'Hear My Song'

Irish Theatre and Popular Song in the 1950s and 1960s

by Joseph Greenwood (Author)
Monographs VI, 314 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 85


A major obstacle for the scholar of theatre is the ephemerality of a dramatic performance. How can we know the specifics of an event that has been and gone, an occurrence that can never be repeated? This book proposes that by considering the use of songs within a dramatic production we can gain a deeper understanding of past performances, especially with regard to their communal reception. Why did a playwright employ a certain song? How might it have affected an audience? Arguing that certain song types constitute forms of collective memory, the author explores Irish theatre from the 1950s and 1960s to show that songs are a valuable means by which we can gauge changes in the popular consciousness. By necessity, songs mutate so that they can continue to express and affirm collective memories and therefore fit the zeitgeist of their socio-cultural contexts.
Through its detailed research, this book demonstrates that retrospectively analysing the dramatic employment of well-known songs not only helps us better understand the performances and reception of a selection of Irish plays, but also challenges orthodox narratives of Éamon de Valera’s Ireland.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Song and Emigration
  • Chapter 1: ‘And fond ones are flown’: Song, Memory, and Catharsis in John Murphy’s The Country Boy (1959)
  • Chapter 2: ‘Why do you always be singin’ that oul’ song?’: The Subversion of Emigrant Ballads in John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty (1961)
  • Chapter 3: ‘Gar O’Donnell and the Philadelphia’: Traditional Song and ‘The Irish Showband’ in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964)
  • Part II: Song and Independence
  • Chapter 4: ‘Erin, how fallen is thy fame!’: Song and Cynicism in Louis D’Alton’s This Other Eden (1953)
  • Chapter 5: ‘When Erin sings and laughs and shouts / Instead of always weeping O!’: Song, Nation, and Rejuvenation in Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned (1957)
  • Chapter 6: ‘You died for old Ireland with a bullet in your bum’: Song, Satire, and Bardic Danger in John B. Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty (1961)
  • Part III: Song and the Irish Travellers
  • Chapter 7: ‘Oh, who wouldn’t be a tinker when he’s free?’: Song and the Trope of the ‘Tinker’ in Donagh MacDonagh’s God’s Gentry (1951)
  • Chapter 8: ‘Tis the changing of the times’: ‘Tinkers’ and Song Culture in John B. Keane’s Sive (1959)
  • Chapter 9: ‘Will they put us off the roads altogether?’: Song and the Travellers’ Voice in The Honey Spike (1961) by Bryan MacMahon
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Discography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Songs are not an independent entity in themselves […]: their vital context is the social life and culture of the community.1

    There clearly seems to be something in the nature of dramatic presentation that makes it a particularly attractive repository for the storage and mechanism for the continued recirculation of cultural memory.2

Alongside famous lines such as ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (Sherlock Holmes never said it), or ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ (the words never passed Captain James T. Kirk’s lips), one can include the apocryphal ‘Play it again, Sam’. Supposedly uttered by the Humphrey Bogart character, Rick Blaine, in the 1942 film, Casablanca, what Bogart actually said was: ‘Play it, Sam’. Each of these misquotations or confabulations is a testament to the existence of what one might term collective memory, whereby our ability to retrospectively view events, or even our acceptance of what is ‘the truth’, is often influenced by a communal consensus or an agreement between groups of peoples; a quality, which, as shall be explored, is far from stable.

But first, to return to Bogart’s (mis)quote, the song he requests from the piano player, Sam (the actor, Dooley Wilson, incidentally, could not play the instrument), is the Herman Hupfield composition, ‘As Time Goes By’. In the context of the film’s narrative, Rick, the owner of a nightclub, has previously forbidden his pianist from playing this song. The reason why, it transpires, is because the song is a painful reminder of happier times once spent with his lost love, Isla Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman). In other words, ‘As Time Goes By’ is, in modern parlance, ‘their song’. However, once Isla re-enters his life, the song’s joyous connotations are resurrected ← 1 | 2 → or renewed, and Rick, in a moment of misplaced optimism, tells his pianist, ‘Play it, Sam’.

We all have our ‘As Time Goes By’. We might be breezily strolling down the street, when we catch a snatch of song emanating from a passing car or drifting from an open door, and suddenly we are transported back to a distant time, to a faraway place, to that misty island of memory which is so often lit by the gaze of our own lost Isla Lund. Even the briefest recognition of a tune or lyric can evoke strong emotions: joy, amusement, excitement, melancholy, longing and, sometimes, pain. In terms of melody, tonality, harmonic structure (and other factors, which might be cited by a musicologist), the song might not have any particular appeal. Indeed, the individual might, in fact, despise the musicality of the song.

The song’s power lies not in its aesthetic value, but in its ability to reawaken specific performance contexts. Like the beeping dots and dashes of the old telegraph system, sounds are transformed into a very personal message. Therefore, songs can be considered repositories of memory, in that they have the capacity to store our perceptions of the past; indeed, a common utterance on hearing a song from yesteryear is: ‘This takes me back’. In much the same way as a mnemonic reminds us of the sequence of the colours of the rainbow, or the notes of a treble clef, songs can revive or recall personal information, which might otherwise lie dormant, and eventually, be forgotten. Therefore, songs help us to interpret elements of our own histories, and in doing so they can illuminate both our past and our present. On hearing these songs we might ask ourselves: why is this song so meaningful? Will it always be? Does it reflect upon something that is missing from my life? Or, conversely, does the song invigorate or energize me? Does it make me feel like I belong?

These same questions can be applied to songs in relation to a collective memory. Songs can also recall and strengthen meanings which are relevant not just to one person, but to a number of people who see themselves as sharing a collective identity. A church congregation joining together in the performance of a hymn not only shares a spirit of community through singing in unison, their shared Christian beliefs are simultaneously recalled, affirmed, invigorated. In the Western world, Christmas carols, whilst still possessing the vestiges of their original Christian messages of goodwill ← 2 | 3 → and cheer, now predominantly encourage us to collectively recall vague, childhood memories, filtered through snow globes like prisms of nostalgia; memory streams which annually coalesce and conform to a culturally constructed ideal of the perfect yuletide – an ideal as artificial as a plastic Christmas tree.

The most obvious example of a song-type that addresses and prompts the collective memory is the national anthem. It is safe to say that there are no songs of this type, which objectively review the failings, as well as the self-proclaimed successes, of the singers’ nation. Instead, they promise citizens a bright future by referencing the school-taught glories of the country, inspiring pride, passion, fervour, and a sense of interconnectedness with one’s compatriots. Sung, or, more accurately, hollered at the beginning of an international football match, they enthuse rival teams and fans alike – however tenuous the underdog’s victory might be. On the same theme, football chants effectively propagate an ‘us against them’ ethos. Supporters of less illustrious teams are mocked and goaded for their bare trophy rooms. The raucousness and humour compounds a sense of togetherness, which might even be described as a form of tribal insularism.

However, what links all these song-types is not just their capacity to forge a sense of communitas and express a common belief system amongst their participants; all of these song-types inevitably adapt or evolve depending on the socio-cultural changes which the passing of time brings. For example, a Christian from Victorian times, more used to sober hymns such as ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, would surely be slightly bemused, if not offended, were they – by some H. G. Wells-style mishap – subjected to a modern ‘happy-clappy’ hymn. As for Christmas carols, they have, in the majority of festive social occasions, been superseded by their modern legacy: secular popular songs such as – depending on one’s age demographic – Bing Cosby’s ‘White Christmas’, Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, Maria Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, and so on.

National anthems, those paeans to the establishment, were, in most cases, originally songs of revolution, which in fact demanded change and challenged the status quo (the anthems of France, Germany, the United States, for instance), rather than seeking to perpetuate it. Meanwhile, mainstream football chants have largely been sanitized. No longer is the football ← 3 | 4 → stadium the domain of the working-class man. The match, once a form of Rabelaisian release that provided an opportunity to vent the pent-up frustrations accrued from another week of hard toil, has, since the 1990s, experienced great changes. Commentators (of both the football and social variety) have identified England’s semi-final exit to West Germany and Paul Gascoigne’s tears in the 1990 Italia World Cup, the formation of the Premier League, and England’s hosting of Euro 96, as factors which have contributed towards a shift in the ways football is both played and viewed. Today, in terms of class, gender, and race, football matches are attended by a more diverse – and, for the clubs, financially lucrative – audience. The once riotous stands have been replaced by the more sedate and genteel all-seater stadiums, whilst authorities now adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ attitude towards overtly offensive football chants. The function and performance of these chants, like the game itself, have adapted to changes in social, cultural and economic circumstances.

Even the connotations, meanings and functions of specific songs can morph over time. Perhaps one of the most famous football songs is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Starting its public life in 1945 as an emotive song, which served a specific narrative function in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, Carousel, it gained a more universal popularity when it transferred from the stage to the screen in 1956. However, it was in 1963, after becoming a hit single for the ‘Mersey Beat’ band, Gerry and the Pacemakers, that the song took on a new life. Soon the song was adopted by the Anfield supporters of Liverpool Football Club. The success of the team in Europe meant that the song then became a favourite chant in football stadia across the continent. Yet, that was not the end of the song’s journey. Following a number of football-related tragedies, such as the Bradford City stadium fire of 1985 and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, the song became a symbol of unity which extended beyond the confines of footballing rivalries, and has since, in the face of traumas such as the Jamie Bulger case of 1993, emerged as a signifier of the city of Liverpool itself, transcending its relationship to the game of football. Again, it evidences that there is instability to a song’s meaning or significance.

This book argues that it is this ‘instability’ that makes song such a valuable means by which we can gauge changes in a popular consciousness. ← 4 | 5 → In a sense, songs can provide a window into the past. By necessity, songs, in various ways, mutate in order that they can continue to express and affirm collective memories, and thereby reflect upon a communal psychology. Songs morph to fit the changing prevalent narratives of successive socio-cultural contexts. For example, whilst Casablanca’s theme song, ‘As Time Goes By’, might claim that there are ‘love songs / Never out of date’ (ll. 21–22), it is unlikely that a modern day teenager would attempt to woo a prospective girlfriend by playing them an MP3 of an Irving Berlin or a Cole Porter love song. Indeed, when Porter composed ‘Anything Goes’, it is doubtful that even he foresaw the sexual content which now permeates the lyrics of popular songs, reflecting the values of today’s permissive society. Songs can become dated, and it is those which adapt or acquire new connotations that survive. Therefore, the alterations in lyrics, performative idioms, genres, and performative environments of songs offer insights into the changes in collective memory, the communal consensus, and social attitudes.

So what does this all have to do with Ireland and the theatre? Firstly, to deal with the Irish question: as is commonly known, the harp is the official symbol of Ireland. This iconography attests to a rich cultural history of music and song, and to the central role song has enjoyed within the country. Indeed, since the nineteenth century, folk collectors and Irish cultural nationalists had viewed Irish song from an essentialist perspective, which means that they believed that Irish songs somehow possessed a unique quality; the songs stored and reflected the essence of ‘Irishness’, that same quality which allegedly flowed in the ‘bloodstream of the people’.3 Song was considered an aspect of a racial heritage, as voiced by, amongst ← 5 | 6 → others, Douglas Hyde4 – an individual who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, did much to revitalize the Irish folk song, publishing works such as Love Songs of Connacht (1893), and whose essentialist views on ‘Irishness’ were founded on his belief that Ireland ‘is and will ever remain Celtic at the core’.5 Irish music and songs – supposedly untainted by foreign influences – were regarded by cultural nationalists as possessing a purity that should be preserved, leading folk-collectors of the nineteenth century, such as Edward Bunting (1773–1843) and George Petrie (1790–1866), to notate and archive the traditional airs.

This book contests such essentialist concepts. Instead, it views Irish songs as cultural artefacts that are continuously shaped by changing social contexts, moulded by external influences. It is an argument advanced by Dominic Behan (composer of songs such as ‘The Patriot Games’, and the brother of playwright, Brendan) in his introduction to Ireland Sings (1965):

Historically, collectors of folk material, like Sharp [sic], Herd, Ord, Child, etc. have made significant contributions to the preservation of folk-lore. But, to imagine – as some people would have us believe at present – that balladry is in itself worthy of study in an abstract art sense, is a foolish and undesirable premise. That everything in relation to folk song must be limited to the purely ‘Ethnic’, with no allowance for the day to day changes which are a feature of any society is tantamount to asking us for our signature on a death warrant for folk-lore.6

As Behan discerns, rather than being the product of inalterable ethnicity, abstracted and independent from the outside world, the meanings and ← 6 | 7 → performative idioms of song are in a constant state of flux, contingent upon ‘day to day changes’. As part of a rich oral culture – passed down through generations via word of mouth, as opposed to being written down and read – one might consider the song culture of Ireland as a living stream of social and cultural memory. Like a real stream, it has its source of origin, found in a pre-colonial bardic tradition.7 Over the ages, this mnemonic stream has shaped and been shaped by the contours of its socio-historical landscape. The insurgency of the rebel songs, for example, reflects the impassioned turbulence of a stream of memory negotiating the rocky terrain of social unrest, economic distress and the struggle for independence. The predominantly passive nature of the emigrant ballads sees the stream enervated and dispirited – mired in the attitudes of a population deflated and traumatized by the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852. At various points, the stream of memory has commingled with other tributaries as the song cultures of England, Scotland, Wales, France, and the United States have indelibly altered the characteristics of strands of Irish song.8 Similarly, other branches of the stream have taken alternative courses, and have remained ← 7 | 8 → comparatively untouched, retaining the language and modal idiosyncrasies of their Gaelic origins, as typified by song-types such as caoines and sean-nós.9

Viewed from this perspective, song appears an invaluable and accessible repository of memory. By examining how song-forms have diachronically mutated (i.e., how they have changed over time), and locating these changes within their synchronic cultural, socio-political, and performative contexts (i.e. locating them within a specific event), one is afforded a portal into a contemporaneous popular consciousness, revealing subterranean histories that might otherwise remain suppressed by the meta-narratives of ‘official’ history. As Elizabeth Hale Winkler observes, ‘songs are useful as “shorthand”, evoking in just a brief phrase entire cultural and social complexes’,10 and when themed around seminal or contentious issues (in the case of Irish songs, themes such as emigration or nationalism), the mnemonic and performative nuances of song possess a barometric quality, which, ← 8 | 9 → when analysed, disclose subjectivities. This, in turn, affords the modern-day observer a better understanding of the mentalities of the past, and of the mutable nature of collective and national identities.

So how is all this relevant to our understanding of theatrical performances of the past? Well, perhaps the greatest barrier to an accurate observation of a specific performance of a play is the ephemeral nature of the theatrical event; it is, after all, an event that can never be repeated. How, for example, can we know an audience’s reaction to a play that they themselves witnessed fifty years ago? How can we see through their eyes or place ourselves in their shoes? It is a challenge. But arguably this applies to our historical understanding of all artistic mediums. For instance, how do we know the ways in which Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield might have been interpreted or understood by a contemporaneous nineteenth-century reading demographic? When we talk of ‘understanding’ a work, we are referring to a form of ‘reception’. And whether it is a play, a film, a novel, a poem, a painting, or another cultural artefact, the reception of – or reaction to – all forms of media is of the moment. In each case, the reception of these texts entails a ‘performance’ (i.e. the ways in which that text affects the subject), which is contingent on a number of factors, such as time (a novel read in one’s childhood, for instance, is a completely different experience to when it is re-read in one’s more mature years), and place (watching a film on a laptop is a completely different experience to watching it at a cinema).

We need to somehow step back in time, and tap into the thoughts of an erstwhile audience, discern or infer their collective frame of mind. An obvious way of negotiating this temporal conundrum is through rigorous archival research. By piecing together diverse forms of evidence, we can re-construct or re-animate the contexts and circumstances which surrounded past performances. Throughout this book, this has been a major criterion. Not only does it source examples of literary criticism, but much of the research has also involved collating information from ‘popular’ sources: newspaper articles, reviews, radio and television excerpts, LP records and their sleeves, interviews and personal correspondence. In this way the book seeks to determine the intricacies of a contemporaneous popular consciousness. ← 9 | 10 →

Yet, crucially, within the methodologies of this book, it is the songs themselves, located within the context of a play, that provide the most important form of evidence in evaluating how an audience might have been affected by an ephemeral performance. A novel written in 1900 will, in material terms, be the same novel in 2017. In this sense, the novel possesses what we might call ‘stability’. Yet, from the perspective of this book’s argumentation, such a perceived ‘strength’ is, in fact, a ‘weakness’ if one is trying to understand the changing psychology of successive generations and thereby determine the shared mentalities of an audience at a specific time. The fact that, historically, songs have not be written down, authorized, or entered into a canon, but instead have belonged to an oral culture means that, unlike the aforementioned example of a novel, songs are open to change or adaptation. To reiterate, it is this ‘instability’ which gives songs an almost wormhole-like quality; they are a record of gradations, which, when analysed, allow us to peel back the layers, and peer into the shared emotions, value systems, beliefs, and other factors, which have coloured collective perceptions of theatre performances. In short, as shall be expanded upon throughout this work, it is through the songs themselves, and how they function within the context of a play, that we can gain a better understanding of the ‘ephemeral’ cultural event.

This analytical approach is particularly fruitful and effective in exploring the performance of Irish theatre, a genre in which songs play a major role in the dramatic experience. As the research for this has book uncovered, an Irish play of the 1950s and 1960s that does not contain a song is a rare beast indeed. The immanent qualities of song, accreted over centuries, have provided Irish playwrights with a device which, when located within a dramatic narrative, can profoundly affect an audience by evoking a depth of meaning. After all, meaning is constructed from memory. Paul Connerton reasons that ‘our experiences of the present largely depend upon our knowledge of the past’.11 This is nowhere truer than within the theatre. An ephemeral experience, the theatrical event continuously foregrounds the unique, ‘never to be seen again’ quality of each successive ← 10 | 11 → action, meaning that the individual’s exegesis of the performative text requires the continuous recollection of a sequence of recent memories. Moreover, in relation to cultural memory, Marvin Carlson describes the theatre as a ‘kind of memory machine’,12 and ‘the most haunted of human cultural structures’.13 For the theatrical performance to make sense, it must re-perform, re-present, re-produce, re-call elements stored within an audience’s cultural memory banks; by necessity, each element of the theatrical event evokes the ghosts of a cultural past:

All theatrical cultures have recognized, in some form or another, this ghostly quality, this sense of coming back in the theatre, and so the relationships between theatre and cultural memory are deep and complex. Just as one might say that every play might be called Ghosts, so, with equal justification, one might argue that every play is a memory play. Theatre, as a simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself, seeking to depict the full range of human actions within their physical context, has always provided society with the most tangible records of its attempts to understand its own operations. It is the repository of cultural memory, but, like the memory of each individual, it is also subject to continual adjustment and modification as the memory is recalled in new circumstances and contexts.14

The actions on the theatrical stage are correlative to the activities within the social sphere.

The proliferation of song within Irish drama, therefore, attests to the prominence of song as a mnemonic and performative operative within Irish socio-cultural frameworks, or, to put it another way, the abundance of songs within Irish plays reflects the important role songs have played within Irish communities. Consequently, playwrights like John B. Keane, Sean O’Casey, Brian Friel, and many others, have accessed this stream of memory to cultivate themes and often, to transmit the polemic of the play, knowing that their audience would grasp the significance of the song’s function. Analysing the matrices of song, memory and theatre, therefore, reveals a web of meanings, which deepens and stratifies our understanding ← 11 | 12 → of a contemporaneous popular consciousness. And because, as Carlson notes, there is a ‘continual adjustment and modification as the memory is recalled in new circumstances and contexts’, locating the analysis of the songs within the framework of the theatre performance, provides avenues of exploration – such as the gauging of audience reactions – which allows us to make informed judgements of how a populace perceived socio-cultural shifts within their own temporality. It is for this reason that this book directs its focus on the 1950s and 1960s, a period of great transition within Irish history.


VI, 314
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
irish theatre Hear My Song irish song
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. VI, 314 pp.

Biographical notes

Joseph Greenwood (Author)

Joseph Greenwood holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast. He is currently a lecturer in English literature at Soran University in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is carrying out research into Kurdish songs about independence and emigration.


Title: 'Hear My Song'
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318 pages