Monday, April 21, 2014

Music (and poetry) Monday: Joseph O'Connor

As part of the Irish President's recent state visit to London, there was a night of Irish music broadcast on BBC-4 as 'Ultimate Irish Music at the Royal Albert Hall: A Presidential Celebration'.

Truth be told it was a bit patchy, but one of the strongest parts was a reading from the writer Joseph O'Connor, best known for his novels 'Star of the Sea' and 'Redemption Falls' (and incidentally Sinead O'Connor's older brother). His poem drew on the experience of London Irish migrant workers, with some nice South London references:

'the dancehall in Brixton, the chapel in Bow,
oh the freeze of a South East London morning,
digging trench tunnels in the Lewisham snow,

... remember me sister, in Stepney and Bayswater, is all I ask,
without sorrow or hate in Harwich and Deptford and Romford and Woolwich,
in Canning Town, in New Cross Gate,
through the city of songs where the sweet Thames flows for a London calling with lustre and light,
from the Waterloo Sunset to the rainy nights of Soho,
and down in the tube station at midnight where I drove their trains, where I hefted a pick,
as my daughters taught their children or nursed their sick...'

Joseph O'Connor

O'Connor lived in Lewisham in the late 1980s, not sure exactly where. As mentioned here before 'Star of the Sea', a novel of 19th century Irish emigration, features a criminal parody of the Lord's prayer with the words 'Our old guv'nor,which dosses in Lewisham, swelled by thy moniker, Thy racket be come, thy crack-job be done'.

O'Connor's Albert Hall poem reminded me of Dominic Behan's song McAlpine's Fusiliers, a ballad of road digging and building sites most famously performed by The Dubliners (less famously we used to play/sing it in a session at the now demolished St George's Tavern in Lambeth Road SE1 in the early 1990s):

'I've worked till the sweat near has me beat
With Russian, Czech and Pole
On shuttering jams up in the hydro dams
Or underneath the Thames in a hole;
I grafted hard and I got me cards
And many a ganger's fist across me ears;
If you pride your life, don't join, by Christ,
With McAlpine's Fusiliers'.

The ghost of the Behans was certainly hovering over the Albert Hall the other night, it ended up with Elvis Costello, Lisa Hannigan, Paul Brady, Imelda May, Andy Irvine and others singing Brendan Behan's The Auld Triangle.

If I ever get the time I could surely write a good few posts about the Behans in South London.... Brendan finishing off his play The Hostage at Joan Littlewood's house in Blackheath, Brian being jailed for his role in the South Bank builders strike in the late 1950s... more to come (maybe).

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