Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dead ducks, depression, and "Danny Boy"

For the third year in a row, Foley's Irish Pub in New York City has declared a general ban on the singing of "O Danny Boy" on St. Patrick's Day.

Myself, I'm completely in favor of this ban.  "O Danny Boy" has got to be one of the sappiest, smarmiest, most overplayed songs in the world.  With its leaps of a sixth, soaring high notes, and maudlin words, there's nothing like it for catering to the tipsy, misty-eyed Missin' the Auld Sod crowd.

Never mind that it wasn't written by an Irishman.  It was written by an English lawyer, Frederick Edward Weatherly, who not only wasn't Irish but allegedly never even set foot in Ireland.  Apparently many Irish (and Irish wannabees) don't know this or don't care, because it's become de rigueur on St. Patrick's Day.

Not, however, in Foley's Pub.  Owner Sean Clancy (which sounds a wee bit more Irish than "Frederick Edward Weatherly," doesn't it now?), a native of County Cavan, is so heartily sick of "O Danny Boy" that he'll give a free pint of Guinness to anyone who sings an Irish song for the patrons of his pub on St. Patrick's Day -- with the exception of "O Danny Boy."

According to Clancy, "It's overplayed, it's been ranked amongst the 25 most depressing songs of all time, and it's more appropriate for a funeral than for a St. Patrick's Day celebration."

To which I say, "Hear, hear."  Well, except for the fact that most Irish songs are kinda depressing.  Lessee, what will we sing instead?  How about "Four Green Fields:"

"There was war and death, plundering and pillage,
My children starved, by mountain, valley, and sea,
And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens,
My four green fields ran red with their blood, said she."

Yeah, that'd be uplifting.  How 'bout "Nell Flaherty's Drake?"

"May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig,
May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail;
May his turkey not hatch, may the rats eat his meal
May every old fairy from Cork to Dunleary
Dip him, smug and airy, in river and lake,
That the eel and the trout, they may dine on the snout
Of the monster who murdered Nell Flaherty's drake."

Lovely.  Dead ducks and fish nibbling on drowning victims.  Happy St. Paddy's!  Here, have a pint!

Okay, how about "Two Sisters?"  That at least has a nice, swingy little reel as its melody:

"The miller he was hanged on the mountain head, sing-I-down, sing-I-day,
The miller he was hanged on the mountain head, the boys are bound for me,
The miller he was hanged on the mountain head, the eldest sister was boiled in lead,
I'll be true unto my love, if he'll be true to me."

Makes me homesick for the Auld Country, it does.  Especially when you know that what had preceded this verse is that the eldest sister was jealous of the youngest, who had attracted the attentions of a man (predictably named "Johnny"), so the eldest sister had pushed the youngest into the mill stream.  The miller ran afoul of the law when he pulled the youngest sister out of the water, "stole her gay gold ring," and then pushed her in again.

Ah, the charms of Celtic music.

It seems that the Irish are just completely unable to write a song that's not depressing.  Even "Cockles and Mussels," the bouncy and perky unofficial theme song of Dublin, is about a beautiful fishmonger who gets a fever and dies.  I guess, given their rather horrid history, it's understandable; if your country had been oppressed and starved for six hundred years by a foreign power, your leaders shot, hanged, or exiled, your religion, language, and culture the subject of a campaign of eradication, you'd be a little bitter, too.

Still, you have to wonder why these songs remain so popular.  The tunes are nice, catchy, and easy to remember, that's got to be part of it.  But I think it's more than that.  Maybe it's the consolation that comes from knowing that however miserable your life is, there are people who have it worse.  Consider "On We Go," set to a beautiful minor-key reel, whose lyrics are about an old woman and an old man.  The gist of it is that the old woman gets her husband drunk and drowns him in the pond.  Perhaps the line of reasoning is, "Well, you know, maybe we Irish have been oppressed for centuries, but at least my wife hasn't drowned me yet."

So today, when you raise a pint in honor of Ireland, and sing, "... the summer's gone, and all the leaves are dying, 'tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide... So come ye back, when summer's in the meadow, or when the valley's hushed and white with snow; and I'll be there, in sunshine or in shadow, O Danny Boy, O Danny Boy, I love you so," you can remember that (1) it's spring and the flowers haven't even started yet, and (2) anyone who went by the nickname "Danny Boy" had to be kind of a git anyway.  Oh, yes, and (3) you have made it through another day without being boiled in lead, your significant other drowning you, the fields running red with your blood, or an eel eating your nose.

So drink up, and Happy St. Paddy's.

2 comments:

  1. "if your country had been oppressed and starved for six hundred years by a foreign power, your leaders shot, hanged, or exiled, your religion, language, and culture the subject of a campaign of eradication, you'd be a little bitter, too."

    But enough about the Native Americans.

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  2. I have a little furry eel biting at my heels today. Fer sure. Now I feel depressed. I need a drink. Will watch for falling eels.

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