Garth Brooks has cancelled five Dublin gigs in protest at a licensing dispute. Photo: Getty
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Why is country star Garth Brooks cancelling five Dublin gigs causing such uproar in Ireland?

Ireland is currently split between people who are mortally embarrassed by the cancellation farrago and those who declare it to be of the utmost importance. What is it with the Irish and country music?

The big news in Ireland at the moment is not one of the episodes of political corruption which the Irish are so adept at taking in their stride, nor yet another revelation of the Catholic church’s often grim contribution to recent Irish history. Neither is it a labour dispute in which a waste disposal firm is employing scab labour to break a strike in protest at 35 per cent wage cuts. No, the big news in Ireland right now is Garth Brooks’ cancellation of five open-air concerts at Dublin’s Croke Park, due to take place later this month. The cancellations come after Dublin City Council, in the light of protests from local residents, refused a licence to the final two of the five concerts.

A 2009 agreement between the Gaelic Athletic Association, Croke Park’s owners, and residents stipulates a maximum of three “special events” (ie non-sporting ones) per year so the City Council’s ruling was not entirely unreasonable. The problem is that Aiken Promotions, which is putting on the concerts, had already sold 400,000 tickets, all emblazoned with the caveat “subject to licence” – customary in Ireland but rarely expected to be anything more than a legal disclaimer. Garth Brooks, no doubt unused to such unforeseen impediments, was not amused and dismissed any possibility of him playing three concerts instead of five – the prospect of upsetting 160,000 of his fans would be like “choosing between his children”. Such Solomonic reasoning turned out to be rather alarming when he proceeded to do away with all five concerts in defiance, and, after negotiation appears to have failed, he turned his ships carrying the concert matériel back. The fallout of the affair in Ireland has been a farcical national psychodrama where politicians have jostled to table emergency legislation to override the council’s decision and media commentators have even called on President Barack Obama to intervene (the White House, clearly having better things to do, has wisely declined the call).

Ireland is split between people who are mortally embarrassed by the farrago and those who declare it to be of the utmost importance, that €50m, which presumably would otherwise be kept stuffed in mattresses, is being lost to the economy. The latter group of people say that it is making Ireland “a laughing stock” (speaking from the distance of continental Europe, I have to say the cold hard truth is that few people here, if any, tend to keep abreast of events in Ireland). So why is it such a big deal? Well, there is the obvious influence of the hospitality lobby, which is fairly well represented in parliament. Ireland’s clientelist political culture also plays its part – 400,000 people represents almost 9 per cent of the Republic’s population (even if one accepts that many of those are likely to come from across the border, 6 per cent of the island’s total population is still a hefty amount). In other words, the Country & Western vote is a big one, and, outside the C&W-agnostic capital, it is in many a politician’s interest to pay heed to it.

So what is with the Irish and Country & Western? Why is a genre of music that is at best a minority taste outside its rural American heartland such a big deal on the Emerald Isle? Why did Garth Brooks choose Ireland for a comeback tour that, with his customary penchant for showmanship, he has compared to Elvis’ 1968 comeback special? It’s a hard one to answer but there are a few clues. Most Irish people have American relatives but few of those cousins would be from C&W country in the south of the US – the vast majority of them reside in the northern cities where country would be as much a novelty as it might be in Manchester or Rome. The transmission of the music was effected rather via mass media in the post-war era. Country & Irish, its local variation, is a legacy of the showband era of the 1960s where the soundtrack to Ireland’s tentative social modernisation was provided by covers bands playing brightly-lit, alcohol-free halls and marquees, overseen by anxious parish priests, desperately battling the zeitgeist. The showbands played a mixture of contemporary rock n’roll and country, the latter probably because of its ancestral affinity with Irish traditional music (one of the roots of Country & Western lies in the music imported by early Ulster Scots immigrants to the Appalachians and further south in the US). There was also a thematic affinity – country laments such as John Hartford’s “Going to Work in Tall Buildings” and Gram Parsons’ “The Streets of Baltimore” are more than a little reminiscent of Irish homesick-emigrant songs such as “5,000 Miles away from Sligo”, “The Mountains of Mourne” or Luka Bloom’s “The City of Chicago”.

The showbands died out in the 1970s but Country & Irish lived on among the same generation as they got older. Acts such as Big Tom & the Mainliners, Red Hurley, TR Dallas, Mick Flavin, Margo, Ray Lynam and John Farry (no relation) would regularly pack out parish halls and hotel ballrooms in small towns. When I was growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1980s, Country & Western gigs were usually the only ones there were, shop windows and lampposts festooned from one week to another with a different act’s template poster, the venue and date scribbled in magic marker at the bottom. It was big business and the Country & Irish scene’s big players became politically influential – one former promoter, Albert Reynolds rose to become Taoiseach in 1993 while others such as Paschal Mooney and Donie Cassidy became Senators.

Big Tom & the Mainliners, “If You’re Lonesome at Your Table”

The music itself was rarely up to much – a bland middle-of-the-road reworking of country hits from across the Atlantic – though there were a few superior acts, such as Ray Lynam and Philomena Begley, whose duets were immortalised by Shane MacGowan in The Pogues song “A Pair of Brown Eyes”. And you could never deny the professionalism of those jobbing musicians from ordinary backgrounds in Ireland’s midlands and west who became unlikely stars in small towns across the country.

Ray Lynam and Philomena Begley, “My Elusive Dreams”

Of course we hated it when growing up – the usual Friday night entertainment in small-town pubs would be country duos armed only with a guitar and a plodding keyboard-synthesizer, playing covers of “Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, acts that made the big names from the C&I heartland of Longford and Westmeath sound like Waylon Jennings or Guy Clark. But there was no getting away from it. Country bands were ubiquitous at wedding receptions, whether the bride and groom liked it or not – it was the parents that were paying and they hired the bands they wanted. The experience turned some people off country for life but others, like myself, gained a taste for good Country & Western, and the big American stars soon learned there was a big market for them in a small country across the Atlantic.

If Country & Irish gigs were often the only ones in town when I was growing up, we were also spoiled by the presence of touring Americans, playing small towns that would normally never be visited by major-league musicians. Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and Kris Kristofferson regularly toured (my Dad once encountered Cash in a hotel restaurant in Adare, County Limerick in 1993). Nanci Griffith, best known for “From a Distance”, arrived in Ireland in the late 1980s amazed to discover she was a household name there. She became a regular visitor and later wrote a song of thanks to Ireland. Steve Earle, after getting released from prison in the late 1990s, hung out in Galway for a bit, which later inspired one of his most famous songs. Townes van Zandt spent a lot of time in Ireland in his later years and recorded his last album in Limerick. Cash’s late-career rejuvenation by Rick Rubin hit pay-dirt in Ireland long before he became a hipster favourite with his final album, American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002. Folks in my home county of Sligo were also mighty proud when local girl Sandy Kelly recorded a duet “Woodcarvers” with him in 1990.

Johnny Cash and Sandy Kelly, “Woodcarvers”

And then there was Garth Brooks. Soon after becoming the first country superstar of the modern era, he played Ireland in 1994, selling out nine nights in a row at Dublin’s largest indoor venue, the Point. He was back three years later to play to 150,000 in three gigs at Croke Park, a figure since dwarfed by ticket sales for the concerts that now won’t take place. Brooks claims that 75 per cent of the tickets sold were to people 25 or younger, something that’s a little hard to believe but it’s certainly true that Country & Western hasn’t died out among the younger generation of Irish people as one might have expected. Younger artists such as Lee Matthews, Derek Ryan and Nathan Carter are as popular as earlier generations were. Many country fans will be sniffy about Brooks but he’s no different to Coldplay, U2 or Shakira – accessible and unchallenging fare that appeals to the casual music fan. He also, by all accounts, puts on a decent show. When he gets to do that again in Ireland is now unsure but, one thing is for certain – the enthusiasm among those 400,000 holders of unusable tickets will remain undimmed by what has gone down.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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