Irish Folk Songs and the Literal Child

Started by Gyppo, December 28, 2022, 10:10:10 PM

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   Irish Folk Songs and the Literal Child

   There is much in Irish Folk songs to confuse a literally minded child who loves words.  Fortunately I had parents who were patient enough to answer my questions,  often with other questions to help figure out what I was really asking.

   I try to do the same with my Grandaughter, and believe I did so with my girls.

   Dad worked with lots of Irish labourers, and apart from the few who were truly bitter and twisted they were, by and large, a cheerful lot who  often sang whilst working,  Back then most of the heavy work was pick and shovel, or laying bricks or tarmac, and nowhere near as much relentless mechanical noise to contend with.

   Having picked up a mixed bag of songs Dad sang the ones he liked whilst digging in the garden, or sawing logs, or riding his motorbike, and occasionally as lullabies for his 'little man'.

   Some of them puzzled me immensely.

   Take the song Finnegan's Wake for example.  A simple enough tale of a drunken hod carrier who fell from the ladder, banged his head, and they assumed he was dead.

   I'd seen hod carriers scrambling up ladders and sliding down again, at breakneck speed on piece rate, so I knew what was happening.

   But the line 'They carried him home his corpse to wake' totally threw me.

   "Dad?  How can you wake a corpse?  He's dead, not just sleeping."(Although in the song it turned out Finnegan was merely stunned, and revived when they accidentally spilt some whiskey on him.)  "But they didn't know that when they carried him home, did they?"

   That was the day I discovered 'wake' had more than one meaning,  And, as a bonus, that the disturbed water behind a moving boat was also called a wake.

   Fascinating stuff for a big-eared, eternally curious little 'Word Hoover'.


   Then there was another one which triggered many questions.  The 'moonshiner's song'.  Dad really liked that one.

   "I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home,  And if people don't like me they can leave me alone.  I eat when I'm hungry, I drink when I'm dry, and if the moonshine don't kill me I'll live till I die."

   I'd never heard of moonshine as illegally distilled liquor, so equated it with moonlight.  I loved moonlight, I used to sit up in my little bunk at the end of the caravan  and watch the moon, and the shadows from the trees, etc,  It was magical, but...

   "Dad?  Is moonlight dangerous for adults, but safe for children.?"  (There was even a tune called 'Dangerous Moonlight', which was a reference to the 'Bomber's Moon' of wartime, but I wasn't particularly aware of that at the time.

   "Not as I've noticed.  Why?"

   I explained, Dad answered, and another mystery was solved, and filed away.  I was quite struck with the idea of living a moonshiner's life.

   Onto the next question, from his little Logic Monster.

    "Dad?  Surely everyone lives until they die.  Nobody can die before they die".

   Dad explained that one by saying the man in the song was saying a few glasses of whisky, or even a lot, wouldn't kill him.

   "Then why doesn't he just say so?"

   "Because song writers and poets like to wrap things up, instead of just saying it straight.  Sometimes the straight words don't fit the tune very nicely."

   I vaguely remember thinking that song writers and poets must be crazy.

   Then we tackled the big philosophical statement contained in the song.  One which made sense to me then, and still does to this day.

   'And if people don't like me they can leave me alone.'

   At that age I'd already realised that some people didn't like me, and that many of them, contrary to the common sense espoused in the song,  didn't leave me alone.  In fact they would seek me out in the playground or on the way home from  school to tell me just how much they disliked me.

   Why the constant repetition?  Did they think I hadn't heard them, didn't believe them?  Did they think I was stupid or slow?

   I avoided people I didn't like, but some of them still sought me out.

   If people didn't mean what they said, why say it?  And if they did mean it, why waste time and breath saying it over and over?

   Looking back I can see that most of my family understood my questions and made a pretty god job of answering them.  I was very rarely just fobbed off, and they knew damned well that if they promised to explain later I'd come back and remind them.

   I'm still deeply suspicious of many song lyrics, but now I tend to have fun with them.