Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 185 – 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.
I’ll start with some background to that venerable Irish folk song, The Gaol of Clun Malla. Thought to have been written by Jeremiah James Callanan sometime around 1820; it is also known as The Convict Of Clonmel. Clonmel is in County Tipperary, Ireland which is the earliest of the Irish counties established in 1328. As a matter of special interest to Australian listeners, Ned Kelly’s father was born in this county in 1820- at around the time the first featured folk song for this year was written. Edward Hayes, in The Ballads of Ireland published in Boston, USA in 1859 states that he does not know the hero of the song but has a long note explaining the popularity of hurling and, of course, defending the game from the many English detractors.
Hayes’s note on this is an exact quote from Duffy, who may in turn be quoting Callanan. Charles Gavan Duffy, who edited The Ballad Poetry of Ireland, 1845, makes Callanan the translator from the Irish and according to Granger’s Index to Poetry (which cites this five times), the poem was not written by Callanan, but rather translated from an unknown but contemporary Irish source. Ah, the contention of scholars! Kilkenny Cats, anyone! And, FYI, the Cats is the county nickname for the Kilkenny Hurling team- go the cats! I simply listen to the song as sung by Luke Kelly who learned it from his friend, Liam Clancy- both of these artists peerless in their presentation of the material.
Hurling was said to be nearly extinct before being revived in 1870 and the pride of a young man glorying in his mastery of that ancient sport is neatly counterbalanced by his gentleness when playing with a child. His heart breaks as he recalls dancing with the fair maidens whose presence the evening will hallow. And that poignancy is deepened by the fact that their dancing will continue without his presence. This moving meditation on his approaching execution has, for me, the same emotional heft as other meditations on death and farewells by poets from the 18th and 19th Centuries such as The Parting Glass heard on Letters From Quotidia, Episode 136.
The Clonmel lyrics also bring to mind the death-poem of Chidiock TIchbourne, the 24-year-old participant in the 1586 Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth the First of England. Luke Kelly, as I said, learned the song, The Jail of Clonmel from his good friend Liam Clancy and if you want an example of bravura ballad singing go to YouTube and listen to Luke Kelly’s version. When the Clancys and the Dubliners were travelling around Ireland performing at the fleadh cheoils, they used to meet at various pubs and swap songs.
According to the site Irish Folk Songs, The Jail of Clonmel dates from the time of the agrarian troubles in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the Whiteboys were engaged in intimidating landlords. The Whiteboys were members of small, largely Catholic, peasant bands in Ireland. First organised around 1759, the members formed a secret oath-bound society, which for about seventy years plagued the authorities with intractable problems in rural Ireland. The Whiteboy disturbances first broke out in Clogheen in Co. Tipperary, in the year 1761, when groups of men assembled by night to level ditches which landlords and graziers had erected around the common land on which, until then, the people had enjoyed free grazing rights.
In Ireland, as in Britain, the ancient rights enjoyed by peasants from time immemorial were being ruthlessly extinguished. First, they were called Levellers, but soon additional grievances with regard to rent and tithes were added. As the movement spread, they began wearing white shirts, and soon became known in the Irish language as Buachailli Bána or Whiteboys. The purpose of the white shirt was so that they could recognise one another in the dark. Later, between the years 1775 through 1785, their hostility was largely aimed at tithe collectors. The tithe collectors taxed dissenting Protestants of all denominations and, of course, Catholics, to support the established “Church of Ireland” which was an offshoot of the established Church of England. Here is my version of the song. [insert song]
What is the definition of insanity? Popular culture’s most obvious and most quoted statement is usually attributed to Albert Einstein which goes Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result (although no one can pin down the quote to anything the eminent egghead actually said or wrote). Oh…Kay. Well, I guess that makes me insane. I’ve been writing songs in each of the past six decades and persist in this apparent madness, for this one which is marking my journey through my seventies. The result thus far is the same as it has always been- an enormous yawn from Lady Fortuna.
So, should I give up? Do you know, it doesn’t occur to me to throw in the towel, just yet? Actually, the song I have written to kick off 2022’s continuation of last year’s Letters From Quotidia is called, The Definition of Insanity. But I won’t bore you with a trawl through medical tomes or philosophical treatises. Instead, here are a couple of interesting verse commentaries: Lewis Carroll, in his Bruno and Sylvie books published between 1889-1893 had this to say in his poem, The Mad Gardener’s Song: He thought he saw an Elephant/That practised on a fife:/He looked again, and found it was/A letter from his wife/”At length I realise,” he said,/”The bitterness of Life?”//
Emily Dickinson in her inimitable way finds a dichotomy that we all recognise- but usually from a distance and only after the passage of quite a bit of time. She writes: Much Madness is divinest Sense –/To a discerning Eye –/Much Sense – the starkest Madness –/’Tis the Majority/In this, as all, prevail –/Assent – and you are sane –/Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –/And handled with a Chain –// The sort of sense promulgated after the US election in November, 2020 by Number 45, QAnon, and various other peddlers of the pernicious conspiracy theories infecting the internet is, to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, the starkest Madness! Or… are we still too close in time and consequence to make this call? We’ll see, I guess.
And talking about madness, it’s clear that the short respite during the 1990s and Noughties we had here in the West from our overwhelming and imminent fear of World War Three has roared back to life as Putin confronts NATO over its encroachment on Russia’s eastern and southern flanks and Xi Jinping spurs the dragon to action in the South China Sea and beyond as three fearsome American subs surface simultaneously in the waters surrounding China. As a citizen of Australia, I must confess to feeling a tad uneasy at the geopolitical situation unfolding here in our part of the world.
For totalitarian systems of governance, to be a dissenter is, ipso facto, to be insane- for who in their right mind could possibly question the inalterable rightness of whatever truth the controllers of the polity determine it to be? And if it changes, at the whim of the great leader, perhaps, who are we to question his puissance and foresight? So, Here’s my song- The Definition of Insanity. [insert song]
Yeah, let’s cut to the chase- apparently the phrase originated in the silent movies of early cinema in the US, and it has spread far beyond to become- my goodness! A meme! meaning- get to the point! Of course, there is also a more sinister overlay of meaning in the concluding verse of my song. But on to the enticements of next week where we will encounter and survive, one hopes, The Wild Colonial Boy, the subject of a popular Irish-Australian Folk song. John Crowe Ransom supplies the title and inspiration for the original composition, Piazza Piece.
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.