Few can resist the seductive charms of a love song and down the ages Ireland has proffered its share of heart-beguiling airs. Galway author Gerry Hanberry has now taken 15 famous Irish love songs and tells the story of the women who inspired them, in his new book, On Raglan Road, published by Collins Press.
Well regarded as a poet, biographer, and musician, Hanberry draws all these strands together in On Raglan Road which offers a lively blend of scholarship, anecdote, and analysis as he ranges widely from the 17th century song ‘Úna Bhán’ to modern favourites like ‘Galway Girl’ and takes in song-smiths from Percy French to Phil Lynott.
Last Sunday afternoon I met Hanberry in his home overlooking Rusheen Bay to talk about the book and began by asking about his early days. “I’m native to Knocknacarra,” he declares. “I was born on the Ballymoneen Road when it was just a boreen with briars; it was like being out the country. There were great celebrations when the first double-decker bus came to Knocknacarra Cross because it meant we were now hooked to the city. I went to school at St Enda’s in Salthill and growing up I was really into sport and music. I played soccer for Claddagh Rangers and I was in a garage band that played around college and did support for showbands - we weren’t any good but it was good fun!
“I didn’t follow a straightforward career path. I dropped out of college and set up my own business in my late teens in Barna selling stone and brick. I did that for about 10 years and it was reasonably successful. Eventually I went back to college as a mature student, finished my degree, then fell into teaching by accident. I remember the very first day teaching, at St Enda’s, I really enjoyed it and I thought ‘I’m good at this’. I was in my mid-thirties at the time and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Hanberry has published four volumes of poetry, the most recent being What Our Shoes Say About Us (Salmon, 2014 ). He credits Rita Ann Higgins with first prompting him on the poetic path; “I remember reading 'Goddess On The Mervue Bus' and thinking ‘Wow this is poetry’. I’d always been dabbling with song lyrics and bits of lines but I hadn’t much confidence, but reading Rita Ann got me into writing and after a while I started getting published. Then I won the Brendan Kennelly/Sunday Tribune Award in 2004; that put me on the map and I started getting published more widely. I’m working on a new poetry collection now.”
Another string to the Hanberry bow was revealed with the publication in 2011 of More Lives Than One, his absorbing account of Oscar Wilde’s family and forebears. That book was also published by Collins Press and its success led to the commissioning of On Raglan Road, as Hanberry explains; “After the Wilde book Collins asked had I any ideas for another non-fiction book. I’d recently read Leonard Cohen’s biography. I was intrigued to learn there was a real Marianne and real Suzanne so I started toying with the idea about women behind the great songs of Ireland. Around the same time I also did an event with the Percy French Society about the stories of iconic Irish songs which packed out An Taibhdhearc and when I saw how well that evening went I knew the book idea was worth pursuing.”
Fifteen songs feature in the book and Hanberry reveals how they made the cut; “I had about 25 originally but there was a rigorous editorial process at Collins and they threw out a good few for various reasons. For the contemporary songwriters, like Mundy and Mick Hanley, there had to be a specific woman whom they could identify; some people found that difficult so they were ruled out. Some other songs are not about a particular woman, when you dig into them they turn out to be composites or a fiction, ‘She Moves Through the Fair’ for example. Little by little it got whittled down but it made it a tighter book in the end.”
The book abounds with fascinating detail such as ‘On Raglan Road’ stemming from Patrick Kavanagh’s infatuation with Hilda Moriarty, from Kerry. He was in his forties and she was 22 when they met and, as Hanberry says in the book, such was Kavanagh’s passion he practically ended up stalking her, to her discomfort.
“I found so many great stories in writing the book,” Gerry says. “Percy French wrote ‘Gortnamona’, about his wife who died in childbirth, as a poem and it then sat on the page until the 1950s, when the English composer Philip Green put it to music and then Brendan O’Dowda recorded it. The story of ‘Danny Boy’ is amazing, it spans centuries and continents from Limavady to Colorado. ‘Nancy Spain’ was written by Barney Rush who was only 18 at the time, and he also wrote ‘The Craic was Ninety in the Isle of Man’ around the same time. People assume that ‘Nancy Spain’ is some old folk song going back to the era of Spanish galleons but it was about a particular person, and not at all what you might imagine.”
The book’s definition of ‘love song’ extends beyond romance to include the likes of Philip Lynott’s ‘Sarah’ “There’s something about that song,” Hanberry notes. “It’s about a child, his daughter. He sings ‘you came into my life /you changed my world/my Sarah’ but the reality and sadness of it is that she didn’t change his world and he ended up dying from his drug abuse. On Shades of a Blue Orphanage he had another song titled ‘Sarah’ which was about his grandmother, who had raised him, so there are two Sarahs. It’s nearly impossible to have a family while living the rock’n’roll life.”
While several songs in the book attest to romances that were scuppered by the singer being in a rock’n’roll band, Johhny Duhan’s ‘The Voyage’ celebrates an enduring marriage. “I’m delighted to have ‘The Voyage’ in there,” Hanberry asserts. “It’s a great antidote to the whole vein of misery and death and unrequited love that runs through some of the others, it’s a song about a love story that lasts a lifetime. Lots of people love the song and it’s often played at weddings but some people criticise it for its seeming smugness about this happy marriage.
"I raised that point with Johnny when interviewing him for the book and he said you have to hear the song in the context of its album. There are several darker songs on the album about the tribulations of marriage and one of them ‘The Room’ he himself likes better than ‘The Voyage’. He sees ‘The Voyage’ as the reward for going through the difficult times.”
And what of the Steve Earle’s iconic ‘Galway Girl’, the identity of whom the book reveals? “In essence, the details in the song are true though they met in a café not the ‘old Long Walk’, Gerry replies. “Then you had the hit version of it which began when Mundy was asked to sing it with Sharon Shannon for a live show with Tom Dunne on Today FM. Mundy didn’t even know the song at the time and had to read the lyrics off a piece of paper. It was recorded live in the Róisin Dubh and the reaction on radio was so powerful that they decided to record it. I also have a chapter about Mundy’s own song ‘To You I Bestow’ and when he was telling me about it he said ‘young love is probably what moulds you, when the heart is yearning it speaks volumes’. I think that quote works for a lot of the songs in the book.”
On Raglan Road will be officially launched at the Róisin Dubh on Saturday October 8 at 2pm with a free concert featuring Johnny Duhan, Mundy, John Conneely, Aindrias de Staic and others. The book is available now from all good bookshops.
Aside from his books, Gerry Hanberry dons his ‘musician hat’ for Saturday night sessions in Richardson’s Bar in Eyre Square and he also performs as part of the Atlantic Rhythm Section along with Pat Collins and Justin McCarthy.