Friday, July 03, 2015

Val Doonican, and the Fight for Irish Freedom

Val Doonican did at least as much for Anglo-Irish relations as the Queen’s visit, that spurious rugby game in Croke Park, or the existence in material reality of Roy Maurice Keane, Junior. That fact is not widely known in this country, for different reasons, but it should be. Val Doonican is a hero, in his way, and should be celebrated as such.

Not even Val Doonican’s most ardent admirer could deny that the man was born square. Val Doonican was never cool. The jumpers, the rocking chairs, the songs – Delaney’s Donkey, Paddy McGinty’s Goat – no. There is no hipster willing to carry the charade through to that extent. But, in the long and troubled history of two islands in the North Atlantic, Val Doonican provided a bridge when it was needed.

We know there was huge emigration from Ireland to Britain during the war and after. We sing songs about it all the time. But what was that experience like, really? What was it like for someone who had grown up on the side of a mountain to find him or herself living in a terraced house in Blackburn, Lancashire?

There was a marvellous story in the Bullaí Máirtín collection called Peadaí Gaelach Eile, about a man about to go to London to make his fortune but who finds out just how much of a fish out of water he’s going to be before he even leaves home.

It was hard on that generation. They never liked to speak of it themselves, because it was humiliating for them. The current generation doesn’t like to think of it, because they seem to have trouble conceiving of people who are not themselves.

It’s interesting as well that the literature of those who built up and tore England down after the Second World War seems stronger in Irish than in English. Where are the English language equivalents of the navvying memoirs of Domhnall Mac Amhlaigh or Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé?

Nobody wanted to go on the record about how hard it was to come from rural poverty to a major industrial city. And nobody wants to think about the Irish being considered in England the way the Romanians are considered here. Dirty, stinking, going around in gangs, leaving their rubbish lying around, speaking gibberish, not to be trusted.

And then, in the mid-sixties, one of those dirty, stinking Irish people got himself a variety TV show on prime time with the BBC. He wasn’t dirty. He was very well turned out, always with his hair cut and clean and nice sweater on him. He sang comic songs with a twinkle in his eye.

And maybe, after watching the Val Doonican Show on TV, maybe some Englishman heard his Irish neighbours the next day and detected that trace of Doonican in them. Maybe the way they spoke wasn’t gibberish; maybe it was actually a lot like that chap on the television. I wonder could any of them sing songs as well?

What was Val Doonican worth to the Irish community in Britain in the ‘seventies, when the bombs were going off in Birmingham and Guilford and in the car park of the Houses of Parliament themselves? How reassuring was it for the ordinary British person to hear of Delaney’s Donkey winning the half-mile race after the newscaster had just told them that the IRA had just admitted responsibility for the bombing of another bar, resulting in five killed and seven maimed?

Yes, Val Doonican wasn’t very cool. No, Delaney’s Donkey isn’t quite Carrickfergus. But Val Doonican was, by all accounts, a very lovely man who asked for little from life and brought happiness and security to millions and millions. Very, very few of us will get to say that we we are brought to account on the Last Day. Suaimhneas síoraí na bhFlaithis dó.