old ... you’ve often heard the cliché the 40 verses, well this has over 40 verses, Una Bhán, it’s an old Gaelic song from the 1600s, it tells of the love affair between Thomas Lauder Costello and a McDermott girl.  It’s a sort of a Romeo and Juliet story and it goes on and it goes on and it goes on and goes on (laughs).  But it’s a fabulous...

The next chapter is ‘Danny Boy’, then ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’, ‘Gortnamona’ Percy French’s great love song set to music in the 1950s, he wrote the lyrics.  And then ‘On Raglan Road’ itself, the song that inspired me to write the book.  ‘Nancy Spain’ by Barney Rush.  ‘Sarah’, the story of Phil Lynott and his love for his daughter expressed in song, the tragic story of Phil Lynott.  I was listening to a local radio station during the Easter 1916 commemorations and the radio presenter came on and said “Now we’re going to play the song ‘Grace’ that was a big hit for Jim McCann in the 1980s written by Joseph Plunkett an hour or two before his execution in Kilmainham jail and I was saying to myself had he nothing better to do (laughter) than write a song a couple of hours before he was led out which of course the radio presenter had it all upside down.  The song was written in the mid 80s by Sean and Frank O’Meara who were ... and still are ... songwriters.  In fact Sean is the Head of the Advertising Authority at the moment and the song ‘Grace’ was written in response, as he told me, ‘The Fields of Athenry’ had been a great hit in the early 80s and I said to  myself ‘Surely, I could find some historical story to match ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and it took him months and months searching his mind but then he remembered a story he had been told in school about this girl who married one of the signatories of the Proclamation just hours before he was to be executed in Kilmainham.  So he wrote the song in the mid 80s ‘Grace’.  ‘Passed the Point of Rescue’ Mick Hanly’s great song of love, ‘The Voyage’ Johnny Duhan.  Frank and Walters ‘After all’, a great 90s song.  ‘Galway Girl’, Steve Earle.  ‘To You I Bestow’ by Mundy and ‘You Raise me Up’ by Brendan Graham.

Okay, so I think what I’ll do is I’ll read the introduction to the book just so as you get a feel for it and then I’ll skip down and I’ll read a little bit of the chapter on Patrick Kavanagh.  So the book opens with an introduction and this is the introduction:

It is evening and friends have gathered.  Conversation and conviviality abound.  Eventually somebody requests a song.  A reluctant member of the company known to have ‘a voice’ is identified and pressed to sing, hush descends, the singer grows in confidence as the spell takes hold.  Some listeners close their eyes while others hold hands and sway to the melody.  The song might tell of unrequited love or of loss and pain due to death or emigration or another lover.  The singer’s head is bowed now and the song concludes.  A moment of poignant silence and then the warm praise.  The bard, the poet, the musician, those people have always been held in very high esteem in Ireland.  Back in the old days of the Gaelic Order the poet or the file was a powerful individual and each chieftain had his own bard.  Writing in 1596 the English poet and Government official Edmund Spenser said poets in Ireland were, and I quote:

“Held in so high request and estimation amongst them, that none dare to displease them for fear of running into reproach through their offence, and to be made infamous in the mouths of all men”.

Many of us have tapped our feet to the Chieftains as the band performed an ancient tune by Turlough O’Carolan, the blind 17th century harp, and wondered who was it that could have inspired him to write such a beautiful melody.  Audiences still listen enthralled by Christy Moore as sings of ‘Nancy Spain’, a woman whose name continues to haunt the composer no matter where he wonders.  How often have we taken to the dance floor at the sound of the opening notes of ‘Galway Girl’ and wondered who the beautiful enchantress could have been.  A girl he said he met as he took ‘stroll on the old long walk of a day -I-ay-I-ay’ with her hair of black and her eyes of blue.  Maybe we’ve rocked to Thin Lizzy and wondered about Sarah who according to the song changed Phil Lynott’s world and who exactly was the beauty first seen by the poet Kavanagh ‘On Raglan Road ... whose dark hair weave a snare that I might one day rue’ and, by the way, since I started writing this the amount of women who claim to have been (laughs) the inspiration for Raglan Road is amazing really.  And people thought Kavanagh lived a quiet, sheltered life (laughter) but quite obviously not as quiet and as sheltered as we thought.

Anyway, this book tells the story of all of those wonderful women, of great beauty and charm, who inspired poets and composers to write some of the world’s finest love songs.  It also provides information about the lives of the writers and explores the circumstances under which these beautiful songs and poems came to be composed.  So even though the book begins with the old Irish love song Una Bhán there, which was sung by Joe Heaney and (10.14 inaudible).

I’m going to start by talking about Kavanagh ‘On Raglan Road’ because that’s the title of the book.  So again I’ll just read a few pages from that chapter.  So the chapter ‘On Raglan Road’ which is chapter 5 begins like this:

It has to be one of the great iconic images of Irish folk music.  Luke Kelly, his eyes shut tight, chin up, head thrown back.  There he is.  And that flaming tangle of curly red hair so instantly recognisable.  In some still photographs he has his 5 string banjos strung around his neck and you just know he is delivering ‘On Raglan Road’ from deep in his heart.  Hearing Luke perform this moving song of unrequited love is a powerful and emotional experience.  Sadly Luke died in January 1984 at the age of 44 from a brain tumour but his voice lives on and so on.  His masterful interpretation of ‘On Raglan Road’ partly stems from the fact that he was personally invited to sing the song by the composer, the poet Patrick Kavanagh.  They met in 1964 by accident in The Bailey pub, a well known Dublin public house, and Kavanagh told Luke that he had a song for him and even sang him a few verses.  But it was 20 years before meeting Luke Kelly in the Bailey that Kavanagh appeared in the offices of the Dublin based newspaper The Catholic Standard and produced a sheet of brown lined paper from his pocket on which was written the lyrics of ‘On Raglan Road’.  Kavanagh was a columnist with The Catholic Standard at the time and his friend Benedict Kiely who also worked on the paper was able to recall in an interview years later that the lyrics were scribbled in pencil and the spelling was not very accurate (laughter).  Typical Kavanagh, yeah.  Patrick wanted to know if the verses could be sung to the tune of ‘The Dawning of the Day’.  So the two friends raised their croaking voices in a terrifying cacophony (laughter) and sure enough the rhythm and lines fitted perfectly with the old Irish air and that was in the mid 1940s.  ‘The Dawning of the Day’ is a very apt tune for Kavanagh’s poem because the original Gaelic lyric, known as ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’, is a good example of what’s known as an Aisling or a vision poem.  So I go on and I talk about what an Aisling is.  He was bewitched by her beauty and tries to court her with gentle words but she rejects him and it goes on like that.  Kavanagh’s poem ‘On Raglan Road’ can be seen as a loose reworking of the old song ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ which is an old Aisling.  I’m jumping through paragraphs now.  And in Kavanagh’s version the poet sees a beautiful girl on Raglan Road and falls in love with her.  He knows that it’s impossible and that grief is as inevitable as the falling leaves in autumn but he is helpless because he has become enchanted.  He tries his best to win her using all his artistic talents but in the end she rejects him and he fears that she may have taken his inspiration with her as she departs down ‘a quiet street where old ghosts meet’.  Then I go in and I explain where the old air came from, the ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ was originally composed in a more complex form by the Sligo born harpist Thomas Connellan in the 17th century and the lyrics ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ were first published by teacher and writer Edward Walsh in his collection ‘Irish Popular Songs’ in 1847.  But it’s really Patrick Weston Joyce who published a much simpler version of the song known as ‘The Dawning of the Day’ in his collection of Irish airs in 1873 and it’s this version that we all know and some of us were tortured going to school (hums the tune) on the tin whistle.  Yeah so that’s the version, Patrick Weston Joyce’s version.

I go on then and I talk about Kavanagh and a bit about his background.  He was born in Inniskeen.  Most of you know the story anyway so I won’t read it out, born in Mucker and I think it’s a fabulous name (laughs) for a place in which Kavanagh would have been born yeah, 1904.  A townland called Mucker.  He was the son of a small farmer and a cobbler and most of you know that story so.  He left school at 13 and went on to help his father with the land and (laughs) there is a great quote from his father, he was useless of course.  Kavanagh was useless at farming and at most things really except poetry and obviously talking to girls as well as we find out (laughs) but there’s a great quote from his father “You’ve broken every implement on the farm except for the crow bar and you’ve bent that” (laughter), so that about sums it up on his ability.  So he walked off down to Dublin, all the way from Mucker down to Dublin, and got to know to know some of the literati.  He went back and read as much as he could and eventually made his breakthrough and came to Dublin.  He left home.  He tried London for 5 months before settling in Dublin but he soon became disillusioned with the poetry world and the Dublin arts community.  In 1942 his long poem ‘The Great Hunger’ was published in The Horizon magazine and so on.  There followed a difficult period for Kavanagh as he tried to make a precarious living as a columnist and writing bits and pieces up around Dublin.  This was the first time he first saw the woman that would inspire him writing an ode.  He was working on  pros manuscript that would later be published in 1948, Tarry Flynn, a semi-autographical novel and it was banned for a while actually following publication so it must be good.  (laughter)

So who was this beautiful enchantress?  Here is Kavanagh anyway in his middle years I suppose.  A fabulous photograph I think because it captures Kavanagh’s rural background, you know the little cottage and there’s something scholarly about him all the same and yet the fabulous rustic ... So this guy was 40 or 41.  The girl was Hilda Moriarty and when Patrick first set eyes on her she was a young student from County Kerry studying Medicine at University College Dublin.  She was 22 years of age at the time and is said to have been “one of the two most beautiful women in Dublin”.  I don’t know who said that now but it’s a great quote.  The other being Kathleen Ryan, star of the film ‘Odd Man Out’.  The year was 1944 and the poet was living at 19 Raglan Road boarding house run by Mrs Kenny, he was paying 10 shillings a week.  He had arrived in the capital from his farm in Monaghan 5 years previous.  He befriended the girl, brought her to tea, they met a lot.  Hilda was interested in him because he was a well known poet about town, a published poet, and she was very interested in writing and that.  She also felt he needed some encouragement at the time, he was a bit down, and she was doing Medicine because her father told her basically.  Her father was a doctor down in Kerry.  Now, Hilda was not in the least bit interested in having a romantic relationship with the much older man with his dishevelled appearance and his harsh Monaghan accent but Patrick saw things differently and he was badly in need of some excitement in his life at this time too.  He had recently lost his job as a columnist in The Irish Press and so on.  In an interview, RTE 1987, Hilda, who was still alive at the time, explains how she thought Patrick was quite old “at least in my eyes at that time he seemed quite old”.  She tells how she abraded him about Terry Flynn and writing about cabbage and turnips and potatoes and Kavanagh replied that he was a peasant poet and Hilda told him that he should write something else and she explains in the interview that this was the origin of writing good.  The young student and the older poet continued to meet regularly during 1944 and into the following year.  This is why she looked like.  They met in the Country Shop up in Stephen’s Green and in cafes in Grafton Street and deep down Kavanagh knew the relationship was doomed to failure and he afterwards wrote that “falling in love is more a suicide than an accidental death” (laughter).  But he was struck by cupid’s arrow and he couldn’t help himself.  He followed her down to Dingle one Christmas, made an eejit of himself down there (laughter) and of course wasn’t invited to the doctor’s house.  A total disaster.  But he got an article in a newspaper about it anyway so he got something out of it.

Now, just a few points, in 1945 he brought Hilda with him on a visit to Dunsany Castle down in County Meath.  He wanted to meet Lord Dunsany.  He thought he would get him to become his patron.  He had other ideas as well bringing Hilda.  But if his intentions were to turn both the Lord and his young companion into succumbing to his wishes then the day was a complete failure.  But, he took Hilda for a walk through the castle grounds and there he saw bluebells growing beneath the trees and later Kavanagh wrote a poem on unrequited love inspired by the flowers and by his day out with Hilda in County Meath.  The untitled poem is now known as ‘Bluebells’ and it is sometimes known by its first line “The bluebells are withered now under the beech trees” and the importance of it is it prefigures ‘On Raglan Road’.  It’s not as good a poem at all as ‘On Raglan Road’ but it contains the idea that love is about a season like spring and that the use of nature imagery and the various specific locations.  So the poem ‘Bluebells’ is linked to the later and superior poem ‘On Raglan Road’ and we can see the poetic mind working towards something finer that will emerge when he comes to write his great song of unrequited love.  As the months began to pass after this Hilda began to find Kavanagh bothersome, to put it mildly.  He would show up ... I suppose nowadays we’d kind of call him a bit of a stalker maybe (laughter) but she’d be having coffee with her student friends in Bewleys or wherever it was and he would be over here looking over.  So she tried to shake him off a bit. 
There is a letter in the National Library – this is really good – which was sent by Kavanagh to Hilda dated 31st of May 1945.  It’s exactly what you would expect him to write.  It’s written shortly after their trip to Dunsany Castle.  It’s not a very diplomatic statement, nor is it an example of a perfect love letter.  It is, however, exactly what one might expect from the modern poet in his floundering attempts to come to terms with his emotional situation and his disappointment.  He was beginning to realise that this wasn’t going to work out as he had planned.  So he wrote her a letter – a few lines from it.

“I am no longer mad about you (laughter) although I do like you very, very much.  I like you because of your enchanting selfishness” (laughter) and he goes on.  “Your friendship, our love or whatever it was, was so curious and so different.  There has never been and never will be another woman who can be the same to me as you have been.  (laughs)  I think it’s a perfect Kavanagh letter, you know putting his two big feet into it and yet redeeming himself sort of at the end.

She wanted to make a complete break with him of course but his mother died and that held her back from making the break.  But in 1946 she met Donogh O’Malley, a newly qualified Engineer from Limerick, and much to Patrick’s distress they began seeing each other regularly.  Kavanagh even accompanied them on numerous dates. (laughter)  Donogh was confident that Kavanagh was not a rival.  (laughter)  He was now putting the finishing touches to the poem that would eventually become ‘On Raglan Road’ and it was published in The Irish Press in October 1946.  It was called ‘Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away’, that was the original name of ‘On Raglan Road’.  It was accompanied by a photograph of the poet which was very unusual at the time.  The poem became very popular in Dublin and it was sung at parties and that to the tune of ‘On Raglan Road’ after it was published in the paper in 1946.  It would be in the 60s before he produced it to the ballad here.  Anyway, ‘Dark Haired Miriam’, who was Miriam?  Well his brother Peter claimed that Miriam was his girlfriend (laughter) and that Patrick had stolen the name of his girlfriend and that was, again, quite in keeping with Kavanagh’s style.  In ‘47 Hilda married Donogh O’Malley and they settled down in Limerick.  She was now a qualified doctor and Donogh, as you know, went on to become a famous politician, he became Minister for Education and he is forever known as the man who introduced free secondary education into Ireland and free bus travel as well which changed the face of Ireland in a way.

I’ll just skip to the end.  That was the end of the relationship and the song became a hit in the 60s and indeed it remains Kavanagh’s most famous song.  Donogh died suddenly in March 1968 following a heart attack after delivering a bi-election speech at Six Mile Bridge and Hilda ran for election but she didn’t get it.  It was very acrimonious.  Des O’Malley got it and it was a very acrimonious election.  Patrick married his long term companion, Katherine Barry Moloney, a niece of Kevin Barry, in 1967.  They had been seeing each other and were partners for many years but sadly he married in April and he died that November and Hilda sent a wreath to his funeral and she lived on into the 80s.  So that’s a potted ... a very quick version of ...

Now, I want to jump forward to this is Brendan Graham.  A major figure in world song writing, I mean one of the major figures, and we’re lucky in Ireland to have him.  If ever a man should be honoured in his home country it’s Brendan Graham – author, composer, lyricist.  If he were in England he’d be Sir (laughs) or knighted or whatever.  If you know Brendan, ‘Rock and Roll kids’, does that ring a bell, yeah?  ‘The Voice’ and of course ‘You Raise Me Up’, a huge hit for Josh Groban in the US and around the world, Westlife as well yeah and played at all these historic moments.  I could go on and on.  It’s an amazing, amazing song.  It is the most popular song in the world today, ‘You Raise me Up’.  The facts and figures, I won’t bore you with them, they’re in the book but sold in its millions.  Million!  And used at historic moments – Olympics, Super Bowl.  It’s currently being used by Hillary Clinton for her election promotion video.  You all know the song yeah.  Now, it is possible to appreciate and interpret ‘You Raise Me Up’ in many different forms, in different ways.  The lyricist, Brendan Graham, regards his song as and I quote ... by the way, I want to thank Brendan Graham, he was so generous and honest and forthcoming and thoughtful about his inspiration for the song.  A signpost that people will read through their own particular frame of reference and according to their own particular needs.  He is happy if the song serves to elevate the milk of human kindness and he is not interested in determining how the lyric should be perceived.  What gives the song its power and what makes it universally popular is the fact that the listener is permitted to bring his or her own meaning to the worldview in the line ‘You Raise Me Up’.  So you bring your own meaning to the ‘You’.  For some, the ‘You’ might be a loving and supportive partner and therefore it’s a love song.  But for others it could be a song of praise and thanks for a parent or a teacher or a mentor and it’s been used for all these.  It might be addressed to a sibling or a grandparent or a coach or a preacher.  Others will interpret it as a sort of hymn of praise or a divine being.  The listeners make their own meaning.  As someone said to him ‘it’s a cross between a hit and a hymn’.  (laughter)  I think it’s a valid description of the song, it is too.  Brendan wrote the lyrics and he accepts all of those interpretations.  I quote him “I was aware of the ambiguity I created in the way I used the word ‘You’ in the lyric” he explains “but it is not simply a device to make the song universal, Brendan expands on his thinking behind the famous line ‘You Raise me Up’.  If I am raised up ‘to be more than I can be’ it is the person I love who loves me and through that person it is also something greater, an embodiment of the spiritual energy of the universe and the greater unknown”.  I think it’s a fabulous way of putting it – those are Brendan’s own words.  When pressed further, for the first time ever, in this book Brendan explains his source of inspiration for the song.  He was reflecting his own views that we are all ‘one with the moment’ – to borrow a line for another of his songs.  He first became aware of this idea by doing research for his novel.  Brendan is also a best-selling novelist, as if he hadn’t enough success to contend with, he is also an author as well as a composer, a lyricist.  This novel, ‘The Whitest Flower’, he was researching this among the indigenous people of South Australia’s Coorong.  These Aboriginal people “see humans and animals, plants and the land, as a conjoined part of one great whole” to quote Brendan, therefore they have a great respect for life and for the environment, for the sacredness of things.  This is all tied in with their idea of ancestors who still live in the sun and the moon and the sky and in the rivers and lakes and in the billabongs and in the very shape of the earth.  Brendan sees a parallel between the beliefs of Aboriginal people and Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson’s notion of the super soul, that we are part of all the creation.  Some people that the ‘You’ in the line ‘You Raise Me Up’ refers to their God but as Brendan points out it doesn’t matter who you call God because it is the same God and if you are preaching to the creator but yet one with him or her or “the force that through the green fuse drives” as Dylan Thomas put it then the ‘You’ of everything is the same, it is at once both human and divine because we are all part of the divine.  Now that’s a bit deep for me to expound in a lecture but if you’re reading the book you can read back over that and it makes really profound and very good sense.  He wasn’t using the ‘You’ in the singular sense rather it was a plural or split meaning, it is the people around me who raise me up but because they’re also part of the divine and the one the ‘You’ is also ... so as I say he’s one of Ireland’s leading song writers, a top lyricist and I won’t go through all the awards and all about his life.

Let me just go on a little bit about the song.  ‘You Raise Me Up’ was originally an instrumental called ‘Silent Story’.  It was composed by a Norwegian called Rolf Løvland of the Irish/Norwegian duo Secret Garden.  Some of you might remember that from the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest winner ‘Nocturne’.  Now, Rolf Løvland later came to believe that his musical composition was somehow incomplete, it needed a lyric, but it had to be the correct lyric, one that was in total harmony with the music that he composed.  So you’re familiar with the music (hums a tune), so there were no words to it.  So Rolf let the tune sit for a good while.  Sometime later Rolf Løvland’s musical partner, a girl called Fionnuala Sherry, the Irish violinist with the band, came across Brendan’s novel ‘The White Flower’ and was impressed by what she read.  The book tells the story of Ellen O’Malley, survivor of the Irish Famine and so on and she was inspired by the book and she somehow saw a link between the book and the story and the music that her musical partner had written.  Fionnuala passed the book onto Rolf and he was deeply moved by Brendan’s writing.  He saw a tenuous connection between the music he had written and his composition which was then called ‘Silent Story’.  In May of 2001 Fionnuala Sherry called Brendan and asked if he would be interested in meeting with Rolf and herself and have a listen to his composition side of the story with a view to writing a lyric to match the air.  They knew each other, having been introduced at the Eurovision in ’95 when the Secret Garden won.  Brendan was now working full-time as a novelist having secured a lucrative publishing deal but when he found out they were actually in Dublin at the time and staying close by he agreed.  Then Rolf and Fionnuala were confident that if anybody could hear the story in the music that Rolf was trying to tell in the melody it would be brilliant.  Brendan listened to a demo of Fionnuala playing the tune and he said very little.  He then went home and he set to work.  I’ll show you what he did.  By the way, the song became a huge hit all around the world, particularly in the USA for Josh Groban ‘You Raise Me Up’.  That’s Josh Groban here.  There is the ...

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be

Yeah.  Now, just to go back.  They were confident that Brendan could do it.  He listened to the demo.  He then went home and he set to work.  The first thing he did was to brainstorm his ideas and jot them down on a scrap of paper.  (audience gasp) And there is the scrap of paper.  So that’s the very first moment that ‘You Raise Me Up’ appeared in the world, yes, and those original ideas on that sheet of paper turned up recently among his bits and pieces and he very generously sent me a copy which I can use in the book.  The title and most of the chorus you can see kind of emerges here and the title and most of the chorus emerged first, that same night, and Brendan called Rolf and Fionnuala over to his house.  He had the lyric written on a sheet of paper, Rolf saw the words ‘You raise me up so I can stand on mountains, you raise me up’ and he immediately said ‘Yes, these are the words, that’s the song’.

So just the women behind ‘You Raise Me Up’ are Fionnuala Sherry who saw the link and maybe a fictional woman called Ellen O’Malley in the novel, yeah, and the world wouldn’t have what is, without doubt, at the moment probably the best known, probably the best-selling song as well.

Now, as I told you I had a surprise for you, if Brendan doesn’t mind me pointing them out, Brendan is with us today and there he is.  (Applause)  He’s now embarrassed.

Brendan Graham
I only came because I thought you might do a Paddy Kavanagh on me.  (laughter)

I’m sorry for putting you in the spotlight Brendan.  He is not a man who likes the spotlight in any manner or means.

Now, how are we doing for time?  Not too bad.  All I can do now is go down through the images here and talk about them, yes.

Let me see the next image here, yes, ‘Grace’, the story of ‘Grace’, everybody knows this, yeah, yeah.  And in fact I’ve been giving talks around Galway libraries on ‘Grace’ for the 1916 thing but it’s such a fabulous story behind the song.  I mean the song is a romanticised version of it. (Sings)

Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger

Well, she arrived at the jail at 6 o’clock, having purchased an engagement ring herself in Grafton Street and went up and waited until 11.00.  Near midnight she was brought in to the little church there.  She was brought in to the little church in Kilmainham and Joseph Plunkett was brought down the steps in handcuffs and they weren’t allowed to speak or touch.  They could respond to the service, to the Mass.  She had recently converted to Catholicism.  After the ceremony he was handcuffed again and taken immediately away.  The place was full of soldiers and she was taken away by the local priest who had officiated.   She was lodged in the house, the local bell ringer’s house of that church.  That was about 1.30am.  She went to bed.  About an hour later a car arrived for her.  The Governor of the jail had sent for her again.  She was brought back to the prison and she was allowed 10 minutes with him in his cell.  The cell was full of soldiers and officers, packed tight.  A sergeant was put standing at the door with a stopwatch to time the 10 minutes to the second.  Again, they weren’t allowed touch but they were allowed speak but as she said later ‘we who had so little time to speak in our last 10 minutes couldn’t find anything to talk about at all’.  So he spoke about Pearse and the others who had been executed the previous morning and then she was ushered away and 3 hours later he was brought out and executed.  This photograph was taken a few weeks afterwards by a journalist who came over to interview her.  Now she was a prickly enough character.  It’s a very interesting story but I just don’t have time to tell it but notice she’s wearing a wrist watch, yeah, the height of fashion at the time.  So why is she holding a cat?  She wants the watch of course (laughter), yeah.  And the journalist was very surprised that a person didn’t appear around the corner.  That was taken out in Plunkett’s Mansion in Widows Weeds, she became the height of fashion.  But the story is fantastic.

I’d like to say something if I may?


I think I’ve a few Christmas presents now sorted out.

Oh thanks.  (laughter)  Yeah.  That’s great.  In a painting with William Orpen, the painter, painted in 1906 – the height of fashion, yes.  Again, she’s a very fashionable person.

Did she ever re-marry?

Never re-married.  Never re-married, no.  Got very involved in the anti-treaty, ended up in Kilmainham herself for a year or so.  She was an artist.  That’s her cartoons.  She was a cartoonist, a caricaturist and no she lived a sad life enough.  Yes?

Why were they allowed marry in the first place?

Why were they allowed to marry?  Yeah that’s a very ...

Why them above everybody else?

Yeah that’s a very interesting question.  First of all, why did she call back an hour later?  It wasn’t because the Governor got sorry for her or anything.  It was because she was now his next of kin legally and they were allowed to marry ... it’s tricky enough.  They had planned to marry on the Easter Sunday of the Rising in a double wedding with Joseph’s sister and of course he couldn’t turn up because he was planning the Rising the following day but the bands had been read and everything had been ready to go ahead on Easter Sunday with their marriage and he had written to her saying ‘We could get marry by proxy?’ and there’s another ... I had to be delicate about this in the book ... when she went to the priest, the words, the phrase, she used was ‘We have to get married’ (laughter).  Now we in Ireland there’s (laughter) connotations around that phrase, yes, and in fact rumours abounded for years around that whole issue and when the Plunkett girl who did go ahead and got married that Easter Sunday came to write her memoirs which were in the National Library up until the end of the 1990s when they were published in a book, in a biography, edited by Ní Bhrolcháin in the early 2000s she clearly states that Grace was pregnant and had a miscarriage and it wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all, it would only be rumour and hearsay and not worth mentioning, except for the fact that she is very specific about it and that it was in her memoirs and now is published in the public domain.  But I was kind of delicate around it in the book saying that she was the only person ever who said that you know.  So all these feed into the reasons.

The story of Grace is one of the highlights of the book.  When she was incarcerated herself she painted a ... she was an artist.  This is her cell and if you visit the prison now, Kilmainham, you can visit her cell.  Sadly, it’s exactly as she painted it but it was touched up in the early 60s but (laughs) it was touched up to such a degree that, for example, she didn’t ... different colours are used and it still gives us a rough idea but it’s a more romanticised version than the one she actually painted herself on the wall.

Now, skipping on, ‘Danny Boy’, right.  I’m going to go through the remaining 10 songs (laughs) in 5 minutes, right.  ‘Danny Boy’, the story of ‘Danny Boy’ is really, really amazing.  It spans centuries and continents and has been the subject of much debate and all of that.  You divide it into the tune and the lyrics and the old tune could go back to Rory Dall O'Cahan, a blind harper in the early 1600s picked up in Limavady.  I’m really shortening this story now by a Jane Ross.  The story is she heard it being played by a fiddler.  She lived her and he played at the market across the road and she wrote down the music.  Sent it to Petrie, the great Irish collector of songs in his Irish love songs and therefore the tune was committed to paper at last.  But, there is a big difference really between the original Gaelic tune that is supposed to be the ancestor of what we now called ‘The Derry Air’ as played by and as written by blind Rory or Rory Dall O'Cahan and the tune that Jane Ross wrote down and sent to Petrie that he put down in his book.  The title ‘The Derry Air’ or ‘The Londonderry Air’ only appeared in 1894 when the poet Katharine Tynan set the words of her poem Irish Love Song ‘Would God I were the tender apple blossom’, set that to the melody, the melody that she found in Petrie’s book.  But, anyway the melody was fairly well known and that’s Jane Ross of Limavady who sent that melody that we know as ‘The Derry Air’ to Petrie who put it in his book and then it was taken and used by various artists.  It’s a very convoluted story but it’s a very interesting story because ... and just skipping forward, the next woman behind the story of ‘Danny Boy’ is Margaret Weatherly was the wife of the London doctor Edward Weatherly who in 1899 abandoned his practice and left England to find his fortune in San Francisco and later in Colorado in the Gold Rush.  She heard the tune being played, this Margaret Weatherly, and she knew that he husband’s brother, Frederick Weatherly, back in England, in Bristol, who was a lawyer but he was also a fabulous songwriter and lyricist, so she sent him the music.  So the music went across with the fiddlers from Ireland or maybe from Australia and this woman heard it in Colorado and sent it back to her brother and it was Frederick Weatherly ... he had never heard the tune ‘The Londonderry Air’ before but it so happened that he had the lyrics of a song called ‘Danny Boy’ already written and it required just a few alterations to make it fit perfectly, the melody that he’d received from his sister-in-law.  After the song and the air had been accepted by a publisher Frederick found that it had also been used by a person who grades and so on.  So the song ‘Danny Boy’ ... but here is the interesting thing and I kind of like picking holes in myths, the air that this woman, Jane Ross, wrote down is too polished.  It isn’t really a Gaelic air, it’s ... even though it has some links to the old blind harper’s tune it’s too polished.  But she was not a composer so somebody somewhere polished it up and this was fairly known practice at the time, that people who could read music and play the piano in the big house front room as it were would sort of polish up Irish traditional tunes and make them a little bit more classically orientated.  But Jane Ross never admitted where she got the tune but somebody had to have worked on it and this is what I say, a bit of digging and I found this.  Her talent was as a collector and a composer and the melody supplied to Petrie is of such high quality and of sentiment that it could only have been composed by someone of fine talent who had been classically trained but who was also familiar with the latest musical fashions of the time and Jane Ross was not these.  By a strange coincidence one person who possessed these exact credentials did exist and lived in Limavady at that exact time and only a stone’s throw from where Jane Ross lived.  His name was Edward Frederick Christian Ritter.  He was a Prussian born musician who was employed as a music tutor to the two daughters of the wealthy Alexander family.  They were landed gentry who lived on the outskirts of Limavady.  The Alexanders and the Ross family knew each other well and they belonged to the same social stratum.  The music teacher, Edward Ritter, was from a well known musical family.  He arrived from Alsace-Lorraine around 1848 and most certainly would have known Jane Ross in the small town.  Now, Ritter (laughs) fell in love with the daughter that he was teaching the music to, the youngest Alexander daughter, and the pair eloped in 1850.  They married in Middlesex in August 1850 and they saved for Australia where he made his fortune.  So could it have been this man who polished up the tune that Jane Ross had found up in the mountains?  Actually it was her brother that found it up in the mountains and the story of taking it up from the blind fiddler and sending it on to Petrie.  She sent it on to Petrie but it makes all the sense in the world that she didn’t want to say where she got it because of the scandal involved at the time with your man running off with the daughter.  (laughter)  Now, that’s my story and that’s the woman behind it and that’s the house in Limavady where she is now accredited to live.  It’s a much more complicated story than that, I have just tipped the top of the iceberg.  But that’s Frederick Weatherly who wrote the lyrics of ‘Danny Boy’ and loads of other lyrics (sings) ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’, he wrote that s as well.

Now, I’ll just go quickly through in the last 3 minutes.

Johnny Duhan, the great song ‘The Voyage’, yes everybody loves that song.  It’s one of his great songs.  He told me who the woman was, and the whole story of it, it makes fantastic reading.  It’s a pure love song and a real love story.  There they are.  They’re married.  They are husband and wife.  They live together still (laughter) which is very unusual in the love songs in this book I  might add, they’re mostly either break-ups or unrequited love.  So the story of Johnny Duhan and ‘The Voyage’ is a fabulous story and Maureen, his wife, who has supported them all she became a Principal, a National School Teacher, and Johnny eventually made good as we all know. (laughter)

The story of ‘Nancy Spain’, that’s Barney Rush, the man who wrote ‘Nancy Spain’.  It wasn’t Christy Moore, it was Barney Rush.  He died 2014 sadly.  He wrote also ‘The craic was 90 in the Isle of Man’, his two great songs.  ‘Nancy Spain’, the real ‘Nancy Spain’, that’s her.  ‘Nancy Spain’ was a woman journalist in England, upper class, famous in the 1960s for her feminist and lesbian risings.  So ‘Nancy Spain’ was an English lesbian journalist (laughter).  I told you I would surprise you.  (laughter)  That’s her.  He took her name.  He thought it was a perfect name for an Irish ballad.  He wrote the ballad when he was on 18.  Yes, he thought the name ‘Nancy Spain’ was fabulous.  It was in all the tabloids at the time.  She was killed in an air crash going to Aintree to cover the Grand National and he knew nothing about her but the headlines.  And imagine his poetic sensibility at 18 to know that that name would resonate forever.  But the real ‘Nancy Spain’ there she is.  ‘Nancy Spain’ could be used in our next gay pride march.

Now, Phil Lynott, a beautiful painting by Fitzpatrick, Jim Fitzpatrick, yes, of the tragic Philip in his garden with Caroline, Sarah and Cathy.  So the book tells the sad story of Phil Lynott’s life and his brief happy and unhappy marriage to Caroline, Crowther’s daughter, the comedian, Leslie Crowther, yeah, and Sarah the daughter.  His grandmother was also called Sarah.  He wrote two songs ‘Sarah’ – one was on the second album ‘Shades of a Blue Orphanage’ and the Sarah in that song is his grandmother.  He was sent by his mother from England as a boy to live with his grandparents because his mother couldn’t support him.  She had become pregnant and she kept him with her for a few years but eventually the pressure of having a black child in England at the time, just in the post war era, it was too much.  So the whole story of Phil Lynott is one of those great rise and fall stories.  It’s really tragic and an enormous amount of skeletons in the Lynott closet and back in Galway where I come from a great sculptor there, Macdaragh Lambe, recently discovered he was actually Phil Lynott’s son through DNA and all of that.  Everybody had been telling him for years he looked so much like him.  He got tested and it turned out he was and his mother Philomena, a very nice woman, I mean a lady, but she admits herself she may have been rather naive at the time she had Philip, and held on to him, but she had two other children as well and she gave them up for adoption.  But they recently found her.  So the chapter on Sarah is very interesting.  There they are on their wedding day – that’s baby Sarah now:

When you came in my life you changed my world

My Sarah
Yeah.  So that was just before they jetted off to Buenos Aires on their honeymoon and Leslie Crowther (laughs) you know he was English and I don’t know how he felt about having his daughter marry a black Irish man but his quotes are jokingly recorded at the wedding.  But Philip’s mother is still alive and a gracious woman and I met her a few times, she says he was the kindness, most gracious man ever.  But if you hear some of the quotes from his wedding speech, you know ‘he asked me for my daughter’s hand and I said “Why not?  Haven’t you had everything else?” and so on (laughter) but he was a comedian so.  There I am talking to Philomena and looking at Philips book of poetry.  That’s him as a young fella in Crumlin growing up.  That’s his grave, sadly, he ended there in 1986, 4th of January he died.

The story of Sally Gardens, everybody thinks it’s about Maud Gonne, it’s not. It’s inspired by two other ladies.  That’s the Una Bhán where the both of them were buried out in the island in Lough Key and two trees grew up out of the graves and intertwined and I just happened to come upon a fine photograph in a photographic exhibition and got the rights to publish it because I thought it told the story perfect and it goes with the chapter.

Now, that’s the ‘Galway Girl’ in real life.  Her name was Joyce Redmond and she is from Howth. (laughter)  Another myth shattered but she lives in Galway and her parents, her mother at least, was from the Aran Islands and she lives in Galway now and is a musician and was fond of the arts and it’s one of the great selling points of the book.  Don’t tell anyone, you’re sworn to secrecy that this is the ‘Galway Girl’.  Percy French, the sad story of Percy French in Gortnamona, his wife Ettie died after ... she was only ... he married her at 19, he was in his 30s.  He loved her deeply.  They got on really well.  But she died in childbirth when she was 20.  (audience gasp)  So all his humorous songs, all his fabulously witty songs and all that, but he’s also extraordinarily poignantly sad lyrics you know:

Now if you go through the woods of Gortnamona,
You hear the raindrops creeping through the blackthorn tree.
But oh! it is the tears I am weeping, weeping, weeping,
For the loved one that is sleeping far away from me

And it’s Ettie.  Ettie Armitage-Jones whom he married and she died in childbirth and that’s who Gortnamona is about.  So she’s the woman behind that.

Mick Hanly told me the story of ‘Past the Point of Rescue’, one of the great songs and exactly who it was, his first wife he married.  She was 18, he was 28.  Then he took off on a mad world tour playing music thinking the marriage would work out.  I’m afraid, as I said, one of the few happy marriages was back ... who was it?  Johnny Duhan, yeah, yeah.

The Frank and Walters, I just don’t have time to go into it.  Mundy, as I told you, the story of the inspiration for his book and saying goodbye to the girl and writing the lyrics in the middle of the night and the ‘Raglan Road’ and that’s it.  (laughs)


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