Carrickfergus – soul song


jim mccannYesterday’s ear-worm, the traditional Irish ballad, “I wish I was in Carrickfergus” was so persistent that I dropped everything to deal with it.

The first You Tube link is the song sung by Bruce Guthro; the second by Jim McCann  (pictured above) of the Dubliners. The latter is revered by fans of the song. There is also a version by Loudon Wainright III, done for Boardwalk Empire, as well as Van Morrison and others by women, such as Joan Baez –

I have been a great lover of traditional ballads ever since those halycon days when high school curriculum loosened up in the early 70’s and such poetry was taught in English class. One of my adult children thinks I sang it, but I didn’t know the words until yesterday, so I thought she was remembering other similarly tragic ballads that I put on the record player.

If you go to Wikepedia, you get arcane tips on where the song came from, the fact that Carrickfergus is in County Antrim, which other ballads may have been melded to create it, etc. In other places, you will learn that the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole taught it to Dominic Behan who recorded it – thus bringing it to popular attention- and supposedly, added a verse of his own. On other sites, you will learn that it was written by Van Morrison, James Taylor, etc. Or perhaps it was written by an Irish poet who died in 1745. I’m tempted to say I wrote it. Why not? Usually, old ballads like this are ascribed to Anonymous and since they were orally transmitted, there are many versions. Perhaps my daughter is right about hearing the song in childhood because I have a memory of knowing how Joan Baez gave new meaning to the last two lines: Ah, but I am sick now, my days are numbered/ So come all you young men and lay me down.

The song begins:

I wish I was in Carrickfergus
Only for nights in Ballygran(d)
 I would swim over the deepest ocean
The deepest ocean for my love to find.

Some on-line commentators find “nights in Ballygran” puzzling. Really? Joan Baez makes this clearer: “I wish I had you in Carrickfergus.” Carrickfergus names a borough or wider area than the town of Ballygrand, which is located there.

Clearly, the song is about an insurmountable obstacle, which the singer first announces can be overcome by heroic effort, but then grows sadly more realistic.
But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over
And neither have I wings to fly
If I could find me a handsome (handy) boatman
To ferry me over to my love and I (and die)

Boatmen have been associated with passage to the next life ever since the Greeks put coins on the eyes of the dead to pay for ferry passage across the River Styx. (I once spent a summer holiday on the banks of this actual river – literally.)  So I think that singing and I is just a dodge to keep the crowd in the pub happy.

My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy times I spent so long ago
My boyhood (girlhood) friends and my own relations
Have passed away like melting snow

Is this the verse Behan wrote? Seems so to me.

But I’ll spend my days in endless (ceaseless) roaming
Soft is the grass and my bed is free
Ah, to be back in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the salty sea

Well, at least there was that.

And in Kilkenny it is reported
There are marble stones as black as ink (Written on stones…)
With gold and silver I did support her (he did support me)
But I’ll sing no more now till I get a drink.

I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober
A handsome rover from town to town
Ah but I’m sick now, my days are numbered
Come all ye young men and lay me down.

So happy childhood, adult prosperity, loss, exile, vagrancy and drunkenness. These verses speak to the part of me that would love to deal with such loss by staying drunk. Fortunately, this is not an overwhelming urge because I ration the pinot grigio strictly. The lines encourage empathy in me for less sober types.

Having spent the whole day with the song, listening to it over and over, I had a good grieve. Catharsis, we English teachers call it, fear and pity that cleanse the heart.

In the end, however, I fell in love with the full-throated voices of the singers, as if it were being sung by my beloved. The song is full of the deep suffering life can bring us, the dreams that get trashed, the lovers and children and houses and status lost. But, even though we may be wanderers from town to town and deeply in need of comfort, something has been guiding us to where we are, which is where we need to be.

The alternate ending to the second verse seems to me truer to the tale the singer is telling.

Macbeth and Walter White: the death of the tragic hero

This post is about the conclusion of Breaking Bad and contains spoilers.

A tragedy such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth has to end with insight for the tragic hero and catharsis for the audience. The last episode of Breaking Bad broadcast on Sunday, September 29th had both. As a result, it left its viewers stunned but satisfied.

Macbeth realized how futile his murderous efforts to seize power had been when his beloved wife and partner went mad and killed herself. He had already concluded that his power had been paid for with loss of friendship and respect:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep,

After Lady Macbeth’s death, his despair deepened:

Out, out brief candle,Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is seen no more.

Nevertheless, he whales into battle, vowing “At least we’ll die with harness on our back”. He refuses to “play the Roman fool” and fall upon his sword when it is obvious that he will lose the battle. “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be he who first cries ‘Hold, enough’.  Exeunt fighting. The next sight we have of Macbeth is his severed head, flaunted by Macduff.

He became an awful man and we are truly glad he is dead, but we are also sad and shocked by his catastrophe. Pity and fear have washed us clean.

Walter White was of the same sort of heroic stature.

His insight is clear when he confronts his wife Skylar in her downmarket accommodations. When he begins to talk about why he did it all, she says, “I don’t want to hear you say you did it for the family once more.” He continues, “I did it for myself. It made me feel alive.”

He has already arranged for his few remaining millions to be transferred to his son in trust on his 18th birthday, ostensibly from his wealthy ex- business partner and philanthropist. He sets out to rid the world of Lydia, who now owns his meth business – ricin in her stevia, Todd, Uncle Jack and his gang, in the process freeing Jesse from enslavement. He does not take revenge on Jesse when he has the opportunity nor does he force Jesse to shot him. He even acknowledges that he wants to die.

We see him in the meth lab, caressing a piece of apparatus – he loved what he achieved, 97% pure blue crystal meth. He was a brilliant chemist. Only then does he realize he has been shot – in the right lung. He falls to the floor of the lab. From high above, we see the police enter and stream around his body as the Badfinger lovingly sings, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue”.

Insight and catharsis! Like chemistry, tragedy is all about transformation.

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