When I first heard John “Jacko” Reilly sing 50 years ago I was with Davoc Rynne from Prosperous. Davoc (who subsequently became my brother-in-law) wrote the following lines after attending the recent “Jacko” gig in Boyle, Co Roscommon …
We head off up the country on the morning of the 26th June 2014. A good dull day and mostly dry. We stop off at Mother Hubbard’s in Kilcolgan (nice and quiet and no sign of the “…swarm of truckers”!). I get a long overdue fast haircut and away we go to the town of Boyle in the county of Roscommon. ………..At last we are relaxing in Mary Cooney’s comfortable B&B. I am sitting on the window sill looking out and admiring the great stone Cistercian monastery of Boyle Abbey. I am wondering about these strange French monks arriving here… 853 years ago now! What did the locals think of them, with their austerity, prayers, contemplation and hard manual work! Did they get planning permission to build that huge abbey? And come to think of it, only 41 years after building it the dreaded Anglo-Norman Lord William de Burgh, with his gang of thugs, spent three days ransacking it “…..No structure in the monastery was left without breaking and burning…” Heavens above sure they were still only building it! The church was not even completed. The mud was hardly dry on the walls!!……….Ah …but our memories are much more recent and relaxed and they come flooding back.
Early 1960s Fleadh Ceoils…Oh the youth of us and the fun we had! Not to mention a honeymoon night in the Royal Hotel with the flowing river Boyle right below our bedroom window!
But I think none of this period can be waxed as lyrically as Christy Moore does in his book “One Voice” There is no doubt in my mind but Christy gets this whole period sublimely. Sometimes reading some tracts from this amazing book I get emotional with nostalgia and gushing with sentiment (steady on Dabra sez the editor!).
“We were in the back of Mick Curran’s Fleadh Express Bedford Van. There was a trap door for watching the tarmac, and if things got claustrophobic you could always ride up on the roof rack for a spell! There was Mick, Donal, Francis, Tex, Brendan, Sean, Andy, Davoc, Óg and Peter around that day and we struck out for Boyle in Roscommon for to Fleadh for the Easter. Sally had come from Richmond in Surrey to visit Eire, and ended up on the floor of a railway freight carriage half full of black turf with Anne, Brigid and Catherine. We had two guitars and three tin whistles one flute and a dozen songs between us. Not a heap of money either. The heavens opened and we were drenched and broke and miserable but young and in love with life. ……..There were two women in the corner of Grehan’s pub, exotic mots dressed entirely in black drinking tumblers of raw whiskey and smoking Players full-strength. I’d never seen the like before and I’ve known them ever since and they’re still as mad as then – slightly fading exotics. John Reilly sang “Lord Baker” and purred as he paused every three verses to silk his throat with porter as he basked shyly in his new-found acclaim. Tony Grehan did tricks with the sweeping brush and his sisters silenced the pub with “On the Galteemore Mountains So Far, Far Away”. We all fell in love and then fell around the place gambolling in the dark, fumbling and flustering in the early hours of the Sunday morning trying to get comfortable amid the turf and empty bottles, chattering, freezing and laughing manically for the jokes seemed so funny, and the crankiness of the love makers as they realised that the wagoner’s would never sleep and that their love could not be made! Andy Rynne sang “As I Roved Out” maybe six times a night over the weekend and I’ve never been able to forget it since.” (The following night)…..The woman of the house called for “Silence for the singer” and this little man cleared his throat nervously and began to sing. Stillness descended upon the room as he sang “There were Three Old Gypsies Came to our Hall Door” and on he went. We were a bunch of crazy youngsters out for fun but we all knew we were hearing something special. He looked like a man in his 60s but he was, in fact, only in his early 40s. He had lived a very hard live and neither his living conditions nor his diet would have been adequate. I guess he was 5 foot 7inches or so and was of slight build. He loved a few pints of porter and also loved to smoke tobacco. He was very friendly and shy and he loved to sing. He was in awe of the fact that people simply loved listening to him. For most of his life he would not have received much attention. Apart from his wonderful songs what I remember most is that he was a simple and beautiful man and he had the “smell of the fire” about him. He wore an old army longcoat and a well worn cap”.
A few years ago I also wrote down these memories of this exciting period:
“When it comes to music, singing, fun and craic from the early 1960s on, of all that arrived at Pat Dowling’s pub in Prosperous, the most prominent families without doubt were the Moore’s and the Lunny’s from Newbridge. The first time I met Christy was not in Prosperous but in Graham’s pub in Boyle at a small county Fleadh Ceol – I guess around 1964. I was with the usual Newbridge crowd of bone players, plumbers, whistlers and ragamuffins. This sweaty young fella gets up in the middle of the crowded pub and in a strong voice sings “The Galtee Mountain Boy”. Mick Curran had driven us up in his old Bedford van and I could see he was wildly interested – “Who’s your man?” I ask excitedly. “Ah sure that’s Christy Moore – he’s one of our own” – says he with great pride. Christy was working in England at the time – sure wasn’t everybody, half of Ireland seemed to be perpetually over there. I am not too sure what he was doing in London, maybe swinging a shovel or maybe swinging the lead – but he was definitely doing the folk club circuit.
Christy and meself became good buddies. We drank the same kind of porter, chased the same kind of young ones and followed the same kind of music. We slept in the same kind of haybarns, disused railway carriages, backs of vans, creaky brass beds and once or twice in ditches. Strange – but at this time Christy was not really known in song or musical circles in Ireland. In fact I knew the Lunny family before I knew the Moore’s. Old Frank Lunny senior many a time sang “The Flower of Sweet Strabane” through the thick cigarette smoke of Pat Dowling’s. “If I had you lovely Martha away in Inisowen……”
But no mention of John Reilly there?! Well I do of course remember him. And everybody in Grehan’s pub had the height of respect for him. But I was much more interested in the gorgeous singing and playing of the sisters and their antics. In my mind I can see him. He is sitting under the big window that was facing the street. Old John Reilly was part and parcel of the furniture of the pub. Always there and always willing to sing a song – at the drop of a hat! The place would be empty and lonesome without him. That was the way it was in those days. Like Micho Russell and his brothers in the famous O’Connor’s pub of Doolin and indeed Patrick Kavanagh who was moulded into the fabric of famous McDaid’s pub off Grafton street.
Fintan Vallely in “Irish Traditional Music” has an excellent entry from Tom Munnelly that starts – John Reilly (“Jacko”) (1926-1969) Singer. Born to a travelling family at Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim….
And the final sentence gets Jacko, and the times he lived in, to a tee. Tom is referring to a 1978 LP called “The Bonny Green Tree” where 12 of John’s songs are availably:
“…a selection archaic and mesmerising, loaded with all the more importance because of the indifference in which his world dismissed this transmitter of the art of past centuries.”
The sleeve of this rare LP also tells a remarkable story of Jacko and his songs.
Again the great folk song collector Tom Munnelly has written this sleeve. And I quote:
“A remarkable rebuttal came from the President of a University Folk Song Club when I suggested booking John……..”We don’t go in for unaccompanied songs; we are more interested in folk singers”. This was paralleled by the comments of an official of the National Music Organisation, Comhaltas Cheoltoiri Éireann on hearing John. “He is not a traditional singer, he doesn’t sing in the sean-nos manner”. This genius still adjudicates singing competitions at a national level.
A chance of luck came in 1969 when D.K.Wilgus Professor of Folk Songs at the University of California in Los Angeles came to Ireland. When told about John and his songs he immediately appreciated their value and that same weekend he and I set off for Boyle to record him. We met John walking the Main Street with a few newly made buckets in his hand and as usual, John was more than willing to oblige. So the recording equipment was set up in the back room of Grehan’s pub and John sang away to his heart’s content. Between Saturday and Sunday morning John sang about 36 songs and ballads. This, in spite of the fact that he was suffering from a heavy cold, which resulted in a racking cough on much of the recordings. Though John would have sung more at the time it was thought better not to overtax him. We promised to return the following month when his cold had cleared up.
A month later Tom, and the Californian professor, are in Boyle again looking for John. They can not find him around Boyle in his usual haunts. They call to his house in Green Street and under a pile of old overcoats they find John. Poor Johns’ cold had developed into pneumonia and he was very ill. They call a doctor and John is taken to Roscommon hospital. The following Thursday he is discharged. So when the weekend comes round Tom and D.K. again make to trip to Boyle to visit John. They find that John had collapsed in the street and that he was once again back in hospital. This time he is in the local hospital in Boyle. He is severely ill and in a coma and the poor man does not even recognise them. The following week Tom, on making a phone call to the hospital, discovers that John Reilly was buried in Ballaghadereen along side his mother on the previous day.
And as Tom says in the last paragraph of the “The Bonny Green Tree”:
So we had lost one of God’s gentry. For John Reilly was indeed a gentleman. Shy but social, fond of a pint but not addicted to it, a man who did not read or write but was one of the most learned men to grace the roads of Ireland.
So let us talk for a moment about John’s songs. I suppose we have to at this stage put Lord Baker as the number one. Even John himself is quoted as saying:
Lord Baker……”My poor father would always sing Lord Baker. It was his most favourite song when he’d be drunk”. Taken from the sleeve of the LP “Bonnie Green Tree
Ahh but what do I say about “Lord Baker”?
I phone the great man himself for inspiration.
“Christy I can’t make up me mind about this song!
Well OK I can let myself drift into it and sway to the flow of it, just let my mind wander away into to some mediaeval historical place… But the words have me confused and a bit bothered…”
Christy just laughs at me and says you have contradicted yourself there! Sure just write all that down.
OK, OK but I still have problems. Who is this Lord Baker guy anyway and who does he think he is! .
Of course as usual I am not thinking straight when I lashed into a criticism about this Lord of high degree who owns all Northumber and the houses, not to mention the linen! And of course I was also forgetting that this is Christy Moore’s all time favourite song. Sure for heavens sake, as he says himself “I stuck at it for over a period of four to five years, trying to absorb every nuance and variation… it was always a labour of love, and this has grown to become the most important song in my repertoire.”
Well of course for starters – I do not have great staying powers for long songs. Although I am getting a little better now with old age!!
I always remember Ciarán Bourke way back in the late 1950s. He would start into “The Cruise of the Calibar” but only got as far as the first two lines. A great song all about horse drawn barges and canals…
“Come all ye dry-land sailors bold, and listen unto my song,
There’s only forty verses, so I won’t detain you long…..
But of course it was only a slag… The first two lines would scare the living daylights out of you! Now there are 18 verses in Lord Baker and it takes 12 minutes for Christy Moore to sing them. And that is according to himself! It took old John much longer… what with supping the pint… Well in fairness one would have to! If there is a big pint of porter in front of you, well one just couldn’t be waiting 10 minutes to take the next sup…sure it would all go flat! And of course one has to also have an odd cigarette!
Google Lord Baker and all sorts of stuff comes up. One of the most interesting is an English folk singer singing a song called “Lord Bateman” in 1970. Same amount of verses and basically the same tune and story line. Lots of entries – some putting the song back to the mid seventeenth century. Nobody has attempted as far as I could gather to analyse the story line. So OK here I go.
This young wealthy Baker runs away from home hops on a ship and is a stowaway. He wants to see the world and find strange countries east and west and so on. In fairness who would blame him for that! It seems he eventually landed in Turkey and by all accounts not a very good place at the time. He gets discovered and bound up and thrown in prison “Until his life it was weary!” So the poor fellow was also a wee bit tired! I’d say he was! But anyway this young one suddenly appears out of nowhere. She seems to be kind of important – an only daughter of Turkey bold. Spoilt I would say and a bit bould as well! So she steals her father’s keys to the harbour. And indeed in some versions of the song the keys of the prison are also stolen. She must have got wind of the word that there was a bit of a VIP in town. We are only at the fourth verse and we have her singing on about his houses, land and flipping linen. She is dangling the keys in front of Lord Baker tantalising him with “What would you give to Turkeys daughter if out of prison she’d set you free?” Had she no sympathy for the poor fellow and he all bound up and weary! Sure what could he do but promise her everything. EVERYTHING – the LOT! All of Northumber, including the land, houses, and all the old linen again. Anyway they sneak off down to the harbour – mind you there are no verses telling us how that was done. They start boozing away “And every toast that she would drink around him ‘I wish Lord Baker that you would remain’ Or I wish Lord Baker that you would be mine! I suppose depending on how many drinks she had. God knows what went on that night! But they did make some kind of vague seven year vow like “If you don’t wed with no other woman I am sure I’ll wed with no other man”
Anyway away he goes and they make a load of promises that they meet again in seven years time. I would say he was happy enough to get out of there and seems to have promptly forgotten about the whole incident. Of course she did not forget. I would say she was constantly dreaming away about all the lands, linen and houses. Anyway about eight years later she can’t handle it any longer so away she goes to look for him. “..She bundled up all her gold and clothing” Of course, money and clothes would be kind of handy for a long journey. Now she is away “For she travelled east and she travelled west” Had she no map? Was there no one to tell her that Northumber is in England slightly north/west of Turkey?
Before we know it – it takes up only one verse – she has arrived at his house and is knocking away at the palace door. We have no idea how she got there. The young bold porter gets very excited when he sees her. Well I suppose she must have made a bit of an impact with all the gold she was flashing! “She wears a gold ring on every finger. And in the middle one where she wears three” Apart from all the gold on her fingers… “She has more gold hung round her middle” Lordy Gordy but she must have been a quare sight to behold!
The next couple of verses start to explain maybe the real reason for the poor porter’s excitement and dilemma! Of all the days of the year she had to pick to come knocking on Lord Baker’s door! “This very day he took a new bride in” And not only that, but his future mother-in-law was also there. Well in fairness I suppose she had to be. There was a wedding going on after all. Now smart aleck Baker has to do some very quick thinking. Not to mention some very quick mathematical sums. He has a new wife after all and she only arrived with “….one pack of gold” and there is another woman at the door who appears to have a lot more gold around her middle and everywhere. His also has this new mother-in-law to contend with. Anyway he draws out his sword and “cuts the wedding cake in pieces three” as the poor mother of his bride is whining away about “Oh what will I do with my daughter dear?” This should really have been a very tense moment and lots of negotiating not to mention heart break, sadness and tears. But no the last verse seems to cover all this drama up in just the two last lines “Your daughter came with one pack of gold. I’ll revert her home, love, with thirty three”
Mind you, in fairness to Christy, in his version he has an extra last verse that has Baker running down the stairs to his new darling “… of twenty one steps he made but three” But at least he ends up “.. And kissed his true love most tenderly”
OK I suppose, but I cannot help but think of what was also going through his mind! Was he not also thinking of all this gold she had “hung around her middle” as he was of love and romance!
Am I am being too cynical?! Maybe behind all this obsession with gold, houses and linen lies some hidden romantic story. Could it possibly be that in spite of, or because of, all the near obscene focus on wealth that true love shone through?
I give up. But I firmly believe that this song should have more verses. The ending is way too abrupt for my liking. Maybe they just got lost in time.