By Paul Casey
If I could speak for my nationality, I would say this: Christy Moore’s song “Delirium Tremens” and the differences between its live and studio versions account for all significant space between the assumptions about Ireland and the realities which are suffered from living here. A look at the differences between these songs also gives insight into the nature of the man who created them. It displays the capacity of Traditional Irish music to express a more complex reality than craic and stompy dancing.
The most famous performance of the song comes from Live At The Point. So much of Christy Moore’s live act originates from his treating his performance as a kind of stand-up comedy/musical hybrid. There are other songs that are more obviously jokey in their construction, and less revealing of the man behind them. “Delirium Tremens” though, in the live context, in spite of its dark subject becomes a set-up/punchline routine. The pause between jokes gives the audience time to laugh, applaud and whistle at the hilarious destruction of a man’s will to live.
Listen to how Moore softens the song with his introduction. The clapping makes a mockery of the song’s reality. This is how a drunk sees the consequences of the next morning. “Ah sure Jesus, it’ll be a funny story!” There is humor here. It is not simply a product of the live show. Robbed of the audience though, the listener rarely feels the desire to chuckle or make plans for a night of drinking. It is bleak and cynical humor.
“I dreamt a dream the other night I couldn’t sleep a wink
The rats were tryin’ to count the sheep and I was off the drink
There were footsteps in the parlour and voices on the stairs
I was climbin’ up the walls and movin’ round the chairs.
I looked out from under the blanket up at the fireplace.
The Pope and John F. Kennedy were starin’ in me face.
Suddenly it dawned at me I was getting the old D.T.s
When the Child o’ Prague began to dance around the mantlepiece.
Goodbye to the Port and Brandy, to the Vodka and the Stag,
To the Schmiddick and the Harpic, the bottled draught and keg.
As I sat lookin’ up the Guinness ad I could never figure out
How your man stayed up on the surfboard after 14 pints of stout.
Well I swore upon the bible I’d never touch a drop.
My heart was palpitatin’ I was sure ’twas going to stop,
Thinkin’ I was dyin’ I gave my soul to God to keep.
A tenner to St. Anthony to help me get some sleep.
I fell into an awful nightmare—got a dreadful shock.
When I dreamt there was no Duty-free at the airport down in Knock.
Ian Paisley was sayin’ the rosary and Mother Teresa was on the pill
Frank Patterson was gargled and he singin’ Spancil Hill.”
The studio version of “Delirium Tremens” is a good example of an Irish drinking song that subverts the usual celebration. Without the audience, the space provided by the production—especially that drowsy synth—twists the song into something far from a celebration of good times. Instead of the jolly opening of the live version, Christy Moore approaches the microphone barely alive. The fade out replaces loud applause. Yes, he tells you that he’ll never drink again, but we all know that claim is as far from reality as the events of his nightmare.
Another interesting case of a drinking song that appears to glorify the bottle, only to become something akin to a suicide note is Joe Heaney‘s “Bean an Leanna” (The Woman with the Beer). The song starts off in typical beery fashion, with the promise of the night ahead. It becomes a song of an isolated, miserable man who will never be with the one he loves, and who will soon be dead from drink. The final line is a declaration of judgement delayed, but inevitable. Like Christy Moore’s song, isolation, the repetitive nature of alcoholism, and the false hope it provides in low times are expressed with a fierce and unsettling honesty.
“Arise, landlady, don’t delay to fuss with your cap, and get me a drop of whiskey or a quart of your own ale! We’ll be drinking until morning—here’s a health to all the fellows—and when the mistress leaves town I shall have the prettiest girl!
Oh God, what shall I do tomorrow when I see my love heading east? I can’t go up to her, because of all that’s passed between us. When I think about her playfulness and her laughter, about the work of her generous hands, I fall into black despair, and shed many tears for the loss of her.
I’ve walked bogs, hillsides and steep mountains, and a lot of other places I can’t even tell you—I hadn’t an ounce of sense in my head—searching for the kind, airy girl with whom I will never lie down, that it would be more proper for her to lie alongside me than to be in Cong two hours before day.
My feet have long been shoeless, but even longer that my pockets have been penniless; I’m a long time walking out with young women, but I’ve never walked with the one I desire. My coffin is long in the making, and my tomb being carved out by the masons; my bier shall be lifted on a spring day, with young men bearing it.
One night I was drunk, I was making for Michael’s in the glen; a piper was striking up a note, and he had a jug of whiskey on the table. We got so drunk that we could move neither hand nor foot! But here’s the blessing of the children of Adam and Eve upon you—and I’ll pay the reckoning.”
The album from which “Delirium Tremens” comes is Ordinary Man, released in 1985. The other songs have much the same kind of desperation. The title track, written by Peter Hames, is deep in the kind of economic and political problems which inform the album. Whether the causes are alcohol or joblessness, the result is a man alone.
“Hard Cases” by Johnny Mulhearn is another tale of being “in the pub at half past ten, the money for the cure all spent again.”
“One of them hard cases, soft faces, who grip you with their deadly smile,
The grip it slowly tightens and the grin gets slowly deeper
And beads of perspiration stand out upon your cadgilation
Someone takes the pressure off and calls out more porter.”
It’s a miserable cycle of dependency with people who are not able to connect except in the context of the delicious brew. If there are no other options, this kind of contact is preferable. It is indeed a reason to live if you have no other. Ordinary Man reminds me a little of Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask from 1982, in its ties to memory scrubbing, numbing excess, and the way in which it expresses a deep need for human connection during bad times. Reed’s “Underneath The Bottle” in particular is from the same chaotic haze that leads a person to think that 14 pints on the regular is normal.
The closing song is a cover of “Quiet Desperation” by Floyd Red Crow Westerman:
“And there’s quiet desperation coming over me,
Coming over me.
I’ve got to leave I can’t stay another day
There’s an emptiness inside of me
I can’t bear the loneliness out here
There’s another place I’ve got to be.”
Ordinary Man and “Delirium Tremens” cut through so much of the extraneous bullshit that is frequently attached to Irish Traditional music. Fuck doing things for the craic. Fuck the regressive element that has smothered the country. Fuck replacing the cultural and artistic importance of the Irish language with dull-minded nationalism. Fuck dull-minded nationalism. This is the cure to all of that.