SSIMHTW: Weekend Irish by Barleyjuice

The Song Stuck In My Head This Week is… “Weekend Irish,” by Barleyjuice.

My grandfather came over on the boat from Bray, in County Wicklow. Other than inheriting his shillelagh, I regret not talking to him more about our heritage. By the time I was old enough, he was mostly in his cups, and we did little more than watch pro wrestling together.

Later, I got into the Pogues and I still like trad Irish music and Celtic rock. Barleyjuice is such a band from Philly, and this is one of their best songs. It gets stuck in my head quite often.

Their mp3 album The Barleyjuice Irish Collection is an incredible bargain, 32 songs for $8.99, and I quite enjoy it. Time to loop it and get this song out of my head.

Frank McCourt, R.I.P.

Frank McCourt, the treasured autobiographer who painted for us the most stunning portrait of a man rising from boyhood misery to a life worth reading about, has passed away due to meningitis at the age of 78. Firecracker and I had just spoken about him; to hear a reading, or attend a book signing, or see his play A Couple of Blaguards. The next day his brother Malachy, an enjoyable writer in his own right, shared that Frank was not well, and wasn’t expected to last long. Frank’s legacy is written in his memoirs Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man.

The first was made into a well-known film that could only hope to capture the brutal poetry of the book. The thing was, the McCourts’ childhood wasn’t unique for the time. Fathers were prone to drink, and both worked and spoke with their hands. His was hardly there at all. His mother worked like mad just to keep them fed. What was unique was that Frank and Malachy not only survived such a childhood but transcended it, and became men who elevated not only their own kin, but all of us with their storytelling and lives as teachers and politicians. I recently finished Malachy’s History of Ireland, which is told through its people. Though not as detailed, it captured in short order what a huge historical tome I’ve struggled with was trying to do- give the history of Ireland from long before the Troubles to its current stage as the “Celtic Tiger,” clawing for footholds in our economic crisis. They are modern Irish bards, and we’re honored by their tales.

I haven’t read ‘Tis or the rest due to my own neurotic reading habits; I have a library’s worth of book backlog and I try not to read the same author too often. I have to read 3 books before I let myself buy a new one, and I’m still up to my neck in them. But I’ll make an exception for Mr. McCourt. My grandfather came from Bray in County Wicklow, and I visited the ancestral home a few years back. I consider myself plain old American but I’m grateful for my Irish heritage, which reading Angela’s Ashes made me want to explore. So thank you Frank, not only for sharing your own life, but making me respect those of my forebears, and the struggles they made in getting here to make me.

A 5th century cross on a skellig island off County Kerry

I thought of your book recently when Firecracker and I visited the Irish Hunger Memorial near Battery Park in New York. I remember you saying that as young children, you laughed at the idea of eating grass, like they did during the Famine; it’s part of the absurdity of poverty. It leads people to do things you can only consider absurd, and poverty is especially absurd in its own right when it exists only so that others can live in luxury beyond imagination. Malachy ran as the Green party candidate for Governor of New York, so the McCourts continue to give back to us more than they ever got. Here’s saying thanks one more time.

I raise this beer to you, Frank McCourt; we knew you were in heaven an hour before the devil knew you were dead.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People

Oh singin’s no sin, and drinkin’s no crime, if you have one drink only, just one at at a time.

As an adult, The Quiet Man (full review) is my favorite Irish fantasy, but as a kid, nothing could beat Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Sean Connery with fearsome eyebrows as a young man taking over the job of Darby as groundskeeper, because the old feller sees leprechauns a little too often. Well, being a Disney movie he ain’t drunk or crazy. And for the ’50s, the effects are pretty impressive. Enough to keep our little butts planted in front of the boob tube every St. Patrick’s Day.

Darby holdin’ court at the pub

Between this and The Gnome-Mobile (based on a book by Upton Sinclair, of all people) Disney had the short people racket cornered, and we loved it. Darby O’Gill’s story is simple- we’re thrust into a picaresque Irish village, where Darby tells tall tales at the pub every night about the faerie folk while his daughter pines away for a husband. He’s getting on in years and chews the fat more than he cuts the turf, so his employer forces him into retirement, bringing in a young and sturdy replacement as the new caretaker. That’s a job wanted by mean old lady Sugrue for her bully of a son Pony Sugrue, and she begins conniving forthwith against newcomer Michael McBride.

“Marry me, and I’ll stop singing!”

That’s Sean Connery, a few years before Bond, and a perfect catch for Katie O’Gill (cutie Janet Munro, Bertie from Swiss Family Robinson, who died far too young). She’s a bit fiery and distant until she catches him singing while swinging the scythe with his manly arms. It’s almost unfortunate that this is a Disney movie, because Connery looks like he’s barely able to contain his devilish demeanor. With his expressive eyebrows and grin, we expect a shotgun wedding any moment, but he’s a perfect gentleman.

She needs a man, she’s been churnin’ that thing all day.

The story begins in earnest when Darby tells the pub how he once caught the King of the Little People, King Brian, up at the castle ruins on the hill one evening. He even got his wish of a crock of gold, before he was tricked into making a fourth, and forfeit them all. But King Brian hasn’t forgotten him- and when he learns that he’s being put out to pasture, he puts a glamor on Darby’s horse so he knocks him down a well that leads to the land of the Little People. Down there, the King tells him he must stay forever. Thus begins the best part of the story- how the 4,000-year old king of the leprechauns and clever old gaffer Darby O’Gill, as they continually trick each other.

insert Fiddler’s fart joke here

First Darby has to trick his way out to the real world again, and once he does, he needs to keep King Brian (the perfectly cast Jimmy O’Dea) from dragging him back, so they have a whiskey-drinking and rhyming contest till dawn. Once there’s daylight, the leprechaun’s powers are gone, and Darby just needs to sic the barn cat on him to get his way. From then on he’s got the king in a sack, and the battle is on to see if he can get any of his wishes before the King can make him waste them all! It’s great fun, interspersed with the chaste romance of Katie and Michael, set on the Disney backlots with some nice matte paintings reminiscent of Ireland. Having been there, the castles and ruins stood out as unlikely, but I could imagine a ring fort instead.

“I’ll not be yer fancy feast!”

Once we’ve had all our fun with a leprechaun in a sack, it’s time for Sheelah Sugrue and Pony to start their mischief, turning Katie against Michael with chicanery, so she flees on the mountain road on the night the banshee howls. That banshee scared the shamrocks out of me as a kid. Now I have my grandfather’s shillelagh and a belt of Jameson handy to protect me, but back then it was good for a nightmare or two! The story turns true to its fairy tale roots then, as the banshee haunts poor Katie, and the Death Coach comes for her. Darby’s fight for his daughter’s life could be right from the classic deal with the devil, and not even King Brian can save him from his fate- or can he?

The banshee, source of many childhood nightmares

Sure it’s cheesy Disney, but it’s one of their best live-action fantasy films. It takes a while to take off, but it’s good clean fun. The perspective effects are quite good, and when they’re not- such as when it’s an obvious doll being thrown into Darby’s gunny sack, or a hilariously fake little arm fending off the cat- it just makes it even more endearing. The glow effects for the Death Coach and the Banshee are very dated, but work in this case- they’re used sparingly and in misty darkness. And when you see the banshee’s face, it’s still creepy 50 years later. For the adults, there’ll always be John Wayne having to prove his mettle to Maureen O’Hara- a movie with nearly as idyllic a view of Ireland as this one- but for the kids, watching Darby O’Gill play his fiddle for a roomful of leprechauns is still great fun.

Death Coach for Cutie

3 out of four leaf clovers

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

There are movies from your childhood that will always stand high on the pedestal of wonder, filtered through the lens of nostalgia, to which newer ones can never compare. For me, one of those was The Dark Crystal by Jim Henson’s crew; a world entirely without humans that felt incredibly real. A place you might like to visit, but only if you had a ticket home. Another was Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, which posited that behind the walls and closet doors of our flimsy world were a maze of wormholes that could take you anywhere in time, or even to realms of fantasy. And if I were 11 again, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army would be on that list.

The movie isn’t perfect; it begins at its low point, where we see a goofy-looking young Hellboy with his surrogate father, Professor Broom (John Hurt, the go-to man for grizzled elderly) from the previous movie, being told a bedtime story- this is where we learn the legend of the ancient war between humans and fairytale-kind, and how we were defeated by the Golden Army. They got the forests, and we got the cities, but as you know, we’ve become quite greedy for land in the last thousand years… del Toro tells the story briefly with wooden little automatons, which quickly makes you forget the campiness of young Hellboy and his buck teeth.

From there the movie is an adventure through del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s world, where rebel elf-price Nuada attacks an auction house with a huge boar-like henchman and a swarm of hungry “tooth fairies.” Like in the original Hellboy, it doesn’t pay to be a human agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the folks who “bump back” at things that go bump in the night. They get visits from the tooth fairy, and it’s not to leave a quarter under their pillows.

Hellboy’s girlfriend Liz Sherman the firegirl (Selma Blair) and boss Jeffrey Tambor are having trouble with “Big Red.” Only Abe the fish-man seems to get along with him. So the Feds send in Johann Krauss (voiced perfectly by Seth McFarlane of Family Guy fame), a wisp of ectoplasmic smoke in a suit, to reign him in. We learn little about Krauss, but like Tambor in the first film, clashes with Hellboy’s need for recognition for his heroic deeds and his brash style, but they find a mutual respect by the end. As in the first one, we get romantic subplots but they never slow the film down or sidetrack the plot. There’s a hilarious duet of Barry Manilow by two men in the doghouse in the middle that hits the perfect tone for the characters. Like the X-Men, Abe, Liz and Hellboy just want to fit in; unlike X-Men, it’s much less dramatic here, and we aren’t force-fed eye-rolling allusions to civil rights issues. The characters are allowed to blossom without plot-driven acts of stupidity getting in their way.

Krauss helps them find the Troll Market, which just happens to be underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the major set piece of the film, and lives up to the hype that other critics, like Ebert, have gushed forth. In every little cranny of the scene is something you’d like to zoom in on, and I imagine the DVD will be stunning. The Hellboy 3-disc Director’s Cut box set was full of amazing extras, and this movie might fill 3 Blu-Ray discs to show us all the creature designs. The scene resembles the bazaars of old 30’s pictures as they ask around for clurs, some sneaking, some chatting, and Hellboy smacking goons around. I’m sure there’s computer-generated effects here, but everything looked so real that you can’t tell where costumes end and computers begin.

Later on there’s a fight with a huge forest god in lower Manhattan that must be CG, but it never looks like it. We’ve seen Cloverfield trash the city, but del Toro takes a different tack, making Hellboy dash through stalled traffic with a baby in one hand and a big gun in the other, dodging tossed cars and debris as he fights the enraged creature. It’s like the end scene of The Untouchables played for laughs, and it works.

Action scenes aside, Hellboy 2‘s great triumph is that when it shows us hidden underworlds beneath Manhattan and Ireland, I believed in it. It’s fantastic without being ridiculous; we know there are mole people and 175 feet of tunnels in layers down there hiding sewers and abandoned subway stations, who’s to say there’s not a troll market? And he makes great use of Ireland’s rocky knolls for a wonderful scene at the Giant’s Causeway. When you walk the broad expanses of the Irish countryside, you do feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of giants, and they make great use of it here. The final showdown with the eponymous golden army is a return to del Toro’s love of clockworks like the device in Cronos; I remember seeing that movie at the Angelika in New York in 1993 and being wowed by it. It was a fresh take on the vampire story, where an alchemist’s clockwork device, meant to give eternal life, does so at a price. It was stylish, clever, funny… and of course had Ron Perlman as the sympathetic thug sent to steal the device. Perlman and del Toro have come a long way- that same sense of humor, love of the dark fantastic, and ability to tell tales and craft characters together which inspire the imagination, have finally culminated in an action-fantasy masterpiece that will hopefully spawn another sequel. There’s nothing quite like Hellboy out there. He’s a comic book hero, but is as far away from the superman who lead secret lives in tights as you can get.

In the Woods

I wouldn’t be the first person to say that Ireland has a mystic quality to it. Misty emerald isles jutting from the ocean with steep-cliffed shores, ringed with menhirs, crumbling castles, and barren rocky outcrops; abandoned homes dating to the Famine outside town, and sometimes right smack in the middle; every road seeming to have a goat track leading to a ring fort or some other ancient marker of eld; it’s an easy place to believe in things that go bump in the night.

Tana French‘s first novel, In the Woods, plays on this haunting quality of the country’s history and landscape. It begins with a childhood tragedy; Adam Ryan’s two best friends, Jamie and Peter, disappear one day when all three of them are playing in the woods outside their little town of Knocknaree. Adam is found later, clutching a tree so hard that his fingernails scar the bark. He remembers nothing.

20 years later he is a Detective in Dublin; a child has been killed, in those same woods, which are now part of an archaeological dig. Adam must confront the nightmare of his past, as he and his partners Cassie and Sam investigate the murder, and what links it may have with the past.

The young victim is found on an altar that dates to the Bronze Age, slated for destruction as a roadway cuts through. There are constant allusions to Ireland’s rich and bloody past, and it’s sudden upheaval from a depressed nation to the silicon isle it is becoming today. But the story is rooted in reality, and while French may play with our desires for it to be a boogeyman from Irish legend, we have enough monsters in the houses or cubicles next door to choose from.

I’ve never been a huge fan of police procedurals; they often fail to be character-driven, unlike detective novels. In the Woods is most certainly driven by its rich characters, told in the first person by Adam Ryan. He’s very close with his partner Cassie, who deserves (and gets) a novel of her own; she’s that smart and self-sufficient policewoman, who defies the stereotypes you expect; their relationship is one of the most enjoyable parts of the story, but as they delve into the town’s past to ferret out the killer, the darkness takes its toll.

Adam is a college boy with a nose for books, and French’s prose is appropriately rich. This is no page-a-minute thriller, though the gripping story drew me into its cozy Irish world. I traveled there last year, to my grandfather’s hometown of Bray, and to many nameless castles in the woods along the roads that might have been where Adam, Peter and Jamie played. It felt like being there again, and admittedly that’s part of the appeal for me. Some have found the ending disappointing, but it’s bittersweet. The plot takes twists and turns that you may not expect but will never find ridiculous; this is a masterfully crafted story that pulls no punches, from a narrator who may not always be the best witness.

I’m looking forward to Cassie’s own novel, The Likeness, which comes out in a few days.

The Crane Bar in Galway

A random gathering of folks playing traditional instruments.
In honor of the St. Patrick’s Day weekend I’m going to share some videos and photos of my visit to Galway last year. Despite being a tourist town it ended up being a very nice place. The area is stunningly beautiful, nestled between the wilds of Connemara and the rocky Burren area to the south. Close to Shannon airport, it makes for the perfect tourist destination and gets a lot of visitors, and it can be hard to find a seat at the pubs some nights. The Lonely Planet guide sent me out to the Salthill section for a bed & breakfast and also a pub called The Crane Bar that has traditional (aka trad) and modern bands playing nightly. What I liked best was that people would just show up with instruments and join in. Very friendly and cozy.

The beautiful coast near Galway.

Using Google Maps on my phone I walked there from the B&B one night, along the Salthill shore with its amusement park and typical seaside eateries, eerily reminiscent of the Jersey shore despite swapping chip shops for funnel cake. My friend Sonny from Denmark was arriving that night, so the Crane Bar was a landmark he could put in his GPS and drive to, and I could sit and ingest Guinness.
The locals were friendly and a fellow named Brent bought me a drink and we talked about what I planned to see and atuff. The second question out of everyone’s mouth is always “why the hell did you guys elect that idiot?”

Roundstone’s Bodhran maker.

When Sonny showed up the place was closing, but I managed to nab us some bacon pizza (Irish bacon is more like thinly sliced pork loin). The next night after a long day of seeing Galway’s sights and driving up the coast to Roundstone to see a bodhran (drum) maker, we returned to the bar.

The hanging wall in Galway.

We sat with a group of folks from Dublin and talked about the country, why we elected Bush, and thankfully books. We had a love of detective novels in common and we talked about what authors we liked. They liked a Swedish fellow whose name I can’t recall. They told us of their favorite spots to visit along the coast, which would eventually send us to some of the most beautiful spots in Ireland that I remember. The Beara peninsula, a remote finger of land south of Kerry, was their favorite. They told us of a pub called O’Neil’s that they loved, and we eventually found it days later. Ireland is so small that even a remote spot like that is only a few hours away, but we made so many stops along the way- visiting the Skellig Islands where monastery villages from the 5th century remain, the Cliffs of Moher, caves, the Aran Islands, and Kilkenny, which is more modern than Galway but still has much to see.

The players.

Sonny is a much more seasoned drinker than I am. Those Danes know how to hold their ale. In fact when he lived in Cambridge, the Brits there were amazed at his capacity for ale and called him “Horny Helmet” in honor of his Viking heritage, and gave him a horned Viking helmet when he left… myself, I’m a cheap date and you’ll see from the cheerful, red-faced photo at the end that I’m no match for him in a drinking contest.

A man singing a capella in honor of a patron’s birthday.

And by the end of the night I looked like this!

We only managed to explore perhaps a quarter of the Irish coastline and I’m eager to go back and see more of the country, like the Giant’s Causeway, and of course Dublin. We got close to Dublin when I visited the old family home in Bray, but the traffic getting into to town was so bad we just hauled back toward Shannon. I’ll blog about the rest of the trip over the weekend if I have time. In the meanwhile, the photos are all at here in my Ireland album, which is rather neurotically ordered by County.