In the middle of last month I caught up with an old schoolfriend in Belfast. We got talking about what was the first concert we would have both seen together back in the day. We settled on a gig The Clash performed at the Ulster Hall in February 1984. This was towards the end of their career when guitarist Mick Jones had left the group.
I can't remember much about the evening to be honest apart from the video backdrop they used that night for the Police On My Back cover and the fact that singer Joe Strummer played most of the set with a towel held at arms-length from his face as a barrier against the rich volume of spit and phlegm directed towards him from the fans at the front. I read years ago that at one point Strummer had contracted heptatitis from one particular discharge of sputum which made the perfect rock n roll trajectory all the way down his throat during a punk gig.
Some months after this Clash concert another friend told me about a Belfast gig he attended at the same venue where the artistes performed with a similarly strange onstage accoutrement - this being a tin beer tray which one member of the support act smashed against his head in time to the music. This of course was Spider Stacey the tin whistle player of The Pogues who were opening for Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
The first of The Pogues' seven albums was Red Roses For Me and was released in October of 1984 on the Stiff label. It contains some great breezy instrumentals in The Battle of Brisbane and Dingle Regatta as well as the first of the group's paeans to the now long lost soul of the British capital in Transmetropolitan and Dark Streets of London - a city of dreams, struggle, light, shadows, nightmares and epiphany.
The album title is taken from a 1943 Sean O'Casey play and the thirteen tracks include their impressive reading of Brendan Behan's The Auld Triangle. The best song of the album in my opinion - Sea Shanty - also lifts a vintage line from Behan's Borstal Boy in "Compliments pass when the quality meet". This being a wonderful personal aside from one person to another when having overheard examples of verbal vulgarity in public that have surpassed all boundaries of social acceptability and redemption.
Track four is the extraordinarily ribald roar of Waxie's Dargle which I suspect was the main song in their early repertoire to incorporate the beer tray headbanging thing. Covered by several artists over the years including Sweeney's Men, the first time I ever heard the song was in a long-forgotten 13-part Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series Cities which transmitted a few times on the ITV network in the early Eighties. The Dublin documentary in the series was presented by director John Huston and Waxie's Dargle was duly performed by a hirsute duo called The Jacobites.
The title is such a strange pairing of disparate words - especially as placed alongside the namechecking of working class Dublin quarters as Monto and Capel Street - that in essence it could almost be the recollection of a regularly underperforming racehorse at Leopardstown in the Fifties or a physically vanished pub in The Liberties. The actual historical background needless to say is both genuinely fascinating and just a wee bit bloody glorious.
Hence the legendary Waxie's Dargle - as mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses - was a jolly excursion for the cobblers of Dublin in plebeian imitation of the gentry's own annual society picnic jaunt to the banks of the River Dargle near Bray and Enniskerry which lies south of the Irish capital. The cobblers were known as "Waxies" because of their use of candlewax to preserve the thread which stitched the shoes and "going to the Dargle" had long become a part of Dublin vocabulary for an annual day out.
The cobblers trip on loaded-up flat dray carts or jaunting cars was at Easter and with the original Waxies Dargle having been part of Donnybrook Fair until it closed in the mid-1850s due to riotous behaviour. Subsequently the annual procession - which extended by default to workers from all backgrounds - went nowhere near as far as Bray but only to a grass-covered triangle of land at Irishtown between coastal Ringsend and Sandymount in the south of the city. Irishtown had been the location of the main Gaelic settlements outside Dublin following upon the native population expulsions of 1454 from the city by the English authorities.
Therefore this classic and indeed globally renowned folk song is essentially a discursive consideration between two male friends in a pub on how their wives aim to fund familial attendance for this day of merriment, drinking and music- Monto was Dublin's large red light district while many pawnbrokers' shops were located in the old Jewish quarter of Capel Street.
A similar Easter-time public excursion within Ulster social history is captured in Glenn Patterson's 2012 novel The Mill For Grinding Old People Young. The narrative of the story follows the course of the 19th Century in Belfast from the aftermath of the United Irishmen rising through to the surges of the industrial revolution - the narrator Gilbert Rice at one stage walking with hundreds of other young people up to the environs of the Cave Hill in the north of the city. Indeed many of the older generation in Northern Ireland to this day will recall Sunday afternoon and evening walks to the Belfast hills - up from Woodvale Park on the Shankill Road to the Horseshoe Bend at Ligoniel in my own parents' case - when the roads were crowded with people taking the weekend air. And of course in the north of Ireland too there was a rich vernacular associated with trades, professions and labour. The most famous by far relates to the "millies" or mill girls of the many linen factories in North and West Belfast.
Returning to Irishtown and according to some online resources an engraved stone near a pub in the area commemorates the location of the Waxie's Dargle. I haven't been able to find any confirmation of whether it still stands there but, should it do so, it represents a wonderfully understated memorial to the toils and trials and concomitant warmth and community of the Dublin working people.
In turn, back in 2010, a magnificent city council-funded statue to the mill girls was erected at the corner of the Crumlin Road and Cambrai Street in West Belfast. This was in close proximity to the former Ewart's, Brookfield, Flax Street and Edenderry linen mills that provided such a dynamic for the city's initial wealth and industrial expansion. The tens of thousands of millies - both Catholic and Protestant - would work long hours for minimal pay (or "buttons" in Belfast slang) while under threat of horrendous industrial injury and a raft of appalling lung and chest conditions.
When I saw the statue some years back around teatime, the surrounding streets - which would have once been black with hundreds upon hundreds of workers leaving the factories at that time of day in the earlier half of the last century - were completely and utterly deserted. And there the wee Belfast millie stands all alone by herself this very night - waiting for her mates who are now in the main all long departed this earthly life and its associated joys and pains.
The inextinguishable respect the Irish still have for their forebears and the hard lives they lead so clearly unites people on both sides of the border and - along with a love for the staggering physical beauty of the island - remains one of the most important underpinnings of the deep living soul of Ireland.