‘GAA Jersey’ should be modern-era anthem for Irish native sport

If versatility is a sign of artistic talent – painters turning their skills to oils, watercolors and acrylics, landscapes as well as portraits; writers penning cross-genre, including poetry, short stories and novels – then musician-singer-songwriter Pat Gallagher can rightly claim membership of this rare cadre of gifted people.

As amply displayed this weekend at the Balor Arts Center in Donegal, Gallagher – supported by his outstanding group, ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ – can soften the hardest of hearts with poignant songs of lost lives and lost loves as in ‘The Volunteer’ about the 1916 Irish Revolution with its sad but uplifting refrain, ‘Close your eyes my little darling, may the angels keep you safe tonight, tomorrow in the new light you will rise,’ while also setting hands clapping and feet tapping boisterously with the dynamic ‘Crooked Jack,’ about an Irish gigolo, enlivened by mesmerizing fiddle and banjo playing by Stephen Campbell and Gallagher respectively.

As for musical genres: west Donegal-based Gallagher seems to have mastered them all (bar, perhaps, early 17th century flute-based Baroque sonatas, though he’ll probably achieve that too soon). Gospel, listen to ‘Strange Star, Middle Earth’ and ‘Dance For The Crowd.’ Blues, the homespun tune reminiscent of his home county, ‘Turf Man Blues.’ Country, ‘When I Grow Up.’ Traditional, ‘Evictions.’ Folk, ‘God Takes Visa.’ Rock, ‘Let It Go.’ Romantic, ‘She Looked My Way.” Celtic rock, ‘Arranmore.’

To cap it all, Gallagher and his multi-faceted band have just been traipsing the hallowed ground around Dublin’s Montrose House playing on one of Irish TV’s most popular entertainment programmes, ‘The Late, Late Show,’ with yet another creative musical invention – a lively, winning number combining hip-hop and Celtic rock performed with Letterkenny-based group, Phat Kiidz, entitled ‘GAA Jersey.’ So popular is the song it went viral, notching up around hundred thousand views on YouTube and media outlets nationwide and had the Balor audience rocking in the aisles as the hip-hop group emerged side-stage in psychedelic lime green jersey and fur-rimmed hoodie.

If the often less visionary elites of Ireland’s native national sport don’t play this song – repeatedly – during pre-match entertainment at Croke Park before this Saturday’s much-awaited football final replay between Dublin and Mayo, they deserve to be garroted with nylon guitar strings.

One catchy lyrical phrase alone ‘skinny jeans with the GAA, with the GAA jersey’ may set an enduring fashion trend, as well as return to the fold many young players whom some executives of the Gaelic Athletic Association complain have drifted off to ‘foreign’ soccer fields. And if anything is to put an end to the enduring curse that plagues the Mayo team, it could well be this inspiring song.

Who knows, maybe one day, a Platinum album will hang proudly on the wall of the ‘GAA Museum’ reflecting the song’s soaring sales. With lucrative proceeds from two 80,000-plus capacity crowds for the football final and replay (an estimated 8.5 million euro from ticket sales alone), the GAA could easily afford to buy enough copies of the record to move sales beyond platinum into the realm of diamond.

Can anyone think of a better, more timely musical gift for friends and supporters of the nation’s largest sporting organization both in Ireland and abroad? After listening to the rousing rendition at the Balor Arts Center concert last night, it had better hurry and place its order – they could all be sold out soon.

Dressed down-home in white T-shirt and dark waistcoat, his red hair flecked with gray or gray flecked with red, or whatever, with a baldheaded drummer, guitarist in ‘pink pyjamas,’ bass player in check shirt, fiddler intriguingly discreet in the shadow of a felt hat and mandolinist under a flickering crimson light, Gallagher and the Goats featured powerful voice backed by powerful musical prowess.

Such was the evening’s musical feast, even Conor Malone, manager of the Balor, joined in, the sweet notes of his saxophone wrapping themselves naturally around Campbell’s fiddle tones like a loving couple lingering late in bed on a Sunday morning – specially on the song ‘The Killer,’ about a Scottish boxing champion.

Then there was ‘Mary, Mary,’ an amusing tongue-in-cheek take on one of Ireland’s oldest talent contests and the swaying rhythms of ‘Drinking My Money,’ ‘The Glasgow Bus’ and, of course, the rousing standing ovation from the hand-clapping, merry swaying throng that greeted the ageless ‘Holy of Holy Hymns From The Goats’ – the pulsating ‘Las Vegas In the Hills of Donegal.’

The band were joined on-stage for a grand reunion by Malone, the lovely Donegal-based singer, Jacqui Sharkey, accomplished harmonica player, Dermot Donohue, singer-guitarist, Dean Maywood, who was the support act for the Goats, and the Phat Kiidz.

Kudos then for a riveting musical evening to Gallagher (vocal, guitar, banjo), Mickey Gallagher (drums), Patsy Gallagher (lead guitar, mandolin, vocal), Odhran Cummings (bass), Shaun Doherty (guitar, vocal) and Stephen Campbell (fiddle), as well as guests, Malone, Donohue, Maywood, Sharkey, and the Phat Kiidz comprising Jay Kay, DoDa and Hapz.

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Praise and prise

As one year ends and another begins I look back at the privilege I’ve had of writing in this blog about exceptional individuals who – through skill, initiative, invention, passion and sheer persistence – deserve great praise.

They’ve brought added color and a refreshing sense of diversity to Donegal, one of the most remote parts of Ireland straddling its most northwesterly Atlantic seaboard.

Consider Sabba Curran from Dore, who some years ago, without knowing much about boats drove down through England at exactly this time of year and returned with one in tow. Now he owns ‘The Cricket’ one of the largest passenger boats in the area and brings people for enjoyable excursions to Gola Island and much farther out on leisure fishing trips.

The Cricket boat to Gola Island, ferry to Gola Island, Donegal islands

Or Gareth Doherty, whose boat-trips with his grandfather unwittingly launched him on a series of sea-loving escapades. Now, with a plethora of certificates to his name as master of different crafts, Gareth takes visitors, young and old alike, on sailing and canoeing adventures, teaching them the skills he himself has learned over the years and showing them the beauty of the bird and sea-life population all around us.

Selkie Sailing, Gareth Doherty

Then there’s Pól Ó Muireasáin, one of the most refined Irish speakers in the entire Donegal Gaeltacht, or indeed any Gaeltacht for that matter. Having taught as Gaeilge at university and worked as a translator in Brussels on complex European issues, there’s very little Pól doesn’t know about our native language, grammar, linguistic or etymology.

Brimming with civic spirit, there’s few challenges Pól won’t try, including line-dancing as a nun and a cowboy, then imitating that most famous of seasonal characters, Santa, thus bringing untold pleasure to young and old alike.

fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Photo by Sean Hillen

Trips with these three men over the last few years has filled me with the kind of exhilaration and child-like exuberance one rarely finds in the bland concrete-and-glass urban settings I’ve often lived in.

But it’s not just lovers of the sea that help restore one’s faith in humanity. There’s also lovers of the land. Such people as Seamus Doohan, walking guide and lover of all things Celtic.

Seamus Doohan walking guide, walking Donegal

Having had the pleasure of experiencing his tours for an article in ‘The Irish Times’ as well as for this blog, I can guarantee a right-royal good time in his company, meandering among the hills of Donegal while learning about the colorful history of the area – including flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles and Pagan wishing stones.

Treading a different terrain altogether is Kathleen Gallagher.

Kathleen Gallagher Falcarragh,

Standing at Falcarragh crossroads just before sunset one year, I – like hundreds of others – was astounded to see a dramatic spectacle unfold before our eyes. At the edge of the hazy horizon, slowly coming into view, appeared wave upon wave of grisly, shapeless, blood-spattered zombies, horrible-looking members of the UnDead who, as they drew near, suddenly burst into a frenzy of brilliantly-choreographed dance moves to the pounding music of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Such a mesmerizing event, part of a community festival, is but one example of the sheer creativity of this lively, zesty individual who’s probably the envy of Galway’s ‘Macnas.’

Kathleen’s artistic talent brings me conveniently to another transplant to Donegal, this time from the heart of Scotland – a man who has brought Kings, Queens, medieval murderers and even ‘Cold War’ spies to this small part of the world. From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ to Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man,’ Murray Learmont is a stage supremo directing members of the Cloughaneely Players to theatrical success.

Murray Learmont theatre director, theatre in Donegal

‘Toss a stone and you’ll hit a musician on the head.’ Such were the memorable words I recall hearing from someone after first setting up home in Bun na Leaca fifteen years ago. It’s an understatement. ‘Toss a stone and it’ll bounce from the head of one musician to another, to another, to another….’ is a more accurate depiction of the situation.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing so many performing, it would be impossible to name them all here, but two whose lives I’ve written about deserve mention.

Few around here, nor in places beyond Ireland, don’t remember ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ and its founding member, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Pat Gallagher, who penned the immortal tribute, ‘Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal’ that became an instant national hit. Such is his musical prowess Pat can meander effortlessly from one genre to another, from ballads and blues to folk rock and country. Listen to ‘A Returning Islander,’ ‘Turfman’s Blues,’ ‘Children of the Highways,’ and ‘Let the World Keep on Turning’ and you’ll understand just what I mean.

Pat Gallagher musician, Goats don't Shave

Then there’s Ian Smith. Not managing to become a native of west Donegal, he did the next best thing – married beann álainn, Breda, from here. Formerly a guitarist and singer with a rock band in England, Ian left thousands of groupies broken-hearted and settled near Burtonport – and has never looked back, well, hardly ever. During that time he has played with some of the best musicians in the world and has cut not one but three full CDs, one of which ‘Restless Heart’ showcases his immense song-writing talent, with many of the titles his own work.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

That’s the praise bit of the headline. What about the prising bit?

Such talented people as mentioned have not received the kind of support they deserve from those with their hands on the cash that is meant to enrich the cultural, social and economic soil of west Donegal.

Instead of providing generous funding for touristic and artistic initiatives that help attract welcome visitors to the area and create jobs, the powers-that-be at the Gaeltacht’s leading funder, Údarás na Gaeltachta have either repeatedly fed the billion euro they’ve received to well-known, rich elites; to themselves or acquaintances; to developers to build now derelict, deserted industrial estates; and to companies which have gladly accepted the hand-outs, then promptly left the area, leaving out-of-work unfortunates in their wake.

Perturbed by the stories I’ve been told by local people about such discrimination and the wall of informational silence constructed by Údarás – I began prising apart, bit-by-bit, snippets of information through the Freedom of Information Act about the spending policies of aforesaid economic development organization.

To say I was surprised and disappointed at what I found is a distinct understatement. Astonishment would be a more suitable word. Lack of strategy, absence of clarity, cases of cronyism and nepotism – in fact, all the dubious goings-on that continue to bedevil Ireland and prevent its healthy development.

With the New Year approaching, I’ll continue to praise and prise. Perhaps, in doing so, I’ll help create a bit more transparency as well as highlighting some more of the real heroes of the area and thus contribute something to the area where I live.

I hope so cos’ I’m a terrible singer, can’t play a musical instrument if my life depended on it. As for gardening, what’s the difference between a parsnip and the tail of a donkey? Don’t even mention boating.

In the meantime, have a happy and contented New Year, wherever you are, whatever you do!

Donegal Creameries and Kerry Group to lock horns at Croke Park

I bought a lottery ticket a few weeks ago at a community festival in the tiny village of Limenaria on the Greek island of Thassos.

And promptly won.

A goat.

Clover – a fond hello, a fond farewell

Friendly, a bit shy, Clover – as I chose to call her – gazed up at me out of big gentle eyes filled with an innocent curiosity about the world around her.

Unfortunately, as in the classic tales of summer romances, our time together was short-lived. Due to the labyrinth of EU regulations about the movement of animals across borders, I had to bid Clover a sad farewell and we parted company with a promise to see each other next year.

I was reminded of her while wandering leisurely along the dusty streets of Doi Mai, a rustic Romanian Black Sea coastal village Sunday evening while basking in the memory of Donegal’s glorious win over Dublin just an hour before.

That’s when I felt a soft nudge at my back.

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What’s happenin’ bro?

Turning, I looked down to see a pair of familiar eyes fixed upon me. At first, I thought, through sheer primordial instinct, Clover had managed to evade armed Greek, Bulgarian and Romanian border guards and leaped to freedom. Unfortunately, it was not so, but the eyes were just as inquisitive nonetheless. And behind the fellow before me were many more of his four-legged compatriots, all out for a leisurely afternoon stroll just like me. They seemed so content, easy-going and full of spirit I felt like exhorting them into a ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ rendition of ‘Jimmy’s Winning Matches’ in honour of the day’s stunning victory.

Then it dawned on me. Where are all the goats that used to roam the length and breadth of Donegal? There’s hardly any to be seen now even though historical records indicate there used to be literally thousands of them. Aside from singer Pat Gallagher and his wonderful group, we don’t seem to celebrate the many wonderful facets of this delightful creature anymore. Indeed, we seem to be downright biased against them – with no particular reason for being so.

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Shy but curious.

Even though grass is greener in Donegal than Romania’s or Greece’s scorched summer earth; even though rain is much more plentiful; even though, with the same amount of food, a goat gives around four litres of milk, four times more than a sheep; and even though ample medical evidence shows its milk and meat to be healthier in so many ways than that of both cow or sheep, we seem to be definitively an ‘anti-goat’ species. It’s tantamount to animal racism.

What can these innocent creatures possibly have done to us to merit such stark hostility? Is it linked to some warped religious notion about Satan and his horns? About Baphomet, the enigmatic, goat-headed figure linked to occultism and witchcraft? Looking down the sunlit street into the gentle, innocent eyes of those around me, so filled with undisguised curiosity, it was hard to imagine anything devilish about them at all.

In fact, rather than posing a threat to our moral or physical well-being, goats are our greatest asset, the list of their attributes being impressively substantial. For example, goat’s milk boasts a variety of health benefits, ranging from blood vessel support to cancer prevention. It eases the pain of migraines and premenstrual syndrome and reduces the chances of breast cancer.

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Hello, may we help you?

The ‘World’s Healthiest Foods’ website suggests people with lactose intolerance may have less trouble drinking goat’s milk, partly because it boosts copper and iron metabolism. This quality may also make goat’s milk useful against mineral absorption problems. ‘The Journal of Nutrition’ says goat’s milk can ease conditions such as bowel inflammation and arthritis and that the high level of potassium may also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.

Now, as goat’s milk has a higher concentration of calcium than cow’s milk which helps prevent bone loss and that there will be no shortage of bone-crunching tackles in three weeks time at the Croke Park finale, would it not be a good idea for someone with initiative to collect a few dozen litres of this fine liquid and start delivering them forthwith to the training camp of McGuinness, Murphy & Co? Also, it must be added, the he-goat is the epitome of masculine virility and creative energy,

With the Sam at stake and a confident Kerry as the opposition, every little helps. Donegal Creameries, are you listening? Get in there before the Kerry Group does.

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Waiting for a high ball

From boatman and builder to balladeer extraordinaire 

Standing confused on a boat in the tiny west Donegal harbor of Bunbeg is how I first met musician-singer-songwriter extraordinaire Pat Gallagher.

Looking from above and seeing an obvious landlubber flabbergasted as to how to tie a main anchor rope, he kindly doled out guidance and assistance in abundance. That got us to talking, the kind of small talk strangers do to pass the time, with me rambling on about a wonderful concert – featuring ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ – that I’d heard with my wife the evening before.

boat

“So you liked it then?” he asked.

“Liked it? I loved it,” I said enthusiastically. “Great songs, great singing. Whoever wrote them is a musical genius.”

The man smiled, a quiet kind of smile. The kind you’d hardly notice, the kind where the lips barely part. I suppose that should’ve been my first clue. But who was I to know? Hadn’t I just moved to west Donegal and bought a boat soon thereafter? What I knew about either, you could write on the back of a postage stamp and still have plenty of space for a Shakespearian sonnet, or two.

“Do you know who wrote them?” I asked innocently. Then a queer feeling came over me, and in an instant, I knew what that smile meant.

Meet Pat Gallagher – banjo player, guitar player, harmonica player, singer, songwriter. And that’s only what he does for fun. As a Jack-of-all-Trades, he can also lay bricks in a straight line and tell you where the best fishing is among the offshore islands around Gaoth Dobhair in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Pat Gallagher

And, of course, as he explained self-effacingly standing on that stony harbor pier, he’d written all the songs in the wonderful concert I’d just been to in Dungloe.

It’s no surprise then that I was delighted to meet him again this past week in the same little town, in a school auditorium between the mountains and the sea, once again with ‘Goats Don’t Shave.’ This time they were starring in a special, community-wide charity concert in aid of two-year-old infant, Lucy Gallagher, from nearby Maghery, who suffers from a rare, potentially life-threatening condition known as ‘harlequin ichthyosis.’

It was a classic sort of Irish evening, the kind I remember well from the days of my youth. The kind where – just like at Sunday Mass – the men all clump close together, too shy to be anywhere near the front of the hall. And the rest of the people are huddled on seats at the very back of the room, which left a very large intimidating space in the middle, right in front of Pat and his band members up on stage.

But where most priests don’t have the power or the charisma to raise the emotions of their listeners, the ‘High Priest of Music’ Mister Gallagher and ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ do, so it wasn’t long before the braver of souls there slipped shyly off their seats and a bit of groovin’ and gyratin’ was soon going on, others joining them, until that middle space began slowly to fill up with moving bodies. It takes some doing to turn a fairly solemn occasion into one of dancing madness but when I saw a young girl in a wheelchair spinning herself round and round to the music like there was no tomorrow – and let’s be perfectly honest, unlike the rest of us able-bodied, its not the same kind of tomorrow that awaits her – I knew the boys on stage had well and truly succeeded.

Dancing

Okay, there were still a lot of burly, muscular men – who could probably turn me into thinly sliced meat with a touch on the arm – still hugging their pints. But there were others who’d started hugging each other, as well as hugging the ladies. Some, lo and behold, unCatholic though the nefarious activity might have been, even hugging their own wives, which got me to thinking. Why is it sometimes we Irish don’t have the strength to be who we really are – emotional and affectionate? There’s a time to be subtle and retiring, and there’s a time to BE. It’s long past time we knew the difference.

But aside from our lingering awkwardness when it comes to overt shows of affection, there was plenty of that other characteristic component of Irish gatherings – rollicking good humor, especially when someone pushed a button by mistake and a giant suspended basketball board almost swiped poor Pat and his colleagues off the stage. Even funnier, as none of the band members noticed the near-catastrophe approaching them from the Heavens above.

lucy and group

As for Pat himself, his musical career has moved in an ever-increasing arc over the years. Having started early in life – he was an UlsterFleadh singing champion when he was 11 – he’s now a master of the art form known as songwriting, with more than 80 under his penmanship – whether it be the lively, foot-thumping ‘Las Vegas (in the Hills of Donegal); the hilarious lyrics and rousing satire of ‘Mary, Mary’ which opened the famous Dungloe festival years ago; the haunting melody of ‘The Evictions’, about the cruel events 0f 1861 in the Glenveigh Estate in Derryveagh under the infamous John George Adair; or the nostalgic journey Pat and thousands of other emigrant workers from Donegal took over the years on the ‘Glasgow Bus.’

He and his band have played many parts of the world, including 14 tours of the US,  taking cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Fort Lauderdale. Their debut album ‘The Rusty Razor’ went gold and London’s ‘Time Out’ magazine voted them ‘Best Band’ in 1993. Admirably, Pat is not afraid to face up to many of Ireland’s taboo subjects in his songs – ‘Lock It In,’ a bitter attack on men who physically abuse their partners; or “Let It Go,’ on bigotry against Travellers; or even “Killing Me,’ about his own past addiction to booze and cigarettes. At the same time, his ballads are rich with honest sentiment – ‘Tor,’ about the joys of fatherhood (he is the proud father of three children – Fionnuala, Sarah and Ferdia); ‘Rose Street;’ and one no doubt very close to his heart, ‘She Looked My Way,’ written especially for his wife, Cathy, and given to her as a Christmas present two years ago.

Having released six albums so far (the latest being ‘Songs from Earth’), before the tender age of 55, thankfully there’s still plenty of time left for the friendly musician to regale us with even more such quality work.

And to contribute his myriad talents to such deserving causes as that of unfortunate Lucy.