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.