'It's getting bland, and Ireland was never bland'

An interview with singer-songwriter Jimmy Crowley

To the Scottish Nationalist Party and even to non-SNP Scots who are nationalists (as most basically are), contemporary Ireland looks a very attractive model to follow for a small state in the making. Just over the water after all, there it is, that famous economy which was – up until very recently – the fastest growing in Europe. Scots were impressed by hearing of the country’s construction boom, for instance, of the signs at airports encouraging Irish building workers to return to help build the new Ireland. That the Scottish diaspora might similarly be reversed is the dream of many over here; it’s a real political issue, too, because the Scottish population is actually falling.

Scotland’s traditional musicians typically look westward with admiration, some even with adulation. For the latter, Ireland can do no wrong – apart perhaps from turning out so many superb performers that nobody else gets a look-in when it comes to gigs! However, (lacking JMI!) they don’t usually hear Irish critics of the Irish music scene, the MacMahons, the Munnellys, the Mouldens, the McCarthys. Few, necessarily, would know Jimmy McCarthy’s superb ‘Mystic Lipstick’ for instance:

‘[Éire] keeps fools for counsel/ she keeps wig and gown/ The cloth and bloody warfare/ the stars and stripes and crown./ And still we pray for a better day now,/ God willing, it’s for the best/ But I’ve just seen the harp on the penny/ With a dollar on her naked breast’

This is a powerful statement, apart from anything else, about national values betrayed or gone astray.

Another critic is Jimmy Crowley, who has perhaps been surprising some people in Scotland and England on his recent tour by his increasingly trenchant comments on the music scene back home. The engaging Corkman has often spoken out, right from when he wrote his first ballad and hawked it round the streets; that was about Cork Corporation’s neglect of a particular bridge across the Lee. But he says he finds himself becoming more worried about things as time goes on. He contemplates his country, especially from the point of view of its sense of itself and of how its musicians do (or don’t) reflect that. And he’s troubled.

Several issues bother him, globalisation certainly being an example, for he has a vision of Ireland. It’s not static or atavistic, but it’s definitely one at odds with what the Celtic Tiger represented to him. At any rate, he’ll apparently be giving expression to his vision with his next album which he says is going to be completely political. ‘It’ll be no-holds-barred. But not crazy, not knee-jerk, I want it to be clever. It’s a priority for me, this, because as you get older you get a sense of time passing. Anyway, I’ve already got a lot of the melodies for it ready in my head.’

He is, of course, characteristic of his generation. Seán Ó Riada was a big influence on him. ‘I remember the cultural revolution in the cities and Ó Riada telling us city people about our heritage, O’Carolan and so on. It was before TV, but we’d listen to those wonderful radio programmes of his. From them I first heard sean-nós. I became passionate about the language (I still am) and I think my best song I ever was ‘Róisín’s Sweet Song’. I wrote that about cultural eclipse, the decline of the gaeltachtaí. I’d hoped it’d move people to action but I don’t think it did. I’m rather sad about that… You know, I’d love to know how Ó Riada would view things now, he was the guy who started everything, really. Would he think he’d opened a Pandora’s Box with this music of ours?’

Irish music’s becoming overly commercial is a concern of his. ‘I utterly agree with Tony MacMahon and Tom Munnelly on things like that. It’s just an industry to many people, some of its star performers are just painted tarts – ‘though I won’t mention names here. One result is that it’s getting bland, and Ireland was never bland. Much of it sounds boring to me, too many not-very-good clones of The Bothy Band. There’s an amorphous quality to it, too many tunes played too fast and missing the proper ornamentation. There’s got to be more to our music than fast tunes. At the same time, singing is being neglected. Some bands don’t have singers as a policy. Or if they do, it’s almost like an afterthought. Even if there is a singer, it’s usually just one. But I think bands are better for having two because of the contrasting styles, like Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. Anyway, people need to hear songs – and I’m not saying that just because it’s my living. I believe it, because songs can do things that tunes just can’t. They can make you think, make you laugh, make you want to go and try and change things.’

The way Ireland’s new rich flaunt their money doesn’t appeal to him at all. But he’s not just thinking about the rich. ‘There are too many people grafting onto the American Dream generally, losing their vision of the world. It’s all money now. People don’t know who they are, that’s a lot to do with American culture being everywhere, I think. I’ve nothing against Americans, the friendliest people you could find and always very kind to me, and I’m sorry about Manhattan – but I still want the right not to live as they do. It’s not about ordinary Americans, it’s American Big Business, quite another thing.’

‘Mid-Atlanticisms’ are one of his bugbears. ‘You see this a lot in younger people, I’m afraid. If someone from Kerry, say, sings an Irish song in an LA accent, that’s the end of my interest. But if it’s a Kentuckian singing in a Kentucky accent, that’s great, of course. I’d criticise some young singer/songwriters for these American accents. There’s no worth in this mid-Atlantic stuff, they haven’t been true to their culture, to the land they’re living in. Often, too, the songs aren’t saying anything either. Ireland seems to be endorsing this sort of globalisation, selling out. It’s very frightening, as if we were all the same, because we’re not. People aren’t seeing Ireland as a beautiful historical place where every stone has a story. They’re seeing it merely as a marketing opportunity. And if that’s not a recipe for civil war eventually, I don’t know what is.’

He rejects the essential emptiness of a universal culture. Experience abroad has shown him how the distinctiveness of a country like Ireland is respected by audiences – well, relished. When he performs in France and Germany, audiences always want a song in Irish, even though they can’t understand it, and will often ask for another. ‘They really love it, the buzz, the mystique. It’s like they’re saying, “This guy has his own distinct identity”. We have, and we’d be stupid to let it go.’

The singer/songwriters that he most admires capture this identity, people like Jimmy McCarthy, Frank Harte, John Spillane, Andy Irvine ‘and Christy, with songs like “Delerium Tremens” and “Viva La Quinta Brigada”.’ But he doesn’t find many in the younger generation who could knock the earlier generation off its perch just yet. ‘Maybe that’s my old age talking,’ he smiles ruefully.

With all of his concerns, it might be thought that he’s a disappointed man. Actually, not so. He thinks Ireland may be entering a new phase of political songwriting, new aislingí. He’s unsure quite why – ‘It’s because people know they’ve got to start saying “no”, I hope.’ He’s especially cheered that ‘more and more people are writing in the old language, that’s raising awareness alright’. He looks to artists to mediate, promote and protect ‘Irish reality’. ‘Irish reality is threatened even though guaranteed in the Constitution. But the Constitution won’t protect it. Some of our politicians would sell it without a second thought.’

He’s hugely cheered by the growth of singing clubs, whilst acknowledging that they’re partly a response to the difficulty of singing in open sessions. ‘Just singing,’ he believes, ‘just that simple act, empowers people whoever they are. Now, we have a grand club here, the Spailpín Fánach. All unaccompanied, no instruments allowed. It’s great, you have people coming out of the woodwork everywhere, like housewives, actually singing. They were people, I’d say, who’d felt intimidated by all the musicians around. But now they come along, they have a fabulous night out, I think it’s great altogether. And one thing that really amazes me is how many of them are trying songwriting too, trying to reflect local life.’

‘There are problems in this country,’ he concludes, ‘but I’m not downhearted. I honestly believe things are moving. I have Ó Riada’s vision, I think, that we can’t just lament, it’s in our hands to change things for the better.’

Published on 1 January 2002

Steve McGrail was a singer, musician and writer from Scotland. He wrote several articles for The Journal of Music and was a great supporter of the magazine from its very first issue. Steve sadly died on 11 May 2016, aged 69.

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