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.

MATT MURPHY FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Measure for pleasure: sex, money and Shakespeare

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare was no exception.

A hundred years ago this month, preparations for the Battle of the Somme were no impediment to national remembrance of the tercentenary of William Shakespeare’s death. He had been buried on 25 April 1616, but it was generally agreed that he had died two days earlier, on what may well have been his 52nd birthday (we can be sure about the date of his baptism in 1564, but not that of his birth). So, on 23 April 1916, St George’s Day, celebrations were staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Also in Prague and Madrid, New York and Copenhagen. And, with special fervour, in Berlin. Back in the 18th century Goethe and Schiller had claimed Shakespeare as Germany’s national poet. In their adopted town of Weimar, as Germany geared up for war in 1914, the president of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare Society) had aligned Shakespeare to the spiritual rearmament of the German people. “O God of battles!” he had declaimed from Henry V, “steel my soldiers’ hearts;/Possess them not with fear”.

The two most notable Shakespearean publications of that tercentenary year were both published by Oxford University Press. First there was a stout, two-volume set called Shakespeare’s England: an Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. It began with an
“Ode on the Tercentenary Commemoration of Shakespeare” by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate. “And in thy book Great-Britain’s rule readeth her right,” Bridges wrote. “Her chains are chains of Freedom, and her bright arms/Honour, Justice and Truth and Love to man.” Thanks to Shakespeare – the poem proposed – the Union Jack has been hailed around the world as “the ensign of Liberty”. Shakespeare was lauded as the vessel of a kind of benign gunboat diplomacy: “And the boom of her guns went round the earth in salvos of peace.”

The book proceeded with a paean to “The Age of Elizabeth” by the aptly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, and then with an array of essays on almost every aspect of the culture of Shakespeare’s age, from religion, the military, education, travel and agriculture to law and medicine, commerce and coinage, heraldry and costume, city and town life, homes and gardens, sports and pastimes, rogues and vagabonds, and ghosts and witches. A century later, Shakespeare’s England remains a valuable compendium of historical lore, though it does not have much to say about the subjects that most 21st-century academic Shakespeareans focus on – women and gender, race and ethnicity, questions of cultural ecology and social anthropology.

The other OUP volume of 1916 was ­entitled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. It contained over 160 tributes to the Bard, in more than 20 languages, contributed by scholars and writers from every corner of the globe. As Andrew Dickson reveals in his wonderful Shakespearean travelogue, Worlds Elsewhere, published last autumn, there is even an essay (written anonymously) by Sol Plaatje, the founding general secretary of what became the African National Congress, arguing that William “Tsikinya-Chaka” (that’s “Shake-the-Sword”, translated into Setswana) would one day belong to all South Africans, not just white men.

In contrast to the impassioned celeb­rations and the hyperbole of the claims about Shakespeare in 1916, the marking of the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1964 was fairly low-key. There was a set of Royal Mail stamps, a spike in academic publications, a ramping up of the annual Stratford-upon-Avon birthday jamboree, and not much more.

The two most notable books on Shakespeare published that year were modest in scale compared to the hefty tomes of a half-century earlier – though not modest in ambition. One was a bestselling biography by the historian A L Rowse, in which he announced that he had “shed light upon problems hitherto intractable [and] produced results which might seem incredible” by solving, “for the first time and definitely”, the riddles of the sonnets, as well as effecting “an unhoped-for enrichment of the contemporary content and experience that went into a number of the plays” – claims that Rowse pushed ever further in subsequent books on Shakespeare, each more hubristic and less scholarly than the last. Alas, poor Rowse: his credibility on the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets disintegrated when another scholar noted that his case for the poet Aemilia Bassano as “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” was based primarily on a misreading of a manuscript. He had thought it said she was “very brown” in her youth, but the actual wording was “very brave”.

The second bestseller from 1964 has stood up rather better. Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is by some distance the best contribution (save perhaps for the wonderfully comic No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, published in 1941) to the never-ending genre of novels about Shakespeare. Burgess the wordsmith had a terrific feel for the verbal pyrotechnics of the young Shakespeare, but also for his rootedness in the Warwickshire countryside. Fragmentary biographical gems – such as the weirdness of Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert – are interwoven with phrases and psychological insights drawn from the plays. And there is lots of very good Elizabethan sex.

***

Sex – now there’s a subject dear to Shakespeare’s heart, but one on which 1916’s Shakespeare’s England was unsurprisingly silent. Those two hefty volumes end with a rich subject index, but “sex” is not to be found between “setting-dog” and “shadow, in muster-roll”, nor “pox” between “powdering tub” and “praemunire”. Actually, the “powdering tub of infamy” was the sweating cure for syphilis, to which Shakespeare alludes in his final two sonnets as well as in several plays, but the author of the chapter on medicine in Shakespeare’s England (Alban H G Doran, consulting surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital) couldn’t bring himself to use any phrase for the pox other than “contagious disease”.

Sex is an area where Shakespearean scholarship has advanced immensely in recent decades. In 1994, Gordon Williams of the University of Wales at Lampeter published an astonishingly well-researched, three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, which enumerated the sexual double entendre of about 2,000 words and phrases in the plays and poems of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Williams also produced a spin-off in 1997 providing a comprehensive glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. It was never far from our hands when we were compiling the glosses for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Complete Works, which one reviewer described as “the filthiest edition of Shakespeare ever produced”.

Never mind the gunboat diplomacy – a Shakespeare who is honest, funny, messy and, above all, unashamed about sex might just be a useful 400th-anniversary present to those parts of the world where ­homosexuality remains illegal (as it was in Shakespeare’s England, though that didn’t stop him celebrating homoerotic passion) or where people live in fear of the modern-day, Islamist equivalents of the Puritans in Elizabethan and Jacobean London who excoriated plays, the theatre, sexual puns, female pleasure and cross-dressed boys.

For this reason, I predict that one of the two books published in this 400th year that will spark great debate and make a difference is Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love. Simultaneously a memoir, a work of literary criticism and a love song (to Shakespeare much more than to the other men who pass through its pages), it is an extreme example of the genre of “self-discovery through literature” that was pioneered in such books as Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

It is the kind of book about Shakespeare that would have been inconceivable, in the full sense, in 1964, let alone in 1916. We have feminism – from its first shoots in the essays of Virginia Woolf through the full flowering of écriture feminine in the late 20th century – to thank for the eruption of the personal voice and self-conscious reflection on sexual identity into Shakespearean criticism. I know of few straight men who would dare to write a book as brave as this one.

What’s it about? Shakespeare and spanking. My first reaction was quizzical, but Keenan swiftly won me over, with her brisk prose, her playful self-flagellation and, above all, her perceptive attention to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language.

Think about it: if our claim about Shakespeare is that he speaks for all of us, that he addresses every dimension of human ­experience, is it surprising that a reader preoccupied with the symbiosis of desire and pain should find things in the plays with which to identify? Keenan’s heroine is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which she rightly describes as “a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration . . . at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination and consent”. When Demetrius tells Hel­ena that he can in no circumstances love her, she replies:

And even for that do I love you the more:

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.

Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me . . .

This rather turns Demetrius on. When all the story of the night is told, he and Helena are a couple.

Speaking for myself, I don’t “get” the whole BDSM thing. I suppose I’ve always assumed that it comes from childhood trauma: the Victorian poet Swinburne was a masochist because he was constantly whipped at Eton, that sort of argument. But great art – and good criticism – can teach you that choices unimaginable to you may be embraced by other people. Shakespeare’s greatness lies precisely in his capacity to enter into other minds, to show spectators and readers what it might be like to be a person with very different emotions, experiences and desires from our own.

Thus, Keenan offers a powerful reading of The Taming of the Shrew, proposing that the “taming” (which involves physical as well as verbal abuse) is a game in which the woman is complicit from the start. After all, the first sexual spark jumps between Kate and Petruchio in their opening encounter when they share a joke about cunnilingus. As Keenan puts it, “To Petruchio, Kate comes first (in every sense of the phrase).” The play itself takes place within a frame (the Christopher Sly plot) which is there to remind the audience that the whole thing is a fantasy, a piece of wish-fulfilment. Most of us are uncomfortable with the taming narrative because it seems to involve beating a witty and independent woman into physical submission and marital subservience. For Keenan, by contrast, Kate isn’t “broken” at the end of the play, she is broken at the beginning (by her father, by the patriarchy). She is liberated at the end: “If she and I be pleased,” says Petruchio, “what’s that to you?” Keenan (who is just occasionally a little too glib) adds, “I couldn’t put it better myself.”

The discourse of command and obedience, the sound and tingle of the slap, the hand beneath the foot: it’s all a game, and one that both parties enjoy to the full. In readings such as this one, the critic works with the dramatist to loosen the stays of the vanilla spectator and the middle-aged, heterosexual male scholar.

Shakespeare uses the word “beat” or “beaten” nearly 300 times. Of course the context is often that of military defeat and equally often of wanton cruelty. But sometimes it is comic knockabout and just occasionally there’s a dynamic whereby pain is pleasure, as when Cleopatra says: “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,/Which hurts, and is desired.” Such lines are true to a dimension of human experience and it is cause for celebration when a writer as original, witty and self-deprecating as Keenan takes them seriously.

***

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare, it seems, was no exception. My second pick from the plethora of quatercentenary publications could hardly be more different in tone or style from Sex With Shakespeare, but it will without doubt prove indispensable to future scholars and biographers. While Jillian Keenan has been spanking her way around Spain and Oman, Robert Bearman, a sometime archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has been closeted in Stratford-upon-Avon examining tithe-holdings, tax assessments of the value of moveable goods, notes on the storage of malt, property conveyances and monographs with such titles as Warwickshire Hearth Tax Returns: Michaelmas 1670. The results, in his book Shakespeare’s Money, are as rewarding, in their way, as Keenan’s frisky textual entanglements.

In many respects, Bearman’s scrupulous and comprehensive trawl through the archives confirms the familiar story. John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, rose to a position of some prominence as a tradesman in Stratford-upon-Avon but then fell into financial difficulty. William went to London to try to improve the family fortunes, as well as to earn money to support the wife he had got prematurely pregnant and his three young children. After a slow start as a bit-part player, he found his niche as the rewrite man, patching, improving and eventually displacing old plays in the repertoire. In 1594, he and his fellow actors became sharers in a joint stock company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The combination of aristocratic patronage and business acumen – a share in the profits as opposed to the piecework payments on which other dramatists relied – allowed Shakespeare to purchase the title of “gentleman” and to buy a large house back in his own town (at a knockdown price) by the late 1590s. In the early 1600s, when the theatres were struggling through closures prompted by the plague, Shakespeare spent more and more time in Stratford-upon-Avon. The pace of his writing slowed as his property portfolio grew. When he died in 1616, his status was such that he could be buried inside the parish church, and a monument was raised in his honour some time after.

Bearman is especially illuminating on the intricacies of the transaction that marked the high point of Shakespeare’s financial fortune: his purchase in the summer of 1605 of a half-share in the lease of a portion of the Stratford tithes. Bearman explains how, following the Reformation, the tenth part of agricultural produce traditionally due to the parish rector became a commodity that could be bought and sold (a modern analogy might be the futures market). Shakespeare paid the very considerable sum of £440 for his entitlement. Bearman never tries to translate early-modern values into present-day equivalents, which is an impediment for the lay reader, but I would say that this equates to about £100,000.

At this point, though, the author questions the usual narrative. He notes that after 1605 Shakespeare made no other significant capital investments of this kind. A prosperous man would have kept on growing his property and investment portfolio. Furthermore, the marriages of Shakespeare’s two daughters in later years were not to wealthy or well-connected men, as they would have been if he had achieved unquestionably prominent status in his community. And, by comparing the bequests in Shakespeare’s will to those of the other lesser gentry in Stratford at the time, Bearman shows that he was by no means a rich man when he died.

Though wealth is always relative, and the dying Shakespeare still had the big house and the best and second-best beds, Bearman’s careful weighing of the evidence does suggest a trajectory of decline, as opposed to continuing prosperity in the last decade of the playwright’s life. He also points out that the notion of Shakespeare’s voluntary “retirement” to Stratford is anachronistic. Puzzles remain: why did he sell his lucrative shares in the playhouses and the acting company? What exactly were his intentions in purchasing a property in London in 1613, never having done so while he was living and working there? Above all, why did the pace of his writing slow, and why was it that, from 1612 to 1614, his only works were partial contributions to plays in which the younger dramatist John Fletcher increasingly took the upper hand?

One possible answer might connect money back to sex. From 1603 onwards, a deep vein of sexual disgust runs through several of Shakespeare’s plays – notably Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and parts of King Lear and Pericles. Again and again, there are images of sexually transmitted disease. Furthermore, there are fragments of biographical evidence from this period suggesting a whiff of scandal around Shakespeare’s name. He stopped acting with his company early in the reign of King James. And then there is the hair loss. And those references to the sweating or powdering tub in the sonnets. People with marks of the pox were kept out of the royal presence. Could it be that when King Lear – with its startling images of female genitalia as a sulphurous pit – was performed before the king at Whitehall on Boxing Night 1606, a syphilitic Shakespeare was in exile out in the country, on a path of bodily decline to that premature death on his 52nd birthday, 400 years ago?

Jonathan Bate’s “The Genius of Shakespeare” is newly republished as a Picador Classic

Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love by Jillian Keenan is published by William Morrow (352pp, $25.99). Shakespeare’s Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean? by Robert Bearman is published by Oxford University Press (196pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism