Considering that Ireland is a traditionally Catholic and traditionally very musical country, it’s surprising how little the Emerald Isle’s traditional Catholicism has impinged on its traditional music. Having a dollop of Irish ancestry myself, I’ve heard good old Irish songs about drinking, courting, stealing, fighting the English, fighting the neighbours, fighting between Catholics and Protestants, emigration, and more drinking, and the treatment of most of those topics ranges from jolly to sombre (though I don’t think I know of any particularly jolly Irish songs about emigration). I haven’t, however, heard too many good old Irish songs about God.
When religion does find its way into Irish music, it doesn’t necessarily come in for particularly reverential treatment. As a prime example, I’m pleased to present the “Knock Song” by Christy Moore, a contemporary Irish musician with solid traditional leanings. It’s probably not a bad idea to listen to it with one eye on the lyrics, which concern one Monsignor James Horan’s successful campaign for improved infrastructure in the village of Knock (An Cnoc) in County Mayo. Apparently “an Apparition of Our Lady, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist and a Lamb on an altar with a cross” had turned up there in 1879, guaranteeing that Knock would become a destination for pilgrimages. And destinations for pilgrimages need infrastructure – especially airports! Monsignor Horan became the first passenger to fly out of Knock Airport (to Rome, of course) in 1985, and the first person to have his coffin flown into Knock Airport in 1986, though those particular details don’t feature in the song.
It’s a gentle kind of song, perhaps appropriate for the early stages of a St. Patrick’s Day céilí when people are just beginning to sip at their Murphy’s and Bushmills. Later on, when the party is in full swing, I’d recommend something more like Barleyjuice’s “Catholic Guilt” for a godless St. Patrick’s gathering, though I unfortunately couldn’t find a good version of that one online.
Though I’ve been a casual admirer of Christy Moore’s for years, it was only when I glanced at his Wikipedia entry in preparation for writing this post that I learned that he was briefly detained and questioned under Britain’s Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2004, presumably because of his long-standing enthusiasm for Irish republicanism (including, to be fair, some of its rougher edges). Moore’s detention was a product of the same paranoid mindset that lies behind Canada’s proposed Bill C-51, to which a touch of rebelliousness in the Irish tradition would be an entirely appropriate response.