I don’t know if the equivalent of Country ‘n’ Irish exists anywhere else in the world but it’s a truly bizarre thing. If you love hearing the name of your village in a song performed by an Irish guy pretending to be from Kentucky, C&I is for you, but if you’re someone who enjoys music, it’s probably best to avoid it.
For years, this thing has provided a neat way to divide the nation into two categories: rednecks and the rest of us. We even had a Country ‘n’ Western Taoiseach in Albert Reynolds, a man who made his fortune by constructing enormous dancehalls in the middle of nowhere and herding thousands of Bridies and Nualas into them to dance along with whatever dross some singing farmer from Monaghan chose to spew out on any given night.
Now, let me enter a caveat. When I say Country ‘n’ Irish, or Country ‘n’ Western, I do not mean country music as exemplified by everyone from Guy Clark to Gram Parsons. I’m not talking about Emmy-Lou Harris or John Prine. I’m not talking about the fine songwriters and musicians who represent that genre. No indeed. I’m talking about the mumbling, shuffling gobshites in rhinestones and ten-gallon hats performing a bad pastiche of country music.
A few years ago, I went to the Midlands Music Festival, and it was great. I saw everyone from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Tony-Joe White. Jackson Browne and David Lindley. Tom Russell made an appearance and so did Aimee Mann. We enjoyed Steve Earle and Kristofferson. We blinked and rubbed our eyes at Richard Thompson’s ridiculously wonderful guitar playing. Gillian Welch. Richmond Fontaine. The demented Dwight Yoakam strutting his Country ‘n’ Elvis insanity. Is there no end to it?
But of course, there is, and it comes all of a sudden, when a herd of fat birds from Mullingar, wearing pink buckskin mini-skirts and fringed cowboy hats barge their way into the quiet, understated Emmy-Lou Harris gig, and set up a loud chatter while the rest of us try to worship our idol. You see, these fat birds aren’t here for subtle songwriting or delicate interwoven harmonies. These girls are here for that strange Nashville guy in the purple jumpsuit with the big expensive teeth.
These girls are the Country ‘n’ Western faction, and they’re on a night out. On Monday, they’ll go back to their wards, their civil service desks and their police stations, they’ll go back to being Nuala and Bridie, but tonight, they plan on pointing toy pistols at the rest of us and whooping their lungs out.
That’s Country ‘n’ Irish for you.
How did it start? Where did it come from? Why is a great swathe of Ireland, right across the island from Donegal to Monaghan, and reaching as far south as Mullingar, caught up in this insane parody of something so ridiculous it can’t be parodied? Some people blame Larry Cunningham, who passed away recently, though I don’t think so. After all, Larry got his big break when he supported Jim Reeves in Lifford back in 1963, which tells you that the Donegal people were already mad about cheesy, schmaltzy derivative dross.
Ah, Donegal. Where do you start with Donegal, the county that gave us Daniel O’Donnell, Bridie Gallagher and Enya.
On the credit side, of course, they gave us Rory Gallagher, Clannad and Altan, and though it’s still hard to forgive them for the curse of C ‘n’ W, they weren’t alone. At least they didn’t inflict Big Tom on the world.
What do you say about neighbouring Tyrone, the county that gave us Philomena Begley, a woman whose hairstyle became a marker for entering middle age? Getting a Philomena, for many women, was a way of telling the world they were now settled down. Forget the jeans and the braids: from here on it was trouser-suits and clapping along with bad C ‘n’ W songs in a lounge bar on a Saturday night.
How did all this dross spread across the land? Was it because Irish people are temperamentally suited to predictable, unchallenging, pre-digested, formulaic rubbish? Possibly. After all, don’t they swallow the same shit in concentrated form every time there’s a general election?
Didn’t they believe for years that sentimental nonsense pumped out in New York was traditional Irish music? The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door, for Christ’s sake.
Whatever the truth of it, Larry Cunningham was certainly the man who spread the C’n’W word across the land, with his pastiche renditions of Jim Reeves classics, combined with his own appeal to parochial sentimentality. Lovely Leitrim was a huge hit for him, a song that appealed to people all over the country, even though they seemed unaware of the irony implied in it.
Last night, I had a pleasant dream. I woke up with a smile.
I dreamed that I was back again in dear old Erin’s Isle.
Hold on a minute there. This is a guy who is not an emigrant. He lives in Ireland, but he’s singing about missing the old country, and he’s singing to people who still live in the old country. None of them are real exiles. Not Larry and not his audience, yet they all share the same doleful fantasy. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it speaks to some innate need in the Irish to feel melancholic at all costs.
There seems to be quite a history of re-importation. Who hasn’t got an ancient uncle willing to sing some Bing Crosby tear-jerker at a family do? I’ll guarantee you, most Irish people won’t realise that the song was written in America, and in a double twist, when Americans come over here, they expect to find us singing this schmaltzy, saccharine horseshit to each other.
I like to wander down the old boreen. Maids of merry Ireland. The Old Bog Road. Oh would you kindly fuck off.
We abandoned our language. We abandoned our songs. We abandoned our culture. And now we pretend to each other that cheap, sentimental schlock from the States is part of our heritage. What is wrong with us?
There’s another side to this. American country music is heavily influenced by a strand that came from this island: hillbilly music, but here’s a word of caution. The Billy in hillbilly isn’t there by accident, for these were the so-called Scotch-Irish, a tribe who, today might be called Ulster Unionists, or Loyalists. They wouldn’t thank you for calling them Irish, so how is it that their ancestors’ music speaks to so many in the Republic? Perhaps the clue lies in the strength of the C ‘n’ W tendency in the northern half of the island. Maybe osmosis ensures that people from different traditions come to share certain cultural DNA despite themselves.
One final thought. The Republic that emerged from 1921 was a very repressive place. It was a stifling environment in which barricades were thrown up to keep out all foreign influences. Seditious literature was banned wholesale resulting in a country whose libraries were stocked with nothing but chaste romance novels for the women and gunslingin’ westerns for the men. Zane Gray and Louis l’Amour. Riders of the purple sage.
Ireland was Albania.
Flann O’Brien parodied it beautifully in the Ringsend passage of At-Swim-Two-Birds.
Two days later I was cow-punching down by the river in Ringsend with Shorty Andrews and Slug Willard, the toughest pair of boyos you’d meet in a day’s walk. Rounding up steers, you know, and branding, and breaking in colts in the corral with lassoes on our saddle-horns and pistols at our hips.
(O the real thing. Was there any drink to be had?)
There certainly was. At night we would gather in the bunkhouse with our porter and all our orders, cigarettes and plenty there on the chiffonier to be taken and no questions asked, school-marms and saloon-girls and little black maids skivvying there in the galley.
(That was the place to be, now.)
After a while be damned but in would walk a musicianer with a fiddle or a pipes in the hollow of his arm and there he would sit and play Ave Maria to bring the tears to your eyes. Then the boys would take up an old come-all-ye, the real old stuff, you know, Phil the Fluter’s Ball or the Darling Girl from Clare, a bloody lovely thing.
It had a profound effect on the Irish, this attempt to render a nation childlike, pliable and unquestioning, and it had a side-effect. It gave our grandfathers a deep affinity for the myth of the Old West that was under construction at the same time and for the same purpose: to hide the truth. In Ireland’s case, the unwelcome truth was that adult, mature ideas existed in the wide world beyond our sainted borders, while in the American case, the truth was that the heroic Old West was built on genocide. Both truths needed to be obliterated.
Poor old Larry Cunningham. What has any of this to do with him?
Little enough, in truth, except for the fact that he embodied the process of spreading the C ‘n’ W idiom across the country. He wasn’t the only one, but in many ways he showed how it could be done. In a drab country, where men wore dark suits and belted-up overcoats, Larry arrived in his Mercedes-Benz, put on his red jacket and offered the promise of connection to a different reality, an exotic world of truckstop diners, jukeboxes and two-lane blacktop, somehow magically transported to the parish halls of Roscommon, Cavan and Westmeath. For an hour or two, there were no creamery cheques to worry about, no disputes with the family about who was getting the farm, and although Larry might be taking Nuala for a ride in his Mercedes after the show, you were taking Bridie home in the Austin A40.
Here’s Larry paying tribute to Jim Reeves in his tortured fake Texas accent. What need in the Irish people did this satisfy?
Maybe.for that brief moment, you were looking through the windscreen of a ’58 Dodge pickup, and it was time to go huntin’ coyotes with your gal.
In fairness to Larry, though, we can’t leave this without playing the funniest song ever written.
Take it away, Larry.