I’ve been listening to Irish music, on records, tapes and CDs, in pubs and concert halls for years.  But I had never heard or heard of “Galway Girl” until my wife, my two sons and I took a family trip to Dublin at the beginning of the summer.  There we heard it all the time.  It turns out it was the most popular and the most downloaded song in Ireland for 2008,  There was a stretch in Dublin when we heard five different bands on five straight nights sing it.

Now I can’t forget it, and I’m not sure why.

The music and lyrics are engaging, but not scintillating.  Check the live performance on YouTube or read the lyrics below:

I took a stroll down the old long walk
Of a day-i-ay-i-ay.
I met a little girl and we stopped to talk
On a fine, soft day-i-ay

And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do?
‘Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue.
And I knew right then, I’d be takin’ a whirl
Down the Salthill Prom with a Galway girl.

We were halfway there when the rain came down
On the day-i-ay-i-ay.
She asked me up to her flat downtown
On a fine, soft day-i-ay.

And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do?
‘Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue.
So I took her hand, and I gave her a twirl.
And I lost my heart to a Galway girl.

So when I woke up I was all alone,
With a broken heart and a ticket home.

And I ask you now, what would you do,
If her hair was black and her eyes were blue?
You see I’ve been around, I’ve been all over the world.
Boys, I’ve never seen nothin’ like a Galway girl.

“Galway Girl” sounded best at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s.  Named for an Irish poet and politician*, Gogarty’s is a pub, restaurant and guest house in the Temple Bar section of Dublin.  The musicians who perform there are organized into bands only for that night.  Every night we were there, which was almost every night we were in Dublin, we saw different configurations of guitarists, fiddlers, banjo players, button-accordionists and percussionists, some of whom could be seen introducing themselves to their bandmates-for-the-night.

The patrons are from all over—a band conducted an impromptu shout-out roll call one night and got responses from Americans, Germans, Japanese and Norwegians—but everybody seemed to know the words, especially to “Galway Girl.”  Between the verses, each band member gets a chance for a high-voltage riff, generating a charged response from the floor’s patrons, all having, as the Irish say, a drop taken.  For the six or seven minutes of the song—really, from 10:30 pm, when the music started, to 2:30 am, when Gogarty’s closed–it was not just the musicians who were in perfect sync, it was everybody on the floor.  And it was the four of us.

It wasn’t just while we were at Gogarty’s.  It was taking the Dublin walking tour that traced the path of the 1916 rebellion that ultimately led to Irish independence.

It was touring the historic Kilmainham Gaol, where the British took the leaders of the uprising and stood them before firing squads—all except Eamon DeValera, who went on to become president of independent Ireland.

It was going to Newgrange north of Dublin, and walking through the low, narrow passageway of a temple that was built 5,000 years ago, before the pyramids were built in Egypt—a passageway so perfectly engineered that it is illuminated by daylight just once a year, at dawn on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

And it was the night we saw Liam Clancy.  Maybe you remember Liam Clancy as part of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the Irish folk group that toured college campuses and pubs starting in the ‘sixties.  The other Clancy brothers have died, as has Tommy Makem.  Liam is in his seventies now, not always in the best of health, and performs rarely.  But after we had made our reservations to go to Dublin, our older son, a habitué, under the handle of HostoftheAir, of Liam’s web site and message board, discovered that Liam would be doing two performances on two successive nights while we were there, and we snatched up the best tickets we could get for the first night.

There was something elegiac about the playlist that night, few of the roistering rebel songs and barroom singalongs that had energized so many audiences for so long.  A performance of “Those Were the Days” (“Those were the days, my friend/I thought they’d never end…”) set the tone; Liam, along with Dylan Thomas, folksinger Theodore Bikel, the song’s composer Eugene Raskin and even, on occasion, Bob Dylan, had been part of the 1950s-1960s White Horse Tavern crowd that “Those Were the Days” was written about.  It felt to me like Liam Clancy was saying goodbye.**

After the performance, we were standing in the crowded lobby, trying to decide whether to go back down to Temple Bar for a round of Guinness and more music, when we were approached by a small group of people, led by a man of about sixty.  “Excuse me,” the man said to my son, in a Welsh accent, “might you be Host of the Air?”

The sixtyish Welshman and the 24-year-old American shared only their love of Irish music.  Just a few years ago, they would never have been aware of the each other’s existence, let alone met.  Yet in a country in which neither of them lived, one had picked the other out of a crowd of a thousand based on a fragmentary message-board description—age, horn-rimmed glasses, reddish-brown hair.  The synchronicity, the alignment, reminded me of the shaft of sunlight that just once a year penetrates the passageway at Newgrange.

* * * * *

A marriage represents a point in the lives of two people when their separate trajectories converge.  Given good fortune, the trajectories continue on paths that are sometimes parallel and sometimes intersecting.  Their children, if they have any, begin being towed behind their parents, but all too soon develop their own, often divergent, trajectories that stay, again given good fortune, within hailing distance of those of their parents.

But sometimes, for just a while, those multiple trajectories merge and become confluent, like streams that, just for a few miles, combine to form a powerful river before separating again to follow their own distinctive paths.  When it happens, there’s nothing like it.


  1. Eric Liljequist
    October 15th, 2009 | 8:57 am

    Louis, I always enjoy your postings – well, your thinking, really. I especially enjoyed this one. Your various riffs on Galway Girl, the scene in Dublin, some Irish history,60s musicians,the bonding power of music, and meditations on family did indeed all “merge and become confluent”,combining to become a warm and powerful reflection.

  2. Nick Barbash
    October 15th, 2009 | 3:46 pm

    Well put, Dad. Very well put.

    P.S. Have you thought about posting this entry on the Liam Clancy message board?

  3. Louise Neu
    October 19th, 2009 | 9:30 pm

    Hey Louis,
    I agree with you on the multiple trajectories that can get created by a family, but I would take it one step further and say that all of your family members also invest in community. And its your investment in the community (going to concerts, playing instruments with others, sharing the love of a genre with family and friends) that helps support the creation of this wonderous convergence of energies and humans in which you all participated while you were in Dublin.
    [The song has so many of the components of songs that I have been singing lately, except the fellow isn’t left naked on the bed so he has to go off to sea again. So, when you mentioned you hadn’t heard it much before, the ‘musicologist’ in me went a hunting to find that it is a young tune. Steven Earle wrote it around 2000.]

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