Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 132 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Between September 1968 and June 1972, I was a student at Trench House, more formally known as St Joseph’s College of Education in Andersonstown at the top of the Falls Road, Belfast. For the first couple of years, I engaged in the extra-curricular activities on offer much more diligently than the academic: music, drama, student politics, co-editing the college rag we called TET, frequent drinking and disputation sessions at The Hunting Lodge, handily, just a short walk away from the half-empty lecture theatres we often absented ourselves from. My tertiary studies coincided, also, with the latest iteration of The Troubles, which soon put paid to my continuing activism as a student politician and student-journalist.
My penchant for satire, contrarianism and, it must be said, my adherence to the principles of liberal democracy, which I still hold dear, found little favour in the new dispensation and, by the end of my second year, I walked away from all that, got married on 3rd July 1971 and embarked on the much more perplexing role of being a husband, and, later, father- all the while persisting to be, involuntarily, an habitually penurious student, supported, largely, by my wife, who clambered over barricades, pregnant, to travel to work in the Electricity Department of Belfast City Council from our rented house off the Whiterock Road.
Fifty-five years before this, in 1916, the Easter Rising in Dublin and the subsequent brutal executions of the leaders of that rebellion engendered the birth of the terrible beauty that Yeats wrote about in his remarkable poem about those history-making events. Over 210,00 Irishmen had enlisted on the allied side in World War One and, initially, the rebels were reviled by the majority of Dubliners and wider Irish society: but the shooting, by the British, of Padraig Pearse and fifteen other leaders of the rebellion, in a space of just 10 days, between the 3rd and 12th of May, provoked waves of revulsion, and the tide of public opinion soon swung behind the Republican cause.
And here’s where the family connection to the first song of this podcast comes in. It was written by Father Charles O’Neill. In 1919. He had attended the first sitting of the new Irish Parliament, the Dáil. The names of the elected members were called out, but many were absent. Their names were answered by the reply: “locked up by the foreigner” in Gaelic. This inspired him to write the words of one of Ireland’s most recognised songs of rebellion, The Foggy Dew. The music and words are from a manuscript that was in the possession of Kathleen Dallat, sister of Father Michael Dallat of Ballycastle, a town on the north of Antrim coast.
Now, Michael Dallat became the Principal of Trench House when I was a student there. A formidable intellect, he was bemused when confronted by a pimply student politician in denims ( that would be me, by the way) who demanded- you know, I can’t remember, at this remove, what urgent matter had me frothing in his office. But he didn’t hold this against me, writing, later, a wonderful and generous reference for me when I applied to the NSW Department of Education for a job before I had actually graduated from Queen’s University as a Bachelor of Education.
My late sister Mary, whose loss to cancer, earlier this year still hurts me deeply, married one of his nephews, John Dallat, a computer wiz who moved with her to Germany and still resides there with their son and daughters and grandchildren. Which just goes to show you, that, everywhere, family connections are powerful and really do resonate down the years. The oft-advertised new world of the metaverse, constructed of zeros and ones and lacking any sinews or blood or humanity, but beloved by sundry balding billionaires in Silicon Valley’s high-Tech companies, will never get anywhere near to the real world of visceral connection.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the recent history of that benighted, yet, some say, beautiful, country- Afghanistan. This song has been covered by some of the world’s best artists: but will that deter me? If you’ve been following my podcasts- you’ll know, that is no impediment at all! [insert song]
This leaves me very little time to talk about the song that closes this podcast, Descent. And, do you know, this is not really a problem to me. One gift that living longer gives to you is a contextualising perspective of the life you have lived: you get to see that things that once seemed important are- not necessarily so! A confession: I might be closer that I’d like to admit to those balding billionaires of Silicon Valley. Not insofar as filthy lucre is concerned, of course! (I remain, at my core, a penurious student.) But I have fantasised about what a truly and genuinely authentic, transcendental life might be.
And, fuelled by a rather tasty New Zealand Pinot Noir, I can admit, in the throes of in vino veritas, that I have always failed to really measure up to the ideal, metaphysical standard- whatever that may be. Kevin Baker, poet and folk musician here in Australia, and long-time friend, who also departed earlier this year from this realm, whispered, when he was in his cups out there on Lough Erne with me in 1981, on a fishing trip during his visit to us in Northern Ireland: you know, Bridie (he is talking here about my wife) is the real deal, I have learned more from her about the politics and working class of Belfast, in a few days, than all your pontificating over the years we’ve known one another in Australia!
Good to know, Kevin, good to know. Not that it came as any surprise to me. I had learned long before that my wife is on a different and superior level to me. Lots of men of my vintage may well chime in- in agreement, about their significant others as well! The song you are about to hear is influenced by Lord Byron, a poet I have revered from my mid-teens; Bob Dylan, likewise; Robert Frost, of course; the Bible, naturally! But really, how can you itemise all the people, all the poems, all the music, and all the stories and lived experiences that flow into the stuff that you create and claim as yours alone?
Would I write such a song today? Nooo. This fragment of a more feverish past life could have been consigned, again, to oblivion. So why does it make the cut? I think because it utilises images, tropes and themes that have been a part of my creative output for more than fifty years. I still struggle with the need to integrate the various components of my existence: the physical, emotional, spiritual, artistic and…and…yeah, there it is…what else is there? There is more, I know it. So, still, I am on a quest to find what else there is. Listen now to the song, Descent.[insert song]
Guy Fawkes is a villain or a hero. Depends on where you stand. When next you tune in to this podcast, it’ll be November 5th and you will be either making a bonfire to dance around, or, like me, just picking up the morning newspaper from your front lawn. There can be no other possibility in the Quotidian universe! But the brace of songs that will be on offer next week are instructive, I think. Four Green Fields, composed by Tommy Makem in 1967, stands, to this day, as one of the finest folk songs ever written. The Rooster Calls is one of my first attempts to write about my life and connect it to the history unfolding around me.
How can I presume to set such a composition against a classic? I don’t really know but vaguely see, outlined in my mind, fools and angels milling about, each group wondering whether to rush in- or not. But can I leave you with this thought by Robert Frost who states at the end of a fine poem: And further still at an unearthly height,/One luminary clock against the sky/Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right./ I have been one acquainted with the night…
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
Music accompaniment and composition software: Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2021