Friday, October 24, 2008

A Terrible Beauty Is Born: "Roddy McCorley"

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

- W.B. Yeats
One of the now-vanished delights of Trio Fantasy Camp was the Q&A session on Thursday night conducted from 2000 til 2005 by Nick Reynolds and John Stewart (with Bob Shane joining the party in 2006 and 2007). The guys would answer campers’ questions and regale the assemblage for up to an hour and a half with tales of the road, odd memories that would occur spontaneously, stories behind some of their song acquisitions, and memories of people and places long gone.

Nick and John were especially warm in their memories of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – John’s tale of a party in Theodore Bikel’s Greenwhich Village apartment where an over-earnest Bikel kept trying to sing some quiet and intense folk number, only to be interrupted at every start by a tipsy Tommy Clancy bellowing the opening notes to the brothers’ raucous version of “Haul Away Joe” [see appendix below] – Nick speaking feelingly of his close friendship with Paddy Clancy’s widow following the eldest Clancy’s 1998 passing - both recalling the drinking party in a Chicago hotel where Bob Shane taught the Clancys the pleasures of drinking rum.

At one FC after such reminiscences, Nick asserted with some asperity, “People criticized us for not doing enough protest songs. What the heck did they know? You want to hear a protest song? Listen to the Clancy Brothers sing ‘Roddy McCorley!’"

I had always loved Nick Reynolds for his humor and warmth, but at that moment I was ready to canonize him for his citing of what I had always regarded, years before I heard the Kingston Trio do it, as the very best of the hundreds of Irish songs of rebellion, a song finely crafted and demonstrating the touch of a genuine poet.

Though Roddy McCorley himself is a shadowy figure from the Great Wexford Rising of 1798 (more below), the song’s origins are clear. Poet Ethna Carberry  (the pen name for Anna Johnston) wrote the words in the late 1800s, nearly a century removed from the uprising; they were later set with her blessing to a fragment of an old air.

The original poem is rather longer than the four verses commonly sung today; the modern adaptation, which rearranges parts of some verses and leaves out others altogether, was done by Paddy Clancy, the eldest of the famous brothers, apparently with an eye to the standard length of the folk-type songs being sung in the U.S. at the time. The text of the complete poem is HERE.

For reasons that I cannot figure out, the song – though ragingly popular in Ireland since its creation – never caught on in the U.S. when other Irish rebel songs did, like “Kevin Barry” and “The Rising Of The Moon” and “Bold Fenian Men,” all of which were well-known in American Irish communities as long ago as the time of my own parents’ childhoods in the 1920s. All three of those and many more made their way into American movies, often as incidental or background music in John Ford’s westerns.

It was not surprisingly the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem who brought this wonderful piece into the heart of the American folk revival – and from them it was picked up by the Kingston Trio, whose massive commercial punch, even as relatively late as 1962, propelled it into the subconscious of two generations of Irish Americans and folk fans in general.

But first, back to Roddy himself. In the Rebellion of 1798, known by many names including The Year of the French (because of revolutionary France’s attempt to aid the rebels) and as noted The Great Wexford Rising (though there were more than a dozen counties involved in the coordinated attacks on the English military), local leaders became overnight heroes – and almost universally martyrs as well. We know little of McCorley except that he was a member of the group United Irishmen, founded by angry Protestant Presbyterians like himself (yes – Roddy was not Catholic!) who were infuriated by the British exploitation that in forty years would lead to the Potato Famine that killed two million and sent another two million packing, through the melancholy port cities of Waterford and Cork and Liverpool, to the foreign shores from which they never returned. (Thus did the Stevenses, Conways, Flahertys, and a Moran come to Chicago and combine to be my ancestors.)

McCorley was the leader of a sadly under-armed squadron in the town of Toombridge, County Antrim – pitchforks, no less - against a regiment of redcoat infantry. The rebels were cut to pieces with a few including McCorley escaping for a time. Roddy was later captured, convicted by a drumhead court martial – apparently with no defense attorney – and summarily executed by hanging from the ruined bridge in the town of Toomebridge. His body was dismembered by our British cousins and buried at different points along the road to Ballymena, though later his remaining friends exhumed the fragments and re-buried them secretly in a proper grave that was unmarked and unknown to this day. His descendants remain in Ireland, some actively involved in politics, and there is an active Republican “Roddy McCorley Society” linked below.

And now for the music. Instead of my usual practice of starting with the KT version, I’m starting with the first recorded version I heard, courtesy of Grandma Moran, around 1959 – from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s first album on Tradition records (Paddy Clancy’s label – the records were at first recorded in the kitchen of his Greenwich Village apartment) to identify them as a group. This remains and will always be my favorite version of the song – just Liam on guitar, singing his heart out with Tom, Paddy, and Tommy Makem.

Since that audio-only piece was yanked for copyright, hers a similar performance from a live TV show in Chicago from 1962.)

It's clear that the KT took their cue from the Clancy's rousing performance. Here, familiar to us all, is the Trio from College Concert.

It took me a while to like this - I thought the drum stuff that frames the song was an unnecessary artifice, as if the guys didn't trust the inherent power of the words and their own fierce energy to carry the import of the number. I also thought that John S's banjo strum here was just wrong for the number - too syncopated and "Little Light"-ish for a song that should by to the 4/4 martial beat of boots tramping on sacred ground.

I heard it with new ears, though, when my young YouTube Irish friend Daragh, newly entranced with the KT, pronounced it the best version he had heard - and when he posted it, his Irish commenters universally loved it. And the Trio undeniably brings its signature, unmatchable energy to its performance.

County Antrim is in the ancient kingdom of Ulster, as is Keady town, birthplace of Tommy Makem. I have no evidence, but I believe that he brought this song to the group - the southern Tipperary-born Clancys had not included it on their Rising of the Moon album of Irish songs of rebellion prior to Tommy's joining the group, and it's certainly now one of the best-known of all the songs of that genre. Here is the authentic real deal - Tommy Makem solo toward the end of his life - a GREAT rendition:

And here's a fine performance that has another curious KT connection. The Wolfe Tones (a really popular and prominent folk group in Ireland associated with radical IRA politics and named for the most famous leader of the 1798 rising, James Wolfe Tone) perform "Sean South of "Garryowen." The tune is clearly the same as "McCorley" - but Sean South (pronounced 'Soot' or 'Sowt') was the other teenager killed in an abortive IRA attack on a British military barracks in 1957 that went awry when the IRA explosives failed to detonate. The first teen to be mortally wounded was Fergal O'Hanlon - referenced in "The Patriot Game."

In any form, it's a great song. Just as you don't have to be a Texan to love "Remember The Alamo," you don't need to be Irish to love what the KT and the others do with this one.

Here's some extra stuff:

1) The website of the Roddy McCorley Society:
Official Roddy McCorley Web Page
2) 1962 video kinescope of the Clancys doing the posted version:

3) One of John Stewart's great hidden talents was as a mimic. I mentioned in the main post that John told a story about Tom Clancy interrupting Theo Bikel - well, here's how the Clancys sounded doing "Haul Away Joe" - and JS could do a stunning imitation of Tom Clancy, who sings this lead:

4) Finally - especially for Pa Mick Coates Down Under - the Dubliners' version, with Barney McKenna - as Mick says, the greatest tenor banjo player that ever was - if you don't believe so, just lsiten:


mdks said...

"County Antrim is in the ancient kingdom of Armagh"

Have you any evidence for this assertion?



Jim Moran said...

Eeee! Pardon my egregious error - I meant to write "Ulster" but had the lyrics of "bard of Armagh" running through my head when I wrote this. Correction to be made immediately! Thanks!