Many of you know me well enough by now to realize that I often drift terribly into that maudlin Celtic zone peopled by the ghosts of the coffin ships of the Famine, slow, very sad airs on cheap fiddles, ballads with 40 verses of homesickness, lust and longing, the sound of a midnight version of "Danny Boy,” distant war pipes, the shadow of the GPO a century ago, green waves dying on deserted beaches of the west, the sound of the evening Angelus. All that kind of stuff.
Most of us who were born and bred in Ireland have been at least slightly tinted by that brush. I confess to being deeply pigmented altogether. Mea maxima culpa to those it offends.
What is far worse, though, is that I deploy that sentimental zone very deliberately on some occasions and feel guilty about it afterwards. I make the further confession here and now, for example, that I grinned almost evilly and malevolently some days ago when I read that Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Ireland in a matter of weeks and that it is now beyond doubt that his ancestors were from Mayo, that most unique of the Connacht counties.
Because, you see, no matter how powerful Joe Biden is today I know I have the power to send tears streaming down his face; maybe even to have him break down and weep in public during his Irish visit or, indeed, when he is attending any Irish American gathering before or after that, especially one with a significant number of Mayo for present. Believe it or not.
Here is the explanation. However maudlin I may behave, often in prose I am much more lethal as a songwriter.
Down the years, because of my family background, I have produced a slew of the most woefully maudlin and sentimental ballads ever composed. Dreadful stuff.
It is also true, however, that, totally by creative accident, from the depths of that strange place, that I have produced just three songs that are great yokes entirely for sending streams of tears down Irish and indeed German faces.
The first of these is my “Christmas in the Trenches” 1916 ballad about the impromptu soldiers' truce on the edge of No Man's Land. First time I sang it in the Crane Bar in Galway years ago now there were middle-aged German visitors in the house and they all visibly wept and bought me pints all evening. I enjoyed that very much.
I sing my second maudlin opus called “The Leaving” every second night of the week at this time of the year, and that is certainly evil enough.
For those of you who don't know already the final high school state examination here is called the Leaving Cert. The teenagers who pass it have to move away from home to universities a few months later. Many of them have to emigrate for work after they qualify.
I am a poor singer with a nicotined voice but, God forgive me, when I set it free in a singsong all the mothers losing their sons and daughters to the world almost audibly sob.
It gets worse than that too because the last verse features an old man lying in a geriatric ward watching statues on the wall and waiting to do his final leaving of this world. Dreadful pathos but it works and, frankly, I love singing it very slowly and distinctly so that they catch every word.
My lovely balladeer friend Mai Hernon over there does a great version of it. If you are feeling strong ask her to sing it next time you meet her.
And my final homespun ballad is the one which will send tears down Joe Biden's face when he hears it on either side of the Atlantic. God forgive me but I am about to release it to all you ballad singers over there -- free gratis -- so you may get the chance to deploy it yourself in his company. And watch his face change.
The Mayo reality, as ye well know, is that no county community in the diaspora is so successful, so proud and progressive and so mutually supportive as the people with Mayo blood in their veins. They have reached the highest levels of American society, many of them are millionaires and more, and they always have looked after each other at all times.
The cruel world reality, however, is that a tiny percentage of them, despite all the support available, somehow failed to make it and, in clichéd terms, slid down Skid Row to end their lives in the Hell's Kitchens.
That hurts the Mayo spirit more than it hurts the descendants of any other county and that is why, when I sing this song in any pub in Mayo at any time of year the atmosphere becomes highly emotional. About every family is aware of the stories of those who did not make it as fully as they are aware of the success and status of such as Joe Biden and thousands more.
Balladeers, with my full permission, ceding all royalties and rights, take this ballad away with you. I have my own air but you attach some slow air of your choice to your version and away you go, especially if Joe Biden is in the room!
For what it is worth I have changed the details but this comes from a genuine encounter a decade ago in New York with a man from Louisburgh who had not made the grade and was very sad indeed and lonesome for home.
Here it is:
The man that I work for in this hotel in Boston,
He once was a good friend and comrade of mine,
Together we worked in the Fifties and Sixties,
Until he hit his jackpot and I hit the wine,
Now he gives me a bed tucked away in the basement,
And I search through the bins for the things his guests lose,
But not I am shaking and my heart is breaking,
For I've just found a copy of the old Mayo News.
For it’s a long hard fall from the Reek to the reeking,
Of the bins in the basement of Hotel Du Cain,
Where I live on the crumbs that fall from a wealthy man's table,
And I'll never be able to see Mayo again.
On the front page is Margaret that once was my sweetheart,
With her husband and son with degree qualified,
And she is still smiling still just as beguiling,
As that day long ago on Croagh Patrick's brown side,
Hand in hand through the heather we wandered together,
I swore I'd return soon to make her my own,
With Clew Bay before us we heard the Dawn Chorus,
Like a king and a queen on a heavenly throne.
The forks and the spoons that I find in the refuse,
I sell back to the kitchen a dozen a time,
Thank God I've a few now, enough for to do now,
For the thin sour comfort of a bottle of wine,
And I'm sitting here thinking and sitting here drinking,
My head bent down over my broken old shoes,
And like the rain falling, round Croagh Patrick squalling,
My tears patter down on that old Mayo News.
See what I mean. Try it out yourself and see the effect.