The pure delightful accident of it all
I grew up in an immigrant family. My mum and dad came over from Ireland, from rural Kilkenny, in the early 1950s and landed in Industrial South Yorkshire. The noisily thumping heart of Britain’s industrial empire. We settled in a small manufacturing centre called Parkgate, near Rotherham; steel plants and mills on every side as far as you could see, and lines of coal mines just beyond them, winding-wheels whirring incessantly. Row after row of tall chimneys, mouths perpetually wide open, blathering relentlessly at the sky, in visible contrast to the colliery pits whose vasty gullets drew up dark deep down breaths from the very belly of the earth itself beneath our feet.
That’s where I became what I have remained; a Yorkshire Irish kid. And when I started writing, years after my first childhood ended and most of those pit-shafts and chimneys had already gone, I began to realise what astonishing luck I had had; nurtured by two manners of speaking, two ways of telling the tale, two entirely different traditions of saying English words, singingly.
The blarneying, expressive, lyrical, romantic, somehow feminine Irish, and the more reticent, unornamented, grittily realistic, frequently monosyllabic, more masculine Yorkshire. I try to draw on the deep musics of both to nourish my own attempts at writing.
Why the songs?
Me and our Mark, my brother, have always sung. My dad was a singer, a celebrated tenor; my mum a dogged encourager and tireless raconteur. Growing up we listened to Mario Lanza, to various McCormacks, Clancy Brothers, Dubliners and the whole raft of imitators. Me and our kid knew all the songs between us.
As I grew of course pop and rock music filled my ears though I was always drawn to more acoustically minded folk; James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were biggies for me, Dylan and Leonard Cohen came later. In my late teens I discovered folk clubs and poetry; Martin Carthy, the Watersons, WB Yeats, Christy Moore, Ralph McTell, Dick Gaughan, the Chieftains, Seamus Heaney, and later on Roy Bailey. Same as many others.
I learned lots of the songs and played them here and there but a sense grew up in me that something was lacking. Those lovely renderings expressed other people’s worlds but not my own. Where were the songs of South Yorkshire steel and coal? I knew songs about the Ohio, Thames and Shannon but not about the Don and Rother which had flowed through the whole of my life.
Where were the songs in our accent? Shocking to say, they were nowhere to be found. It dawned on me that we would have to write them ourselves.
What got me going eventually was Margaret Thatcher and Co., her government’s culture of lies, its co-ordinated and heartless assaults on the South Yorkshire that I knew, and the innumerable human casualties over whom it so carelessly rolled.