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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

St. Patrick's Day for the Family: How To Avoid PG-13 Drinking Songs and Worse

Posted By on Tue, Mar 15, 2011 at 8:41 AM

Dad Rock is a new column in which Ryan Foley will attempt to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to

I got a feeling / That tonight's gonna involve a lot of dead Englishmen
  • I got a feeling / That tonight's gonna involve a lot of dead Englishmen

During precious free time, I've been rereading Brendan Behan's Confessions of an Irish Rebel. For those unfamiliar with Behan, he essentially embodies the bold, Fenian warrior-poet image Shane MacGowan has spent an entire lifetime staggering after.

One of Confession's droller anecdotes involves an adolescent Behan and his grandmother escorting an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Mary Murphy, around Dublin for one final day of getting beery and bleary before she's exiled to the Hospice for the Dying. At the first pub, granny suggests that Behan have a bit of porter, the rationale being that tasting it now will remove any temptation to try it later in life.

Boy, does this backfire on her. Behan ends up giving his eight-year-old liver a thorough punishing -- the first of thousands -- and leaves the last pub "twisted, as the saying has it, physically as well as in the other way; my head was sunk on my left shoulder." Which leads to this exchange between a passerby and Behan's grandmother:

"That's a beautiful boy. 'Tis a pity he's deformed."

"That child is not deformed. He's just got a couple of drinks taken."

Look, the pubs are no place for kids, something many of us need to be reminded of as St. Patrick's Day approaches. It's not solely because of the potential for deformity or because the dimly lit, alcohol-soaked bedlam in your typical pub -- particularly on March 17 -- will likely assault a kid's delicate senses. It's also not because children are terrible at executing a proper pint run, as their tiny hands allow them to carry only one glass at a time from the bar to your thirsty table. And it's certainly not because the kitchen help won't let you use the microwave out back to heat up formula.

It's chiefly on account of the pub music they will be exposed to. Have you ever really listened to the acoustic folk played at that brightly painted, bric-a-brac-filled, unpronounceably named Irish pub you visit every St. Patrick's Day? Characterizing the Irish as a group with a penchant for bloodshed is unfair. What you can maintain is that the Irish have a gift for sentimentalizing bloodshed within the context of three-minute guitar ballads. 

There are Irish folk songs about killing Englishmen on the battlefield ("Boolavogue"), the proper attire for killing Englishmen ("Broad Black Brimmer"), saying goodbye to a loved one before heading off to kill Englishmen ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley"), and road trips to go kill Englishmen ("Johnson's Motor Car"). The English would be embarrassed by all the attention if they weren't so busy tugging their collars and gulping nervously.

And then there's the drinking songs -- my goodness! All those wet-brained odes to drowning yourself in alcohol, wiping your mouth with the back of your hand, and searching for a girl of mediocre stature and questionable morals to throw you a life preserver: "Maloney Wants a Drink," "The Parting Glass," "I'm a Rover," "The Craic was Ninety in the Isle of Man." The Irish make the simple act of bending one's elbow and tipping back a glass of tar-colored liquid sound exceptionally glorious. Unsurprisingly, the morning after is never romanticized: the bad Chinese takeout, the dried vomit in the hair, getting pepper-sprayed by that cop.

Irish folk is often invested in a grotesque caricature: Irishmen caught in the grips of those "twin Celtic streaks of excitability and lack of restraint," to quote writer James Charles Roy. It gets away with this effortless typecasting because the listener is made to believe this music is intimately linked with the Irish narrative. That cold and controlled fury, how the pub is a departure point from everyday existence, the manner in which the island's ghosts hold sway over the present -- all expressed in the songs listed above -- are merely the legacies of Ireland's tragic history. Whether you buy into it is not nearly as crucial as the fact that you can buy into it, as all the evidence is there (i.e., eight centuries of having the English up their asses) to suggest that the Irish can be a turbulent, escape-seeking race. 

That's why, this St. Patrick's Day, you won't hear pub ditties about playfully holding down Englishmen and giving them noogies, or about joining the temperance movement and swapping whiskey for Yoo-Hoo.

However, lighthearted fare does exist. Check out these G-rated, squeaky-clean numbers free of the blood and booze so inappropriate for young ears. On Thursday, shout out requests for them during breaks in set lists. Then urge the little ones to sing along!

• Written by Irish Times jazz critic George Desmond Hodnett, "Monto (Take Her Up to Monto)" finds its narrator penetrating deep into the Dublin district of the same name. Filled with flashy characters and stimulating slang, it's a "come-all-you" invitation to the neighborhood.

• A possible nod to Ireland's agriculture-based past, "The Thrashing Machine" details the hard-working collaboration between a farmer and his pretty, barely legal servant, Nell. Proper use of the thrashing machine, we learn, removed the dreadful drudgery from farm work.

• "Could I mend a rusty hole that never held a drop?" inquires the titular character of "The Jolly Tinker." Well, it turns out the servant he's politely asking has much cookware in need of plugging. And my, does our man know the ins and outs of fixing pots and pans!

• "He's got no faloorum / He's lost his ding-doorum." There's no mention of little blue pills in "Maids When You're Young Never Wed an Old Man," so it's not about what you're thinking. Not about that at all.

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