As with any capital city, a visitor goes to Dublin with a mental list of what they expect or want to see. Probably the Guinness Store House; the Book of Kells; the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey; Dublin castle; the Temple Bar; perhaps O’Connell Street with the General Post Office that was the HQ of the 1916 rebellion. They will probably also bring, again as with other capitals, notions drawn from a history of books, films, plays and songs about the place.
The best known songs are probably traditional ones. The tune of Molly Malone, for example, has become part of a general consciousness and sometimes the first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘Dublin’. The lines starting ‘ She wheels her wheel barrow ...’ have become not only a ubiquitous chant at football matches, with a team name replacing the cockles and mussels bit, but have also been heard at political demonstrations (‘ She wheels her wheel barrow through the streets broad and narrow, crying...smash the bourgeoisie’). It was one of a whole genre of songs that helped to imbue a very traditional view of the place, continued in a score of bar-room ballads and rollicking sing-a-long choruses. In 1967 folk group the Dubliners hit the UK charts with two traditional songs, Black Velvet Band and Seven Drunken Nights, (though they were only allowed to sing about five of them on TV and radio). They also, very satisfyingly, looked just like what many people imagined Dubliners would look like.
This notion of an older Dublin continued to exist like the underlay of a photograph alongside the rise of newer images, whether that of a cosmopolitan and cultured European city with the euro and an early no-smoking ban or awareness of the emaciated heroin addicts in central Dublin or the large housing estates. This notion saw cobbled streets and elegant Georgian houses, fiddlers in traditional pubs and earnest drunken discussions about Joyce and Yeats over Guinness. Some songs continued to reflect this Dublin. Loreena McKennitt’s Dickens’ Dublin (The Palace) brought back to life a city from 150 years before:” I'll huddle in this doorway here till someone comes along. If the lamp lighter comes real soon ,maybe I'll go home with him.” The 19th Century Rocky Road to Dublin, recorded by the Dubliners in the early 60’s – “Cut a stout black thorn to banish ghosts and goblins; bought a pair of brogues rattling o'er the bogs and fright'ning all the dogs on the rocky road to Dublin” - , has been covered by scores of artists, including the Pogues and the Rolling Stones.
The song that I associate most with Dublin, however, is not the Dubliners singing about Dublin nor the others mentioned. It is not actually a song about Dublin as such but one originally recorded in Dublin by a Dublin born artist who I first saw there and so, I think, counts as a personal link between listener and place. The song is Mmm by Laura Izibor, and this live version comes from a 2007 performance at the city’s Crawdaddy Club in Harcourt Street. To my mind she rates as one of the finest and most interesting soul singers of recent years – best heard solo at keyboards or piano, I feel - and some of her songs like I Dont Want You Back and Don’t Stay show a style that has echoes of artists like Carole King and Roberta Flack.
She is not, of course, the first black Dubliner in music - Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Samantha Mumba came before – but she follows her own path in a changing country, though with her Irish accent sometimes causing surprise overseas. In an interview in 2009 she reported a typical response in America: ‘They've got black people in Ireland? Y'all live there and shit?'. She has done later versions of this song but the audience participation gives an added dimension to this one. Plenty of songs have been recorded live and many are also done with an eye on rabble rousing anthems that would get a live audience joining in: Queen were masters at that. What is less common is a recorded song where the audience are already an integral part. One of the few was by Chuck Berry, who had his sole Number One hit in 1972 - not, surprisingly, with Johnny B Goode or Roll Over Beethoven but with My Ding A Ling, recorded live with a student audience supplying the chorus. (Given the era , the students in the clip below seem to be remarkably fresh faced and clean cut!)
Cities have their own sounds. Maybe it would be traffic and sirens in New York; church bells in parts of Paris or Rome; the distant sound of the carousel in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Probably it should be the sound of a fiddle or accordion in Dublin – but I will settle for ‘mmm’.