For reasons I won’t go into, I had taken a long nap during a wedding celebration in Catalonia. It was July. It was the wedding of two engineers, Keith and Hannah, from Galway and Tyrone; the masia where they married sat in scrub hills, its lambent swimming pool bordering the rolling brushland, welcoming the call of night insects. But I awoke on a wicker couch inside, deep inside the masia, to distant song.
Struggling to my feet, checking my shirt and trousers for ‘debris’, I wandered off through a low-ceilinged network of dark grottos and nookish tv dens, storerooms and pantries, following the tones of that beautiful, mournful voice, until I was poolside again, facing the dim Catalan hills and the sunlemon horizon of pre-dawn. Carol Stanley was singing a song about a note that one young lover had written to another, it now being clear that the lovers had long since parted and decades had passed. She sang from lyrics on her iPhone, sang and scrolled; I fell to sit under her voice (only a few feet from where I had earlier acquainted myself with some bushes) and we listened to Carol in the kind of rapt silence where nobody is fidgeting in their seat, or coughing, or fiddling with phones.
After hearty applause by those of us around the pool, Mikie Keane (another engineer) sang ‘England’s Motorway’, a song sung from mother to child, about an absent father who is away in England working on the roads and sending his wages home. When Mikie finished, he took off his watch, gave it to the father of the bride (who listed on a deck chair) and jumped into the pool, roaring ‘CAANNONNNBAAAAAAALLLLLL’.
Boy can Mikie sing. Boy can Carol. My heart was filled with something ancient, listening to those songs, the voices let out over foreign land, but a thought snagged me too, snagged my memory of that moment: Carol reading the lyrics from her iPhone as she sang so gorgeously. When had that kind of thing started?
‘There won’t be time to share our love, for we must say goodbye . . .’
The voices falter, fade into a space between chorus and new verse, voices rent up from the gloom of a pub corner, or the stark bulblight of a student gaff sitting room, or a family kitchen, the walls sighing magnolia, the voices slow, searching, inexpert, wavering, the eyes forced upward or shut. Raw emotion and memory have wafted on the room’s air like smoke, have been inhaled by others, and felt.
And there is a pause.
Sounds seep back to a sort of presence: a glass put down, the thrum of a fridge engine, a stray taxi slipping by beyond the walls. The leading voice has faltered. Eyes still closed, a half-smile: growing embarrassment. The singer is searching, loosening memory’s knot. Someone prompts: ‘Now I know it’s hard for you my love . . .’
And in gathering strands the room takes up the remembered verse: ‘To ever understand, the love I bear for these brave men, my love for this dear land . . .’
The song is called ‘Grace’. I’ve heard it countless times, at pub singalongs and house parties and funerals and weddings. It recounts the brief marriage of Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett, an Irish rebel who had been arrested during the Easter Rising of 1916. They married in Kilmainham Gaol in the evening and he was executed at dawn. I can belt out the chorus with the best of them, but must hum along with the verses for the memory fails. No, you could not rely on me for that one.
And each new year I promise myself, by way of resolution, that I will learn a song. It has to be something that I collected along my way, that says something about me or my experience, that answers the statement-question: That was a lovely one. Where’d you get that? I’ve tried for probably a decade and a half now, each January or February, to pick out a song to learn and then produce it some night, somewhere, at the right moment.
The most recent attempt (for a few years’ running now) is ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’, which was written by Ewan MacColl. I first heard it sung by Pat Good. It’s about a love affair that develops along the various docks of London’s Thames, the love and the melody ebbing and flowing like the river, the journey both geographical and memorial. An evocative, purling song, it was perfect for me because it started in Southeast London, where I lived when I heard it first, and featured the river that so fascinated me. And I fell in love in London too, of course. I convinced myself that it would be easy to learn (this time, next time, etc) because the consecutive lines plot a course along the river, from Woolwich Pier to Hampton Court, and each stop would act as a memory trigger. I used to cycle along the Thames, from Deptford, through Greenwich, Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf, and up into my work in Moorgate, listening to that song on repeat, singing along wherever I remembered the words. At my desk at work, decoy spreadsheets on the screen in front of me, I wrote the trigger docks and stages of the song in my notebook and whispered. But once taken away from my ears, I could not call that song back to myself. I knew to start in Woolwich Pier, under the big crane, and I knew to go to Silver Town, but after that my recall splintered and went various ways on rippling eddies, shimmering out to humming and blankness under the stress of the forced recollection.
And so I remain the person at the party who says, ‘I love to sing, but I don’t have a song. I can never remember the words.’ It has troubled me for years that I am that person.
A man with curly hair pulled tight in a ponytail stormed into The Crane on the fringes of a bedrizzled Galway city night. Standing up at the end of the counter, he sang a song in Irish, something painfully slow and heartfelt, and from the heartfeeling leaked anger, he with one hand in his pocket and one hand on the bar – touching it as if checking blindly whether it could be trusted as real. Hush blanched the pub. He sang, eyes closed. Several times it seemed like he’d stopped, but several times he resumed. When he finished, his strained wail at the end almost like an accident of wind and trees, he left the pub again, to no applause, no acknowledgment from either side of the exchange. Babble of conversation resumed.
‘Christ,’ the barman said, his towel around the rim of a slim jim. ‘He needed that.’
Eavesdropping, I later learned that the singer had lost a brother, and he was singing a dirge for the brother in his local.
I visit with Paul Holly and Paidí Kelleher, two friends of mine who love a session, and will often sing to each other from the adjacent couches of their living room. Only a week back, they tell me, they alternated ‘the noble call’ for two straight hours. Three pots of tea. Now, we sit around a table, pouring again: ‘But how’d ye do it lads? How’d ye learn them?’
‘By listening to the song, then writing all the lyrics down. Bit by bit you know? Pausing the song, scribbling the line, then playing the next line.’
‘By listening on repeat, and practising.’
‘Some load of practising.’
‘I’d be closing my eyes, and visualising the graveyards, and the poppies, and the photograph tattered and stained, fading to yellow in a brown leather frame.’
‘God that’s a lovely line.’
‘The thing about learning is that you have to commit to it.’
‘And give yourself a deadline – be it a wedding, or get-together or whatever.’
Paidí tells a story about sitting by the pool on his holidays in Alicante, trying to learn the seven verses of ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’ because he had ‘mostly sad ones’ and wanted to be able to give people something a bit more lively. These are not paid performers I’m talking with. These are hobbyists who try to get a sing-song going at a house party, or after a match in the snug of a pub, or at a wedding, or in their own front room.
The biscuits are handed around and we get philosophical.
‘Why do we sing?’
‘I dunno. We sing to be connected to the past maybe, to our ancestors. To remember.’
‘Maybe we sing because, subconsciously, it reminds us of good times, other weddings, house parties, things like that.’
We have all lived abroad, and Paidí wonders whether leaving Ireland ramps up the love for song and culture. Maybe when you leave you bring your country with you, or by missing it you delve deeper into your belonging to it. We talk of people ‘having a song’, and I tell them I read once that around the time of the famine in Ireland some people were known to have up to five hundred songs memorised. I tell them about Carol on the iPhone (and others I’ve noticed since) not remembering the lyrics, and they both nod.
‘People are always at that now sure.’
And I ask them whether that is a sign of some greater malaise. Didn’t we remember lyrics fine before we had the internet in our pockets? Are our minds and memories now getting lost in the debris of it: factoids, statistics, memes, media feeds, data built on data . . .? Will there be sing-songs fifteen years from now? Are we the last generation to follow a disco or a ceremony of love or death with a night journey through the songs of our ancestors? The lads let me know in their own way that I should relax. The biccies do the rounds again; the hot drop is offered.
The seanachaí used to go from town to town, spreading the words and stories of the people. Singers too carried stories in their songs, town to town, county to county, land to land. Now we google the lyrics and read from a phone on a thigh. We sing as the deft thumb flicks.
In my attempts to learn the song, I focus on the act of remembering. But forgetting is an act too. Marc Augé felt that with the instantaneous nature and overabundance of modern mass culture, history had been reduced to the last five minutes. It was on our heels, like our shadows. If that’s true how can we remember the actual past faithfully? If we exist in a datastorm, if the media clutter of the Right Now suffocates our attention, how can we reach into the past and pull lines of meaning and worth – the graveyards, the poppies, that wedding, that darkened snug that Christmas past – how can we pull them through to us in the moment of the song?
I try to learn the song of the Thames. I listen; I write; I repeat. In the moment of remembering, as I reach for the next line, each missing word is like something that never happened, something I am foolish in looking for. And it’s not just songs, I admit to myself now. It’s childhood. It’s college. Why wasn’t I at that wedding? Where was I that weekend? I go to my phone for prompts to remind me. It is a device that vibrates often, each notification another distraction, a further dulling of the memory, overwriting the past. Am I in the process of forgetting myself? Are we all? Around the table we drain the pot of tea, and my questions run out.
The lads were happy to finish our chat with a couple of ballads. Less of my paranoid yapping I suppose. Would there be sing-songs in fifteen years, I asked Paidí again while Holly thought of a song.
‘Ah yea sure. People will always enjoy the singing of a good song. Just close your eyes. Think of Limerick!’
‘Right! I feel comforted . . . Do you have one yet Holly?’
‘I do. I’m going to sing “Bright Blue Rose”, a Jimmy McCarthy song.’
‘A lovely one.’
‘Now, what was the first line again?’
He looked to the ceiling, half-smiling, and I couldn’t tell if he was taking the piss out of me or not but we all started to chuckle then in his ponderous pause.
But he did remember it in fairness. Between them they sent me home with ‘Bright Blue Rose’ and ‘Limerick, You’re A Lady’. I joined in for the bits I knew. There was a lovely silence around our voices. They at least remembered the lines well.