Welcome to Letters from Quotidia, the footnotes, Episode 5! Regular listeners to the posts know that the Letters just refuse to lie down and die but rather, taking their cue from the coronavirus, continue to mutate. First, they were plain old letters, then postcards, and afterwards, postscripts. Now they have become footnotes!
All you need is the tiniest seed to land on whatever passes as fertile soil, however feeble, however sparse and uninviting. Life goes on! Here in Sydney, summer beckons and so too those clever weeds which jeer every year at my attempts to make my grass and garden, such as they are, conform to something not a million miles away from those photos you see on lifestyle magazines and programs. So, too, instead of keeling over and dying, the footnotes have found another chance of life by transforming from Demos for Damocles into Covers for Castaways!
Gosh, it’s almost like it was predicted or something! Somewhere off the coast of Quotidia is a vast swirling gyre in which is trapped all the plastic waste and detritus of the surrounding ocean. Trapped, too, are those fugitives from…wherever, who have foundered or crashed or blundered into the gyre and then, somehow, made their way to the magical central island which offers basic sustenance and shelter. And those castaways arrive on the island with little more than the songs that have defined them over their lives.
They may, indeed, think of themselves as inhabiting the island of Shakespeare’s, Tempest where they find themselves surrounded by Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not/.Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,/That, if I then had waked after long sleep,/Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,/The clouds methought would open, and show riches/Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,/I cried to dream again. Are you like Caliban, the monster who loves music? So, too, am I. The vast swirling gyre off the coast of Quotidia affects not only the physical parameters of our world but also those of time- for pulled into its whirlpool are people from various eras in the history of our world.
The Covers for Castaways are from the folk and popular music traditions of the English-speaking diaspora and are available to all of you who are castaways, on whatever shore your life may have washed you up on. Perhaps you, too, have been swept onto that magical central island that forms the bullseye of the great gyre swirling off the coast of Quotidia. As we walk along the shore of our island we encounter our first castaway, Dominic Behan, who is singing as he throws shells back into the surf churning at his feet. I recognise the song, it’s The Sea Around Us. [insert song]
He was born in 1928 into the literary Behan family of Dublin. A prodigious talent as a songwriter and singer, short story writer and novelist, he was also a playwright who wrote in Irish and English. I encountered him once when, Brendan, my older brother, and I hitchhiked to Bundoran on the Donegal coast from our home in Cushendall in the Glens of Antrim in 1965. He was giving a one-man show in the Parochial hall, and he entertained us with humour and passion.
He died in 1989. But here on the magical island at the centre of that swirling gyre, we get chatting and he reveals he is still sore at Bob Dylan for stealing from his song, The Patriot Game to write With God On Our Side . When Dylan suggested they let the lawyers sort it out Behan retorted that he had two lawyers at the end of his wrists, and he would prefer that they do the talking. I, of course, maintained a diplomatic silence over Dominic Behan’s many borrowings from others, often without attribution.
A case in point is Avondale, a short, melodious tribute to one of Ireland’s heroes. In Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, there is a gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite. On it, is inscribed one word. Nothing else is needed. Such is the fame, among the Irish, of the person there interred, that anything else would be superfluous. And the word? Parnell. Also known as “the uncrowned king of Ireland,” Charles Stewart Parnell was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family which could boast links with American naval hero Admiral Charles Stewart as well as the British Royal family through his great-grandmother who belonged to the Tudor family. He was a complex mix of conservative inclinations and revolutionary entanglements. Having little detailed knowledge of the Irish tradition of resistance and its luminaries, he would, nevertheless become its figurehead in the imagination of the Irish struggling classes at home and abroad.
So then, what is a toff like Parnell doing in such company? Well, you know, he is not alone. Sir Roger Casement, another scion of the Anglo-Irish establishment and, incidentally, one of the earliest human rights activists in that he revealed the atrocious treatment of native workers at the hands of imperialists in the Belgian Congo. This place was also known as- thanks to Joseph Conrad- the heart of darkness. Casement is celebrated in song as a hero of the Easter Rising of 1916. And, if we skip back a couple of centuries, we find a descendent of the French Protestant Huguenots who fled to Britain, one Theobold Wolfe Tone, a founder of the United Irishmen.
Not one of these men lived to make old bones: Tone was dead at 35 under unclear circumstances, Casement was hanged for high treason at age 51 and Parnell died at age 45, after a scandal involving his long-time mistress and mother to his children, Kitty O’Shea. Being a hero is tough in any tradition. But if you’re Irish, and you want to come into the parlour of nationalistic Ireland’s prim regard, you’ll need to be squeaky clean in the eyes of the gatekeepers of traditional sexual morality as well as possessing the usual comprehensive skill set of those who aspire to be leaders of others.
Like that headstone in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, the song, Avondale, provides little in the way of information about its subject. But its evocation of the lovely surrounds of Parnell’s birthplace is a feature and he bestows a heroic epithet on the charismatic and talented leader of the Irish parliamentary party- one better than, adulterer, which cruelled his career and Ireland’s hopes of achieving Home Rule. The heroic epithet?- Avondale’s proud eagle. It tickled me to learn, as I was researching the background of Avondale, that Dominic Behan lifted– in the way of folk artists everywhere who often “borrow” from other sources- the tune of a 19th Century loyalist song, “The Orange Maid of Sligo!” [insert song]
The Patriot Game was written by Dominic Behan to the tune of an Irish traditional song, The Merry Month of May . Its narrator is Fergal O’Hanlon, who was a member of an IRA team who attacked the RUC barracks at Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh on New Year’s Day, 1957. He, along with Sean South from Limerick, was killed; also killed in the attack was a young Catholic constable, John Scalley. I sang the song many years ago at a pub in western Sydney and a couple of blokes there objected to the “IRA song”. Yet, I view the song as an example of the tragic deaths fuelled by love of country, particularly of young men. Interestingly, Christy Moore, the greatest practising singer-songwriter in Ireland today, notes that the song is often requested at his gigs by British soldiers.
Where, I wonder, do you stand on the issue? Are you with Samuel Johnson who wrote, Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Or do you prefer Oscar Wilde’s, Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. George Bernard Shaw sighed, You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race. Much more gung-ho was Thomas Jefferson who thundered, The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. His compatriot and contemporary, Benjamin Franklin sneered, A man who would sacrifice freedom for security deserves neither. I, myself, have had varying positions on the subject but with Mark Twain now say, Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it. Here is The Patriot Game. [insert song] CUL8R
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.