Today is St. Patrick’s Day. Though I have an Irish ancestor, I don’t have much identification with this day, if only because St. Patrick is associated with Irish Catholicism and I’m no fan of Irish Catholicism, despite or because of eight years of Catholic instruction. Which is one reason I like James Joyce so much. But Irishness I am proud of, so I chose today’s song to honor a more-or-less Irish band, The Pogues, their name derived from Poghue Mahone—“kiss my arse,” the latter phrase is found in Ulysses, as “kiss my Irish arse” (K.M.I.A.) and “kiss my royal Irish arse” (K.M.R.I.A.)—and to honor a true Irish hero, or mythological hero, Cú Chulainn or Cuchulainn.
Cuchulainn was a great warrior of northern Ireland, famed for his fighting frenzy, kind of like the Hulk or Ben Grimm when “it’s clobberin’ time.” He’s generally associated with heroes like Hercules and Achilles, in Greek mythology, and Rostam, a Persian hero; he’s a real fighting badass who has a series of adventures and dies while still in his youthful glory. The main source of info on him is the Táin Bó Cúailnge or the Táin (“the Cattle Raid of Cooley”)—which I can dimly remember reading in a class on Irish mythology somewhere in the late Eighties—where he defends Ulster from Connacht, led by the warrior-queen Medb. There’s also a story of his lingering or wasting sickness in which he dreams he is beaten by two women while trying to catch two beautiful birds for his wife. The title of today’s song comes from that story.
In The Pogues song, nothing of the Irish myth is being told, in any obvious manner, but the speaker of the song is commemorating the actions of an inveterate rowdy, as if turning into folklore this character’s antics: “And in the Euston Tavern you screamed it was your shout / But they wouldn't give you service so you kicked the windows out / They took you out into the street and kicked you in the brains / So you walked back in through a bolted door and did it all again.” Similar events are delivered with all the gusto of a drunken celebration (the song begins with an echo of the wake of the hod-carrier Tim Finnegan in the song “Finnegan’s Wake,” which Joyce, in his wisdom, links in Finnegans Wake to the tale of the giant Finn MacCool).
The part of the song that resonates most with the kind of Irish Catholic behavior most readily associated with St. Patty’s Day is the great bridge lyric, delivered by Shane McGowan with all due sense of the scene’s embarrassment and characteristic inevitability: “They took you up to midnight mass and left you in the lurch / So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church.” For those unfamiliar, “the plate” is the collection plate sent round at the end of every Mass for donations; to drop a button in the plate is using a worthless substitute for a coin, which the poor would sometimes do so as not to be seen not making a contribution, though a drunk rapscallion might do it deliberately, as a “fuck you.” A lowlife might also pocket the coin Mother gave him to contribute, substituting a button, thus cadging for coin for smokes or drinks, even in church. Upchucking in church might count as one of the great potential embarrassments, even in dreams, like appearing in public in underwear.
Then comes that great comic close, which also echoes “Finnegan’s Wake”—the hod-carrier has fallen from his ladder and is believed dead, but when whiskey splashes on him at his wake, he rises again, expecting a libation. “Now you'll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks / And they'll take you from this dump you're in and stick you in a box / Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground / But you'll stick your head back out and shout ‘We'll have another round.’”
McGowan, with his lusty, almost scurvy delivery of this song, has created a great ballad-like jig that would do any debauched Patty’s day parade (and the subsequent ride in the “Paddy wagon”) proud. If anyone can better sum up the end of it all than “they’ll take you from this dump you’re in and stick you in a box,” come forward. This is pithy gallows’ humor, but also Irish humor, and also, yes, Catholic humor. All well enough for saluting a pagan hero of Éire, if only because Finnegans Wake attests to the historical and religious and mythological palimpsest that is the Emerald Isle.
Erin go Bragh!