We'll leave the debates over why the Irish are such champions of the written word -- Is it the island's strong oral traditions surrounding the seanchai, or storyteller? The rich vein of Celtic folklore? The really awesome beer? -- to folks who are much smarter and more sober. The Irish count four Nobel Prize winners in Literature: Seamus Haney, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats. Meanwhile, some of the less-lauded were also quite nifty with a pen: Joyce, Swift, Wilde, Synge.
Not surprisingly, this literary aptitude frequently surfaces in the words of Ireland's music artists. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here are 10 fantastic lines from Irish songwriters:
Van Morrison - "Ballerina"
"You know I saw the writing on the wall / When you came up to me / Child, you were heading for a fall"
"Ballerina" is a sweeping, moon-eyed ode to Van Morrison's first wife, Janet Rigsbee. Few ballads can match this one's rapturous intensity; the dude had clearly fallen arse over teacups for her. But what truly makes "Ballerina" so potent is how fragments of its lyrics could apply to Morrison's religiously divided Northern Ireland, which, upon Astral Weeks' release in November of 1968, was on the brink of its own tragic fall.
The Virgin Prunes - "The Children Are Crying"
"I hear the children crying / As they all die of fever"
Fever, as in "black fever," as in typhus, a disease that causes the skin of sufferers to take on a dusky hue. Typhus was a common affliction during the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Of course, when Gavin Friday -- singer/songwriter for the Dublin post-punk outfit the Virgin Prunes -- wasn't exhibiting a bit of savagery, he was being a smart aleck. So come to think of it, 1980's "The Children Are Crying" could very well have been about disco fever.
The Divine Comedy - "Absent Friends"
"Oscar Wilde / Was a lonely child"
Over lush-yet-mushy arrangements, Neil Hannon admiringly catalogues the thespians and wordsmiths he worshipped during his youth. The Derry native cherished everything from the musings of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy to the asskickery of Steve McQueen. When Hannon pauses to tell us of Wilde's adolescent isolation, one can't help but note the tender understanding in his voice.
The Pogues - "Broad Majestic Shannon"
"So I walked as day was dawning / Where small birds sang and leaves were falling / Where we once watched the row boats landing / By the broad majestic Shannon"
Yes, I'm stretching the rules a bit. The majority of the Pogues were native English; Shane MacGowan was born in Kent and only lived in Ireland for a tiny portion of his childhood. So what? MacGowan and co. were deeply devoted to Irish themes and caricatures (Shane liked booze, like, a lot; not sure if you've ever noticed that), to Irish folk dynamics, to making the listener thoroughly wilt or spring into a waltz (often at the same time). In "Broad Majestic Shannon," MacGowan delights in Ireland's natural splendor, demonstrating that he's as much a romantic as he is a rebel.