Friday, August 23, 2013

Singing Mayo Songs

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A friend of the column once told me that the real reason Mayo don’t win All-Irelands is because we don’t have songs. He is from Tipperary, and the memory of Pat Kerwick singing the Galtee Mountain Boy in the Hogan Stand when Tipp beat Kilkenny in 2010 won’t be soon forgotten by anyone who was there to hear it.

However. It is not true to say that Mayo has no songs. Of course we have songs. Our problem is that we are disinclined to sing them.

In some ways, it’s a general Irish thing. We don’t care for being noticed. So at matches, whether GAA, rugby or soccer, we are inclined to sing the anthem sotto voce, in a way that can barely be heard. This contrasts with the French, the Italians or, most impressively, the Welsh, who belt out their anthems con brio, and more luck to them.

Whatever about the national situation, it could be the thing in Mayo that we are inclined to be sheepish when it comes to singing because of the long tradition of being downtrodden in the county. It started with Cromwell and continued all our lives with the idea that the motto of the county was Mayo, God help us. Not the best of banners to bring into battle.

But the times are changing a little. A generation ago, Croke Park was a stadium for other counties to play football or hurling, while Mayo couldn’t get out of Connacht. Now, it’s as familiar to the Mayo fans as McHale Park, while St Jarlath’s Park, Tuam, a torture-chamber for the guts of half-a-century, means nothing. Not every change is a bad thing. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when Mayo take on Tyrone this weekend, we could do a bit of singing when we’re at  it?

But what to sing? The Sawdoctors’ Green and Red of Mayo is the people’s choice, despite Croke Park’s interesting decision after the Donegal game to play the N17 instead. But while it’s lovely and those booming chords are suitable for stadium rock, all proper Irish singing is done in more cosy venues, such as pubs, taverns and westward-bound buses. Without the guitars, the Green and Red of Mayo is something of a dirge.

The greatest song ever to come out of the County Mayo is Cill Aodáin, by Raifteirí. Brian Cowen, a great supporter of Irish, quoted it when declaring the 2011 election, which was about happy a moment as that unhappy man enjoyed in his Premiership.

Although a Mayoman by birth, Raifteirí spent much of his life in Galway. Cill Aodáin is the song he wrote about going home in the springtime, when nature begins to bloom and everything is looking lovely. The song lists what he’s looking forward to on his journey home and ends on a magnificent crescendo, where Raifteirí praises Cill Aodáin for all that grows there and says that were he only at home again among his people, the age would leave him and he’d be once more young:

Cill Aodáin an baile a bhfásann gach ní ann
Tá smeara is sú craobh ann is meas ar gach sórt
Is dá mbéinnse arís i gceartlár mo dhaoine
D’imeodh an aois uaim, is bhéinn arís óg.”

Beautiful. Unfortunately for our purposes, the air is tricky and there are precious few recordings of it. When You Tube lets you down, you know something is very rare indeed.

Besides, when you’re looking for a sing-song song, you need a song that people can join in. High-stepping your way through complex notes is no good to you – you want songs where people can throw the head back and let her rip.

Even though it was written to be sung by men in tuxedoes standing beside gleaming pianos, Moonlight in Mayo fits the bill for a sing-song. The thing about Moonlight in Mayo is that it’s a fun song to sing. It’s difficult to sing well, of course, but so is Danny Boy and that doesn’t seem to stop people.

Both those songs are challenges. There are big soaring notes in both – “but come ye BAAAAACKK, when summer’s in the meadow…”, “when it’s moonlight in MAYOOOOOO.” You mightn’t hit them every time, but it’s satisfying to try. Less satisfying for the unfortunates who happen to hear you try, certainly, but good old crack when you’re the one doing the lowing.

The only problem with Moonlight in Mayo is that it doesn’t feel very Mayo-y. This is explained by the fact that it was first published in the USA by Percy Wenrich and Jack Mahoney, and it’s reasonable to doubt they were local. It’s reasonable to assume that, like a good professional should, Mahoney picked Mayo for his moonlight because of that soaring “o” at the end – try singing “moonlight in Cork” to the same air and you’ll quickly discover why that wouldn’t fly.

And then, of course, there’s the actual anthem, The Boys from the County Mayo. Widely known though seldom recorded or heard sung. One reason why it’s so rarely sung, perhaps, is because it’s so long and inclined to ramble.

However. If the clever sing-song-singer performs some judicious editing, and sings only the first and last four lines, making eight in total, the Boys from the County Mayo becomes just as anthemic as we would wish it to be. The first four lines set up the love for the home place well, and that magical county is rather beautifully described as a the land of shamrock and heather – what finer plants are there?

And then we get to the business end, which is rather more like the money, with the marvellous white feather reference, the aristocratic distain for the cowardly act, the call to the brotherhood and the identification of that brotherhood with the true-hearted boys of the County Mayo. It’ll be good to hear the home voices echo through the mean streets of the capital this coming Sunday. Up Mayo.