One of the songs most beloved of the sentimental and the drunk alike is Danny Boy, the archetypal Irish ballad dripping with pathos from its famous opening lines:” Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, From glen to glen, and down the mountain side”. In fact, songs about Ireland have often combined two themes – the lament of the exiled and emigrant romanticising their homeland and the magical and mysterious rural Ireland rooted in ancient cultures. Songs that painted pictures of a never-never land of rolling green fields, misty mountains, Guinness in country pubs served by a red-haired colleen and a hint of leprechaun have always found a ready market in England and the USA. One of the best-selling acts in the British charts in the sixties were The Bachelors, who had more hits than the Beatles in 1964 by laying on the Irish charm and whimsy thicker than butter on soda bread. (In 1966 , rather bizarrely, their version of Sounds of Silence outsold Simon & Garfunkel’s in Britain). In a post-punk era, groups like The Pogues may have had a harder, less romantic, edge but songs like A Pair of Brown Eyes could still lament “the streams, the rolling hills ,Where his brown eyes were waiting”.
Equally a recurrent theme in songs has been a nostalgic sense of loss voiced by those living and working overseas and who sought to recreate Ireland elsewhere. Songs that range from the purely sentimental to the ambiguous-the Pogues’ Thousands Are Sailing - to the dark bitterness of Christy Moore’s Missing You:"So you sail cross the ocean, away cross the foam, to where you're a Paddy, a Biddy or a Mick, good for nothing but stacking a brick”
The song here, N17, first released by the Saw Doctors in 1989, combines both themes in a infectiously joyful ode to the trunk road that goes through Sligo and Galway. An echo of Watford Gap and Driving Away from Home but with a more romantic setting. Over the last 20 years the Saw Doctors have produced a string of Irish folk/rock songs, often based round their home area of Tuam and County Galway. At times, you think that songs like The Green and Red of Mayo or Never Mind the Strangers might topple into sentimental cliché. What stops that, apart from the general upbeat and uplifting mood of much of their music, is the little snapshots of everyday life in the lyrics and the wry humour behind much of the observations, as in Music I Love –“ I've tried going to disco, throwing shapes on the floor, nothing ever happens. I don't go any more. Girls never know what I'm talking about, so I think I'll just take the easy way out. I'll just sit in my room with all the lights off, my mother and father think I'm gone daft .I stay home with the music I love”
N17 became one of their perennial sing-along anthems. As with many other songs about Ireland, it is written from an exile’s perspective ,of someone daydreaming on the filthy overcrowded trains of the stone walls and the grasses green. Yet it also recognises the usual truth behind such yearning: “I know things would be different if I ever decide to go back”. The same truism as in Kari Bremnes’ Song to a Town: you return at your peril as a stranger.
Even with the Saw Doctors, it seems sometimes hard to escape the clichés about Ireland. Yet cliches are usually just such because they are based on some sort of common experience and it is not difficult to find the Ireland of these songs. I once went on a holiday in Sligo in a caravan drawn by a monster of a horse called Ross who, over-dosed on oats, took out a farm gatepost in his urgent desire to get into the field. Maybe I expected to see what I saw because of the songs but there really were rolling green fields and the misty mountain of Knocknarea and country pubs where people with accordions and concertinas, fiddles and pipes wandered in for a ceilidh.
I don’t remember the N17 in that slow meander round Sligo. However, in the last week I have experienced the “twists and turns on the road” of the N20,further south near Cork, sitting in a mini-bus with a group of Finns and Poles as heads bounced off the ceiling with the bumps and swerves as the driver gave assurance he was only driving slowly, mind. Yet there was a feeling of going back in time, to the past as a foreign country- and perhaps a sense of the never-never land hovering somewhere just out of sight.
Link to song