Song profile: Dublin in the Rare Ould Times

“Dear, dirty Dublin”  — a phrase attributed to Lady Sydney Morgan (1780-1859) — sums up succinctly the way Dublin is held in the hearts of many. In James Joyce’s short story, A Little Cloud, returning journalist Ignatius Gallaher quotes that very phrase, all the while extolling the more exciting virtues of London and Paris and encouraging his unadventurous friend Little Chandler to seek out a richer life. Little Chandler’s attachment to Dublin is despite the dreariness all around him and the everyday Dubliner often seems attached to his city with a passion unsurpassed. 

This can be seen (and heard) in the song, Dublin in the Rare Ould Times. Written by Pete St. John in the early ‘70s, it went on to be recorded by a host of performers — including your own Colcannon — and has become the definitive sentimental song about Dublin. 

We recorded it on the album The Life of Riley’s Brother and a brief journal that I kept at the time tells me that we recorded it on Thursday, August 10, 1995, starting at about 11:30 a.m. We got it on the second take, which is good. The vocals needed a little fixing on “hallowed halls and houses” and there were a couple of fixes for flute and fiddle. A ‘fix’ is when something wasn’t as good as it might have been and you go back and re-record those not-so-good parts. For instance with “hallowed halls and houses”, mentioned above, the ‘h’ sound on ‘halls’ was weak but the rest of the recording was just fine. It had a nice feeling, people were playing well. It would be shame to throw the whole thing away for just a few less-than-perfect moments. So I went back to my microphone and sang along with a playback of what we had just recorded. At the point of ‘halls’ the engineer very quickly pushed the ‘record’ button for my microphone and ‘punches in’ my repair. Then quickly ‘punches out’ again. It takes a good deal of skill to get it just right but it’s one of the many reasons for using a commercial recording studio with experienced engineers. This was back in the days of recording to tape. (I think Riley’s Brother may have been our last analog tape recording, I’m not sure though…) These days the process, and the technology, is quite different.

The main ‘fix’ on this song was very different type, and a bit problematic. While I don’t like taking liberties with people’s songs, there was a road block in the original lyrics of this song: something that could  stop you in you emotional tracks, as it were. The original song had  the line “I lost her to a student lad, with skin as black as coal. When he took her off to Birmingham, she took away my soul.” To an American audience ‘Birmingham’ would almost inevitably mean Birmingham, Alabama rather than Birmingham, England. The pointing out that the student had “skin as black as coal” might be heard more pointedly than “student lad” (which has an almost affectionate tone to it) and it might be more quickly assumed to be a racist slur rather than an observation that the more common appearance of people of color was one of the more recent changes in Dublin. But, then again, the singer is bemoaning those changes so we’re right back into a possible racist resonance. I firmly believe the intent of the song was patently not racist, but the amount of thinking and sorting involved on the part of the first-time listener would be more than enough to seriously stall any forward momentum and to scatter the emotional coherence of the song. So I changed the lines to “I lost her to a student lad, whilst I was on the dole. When he took her off to England, she took away my soul.” And, oddly, I’ve heard it sung that way by others. 

The song remains a favorite with audiences though we play it less frequently than we used to. I recall walking across the grounds of an Irish festival in Pasadena and hearing, on that fairly short walk, three different renditions of the song — that was its heyday. Still, it’s a great song. It might be time to work it up again. 

 

 

7 comments

  • Michael Thompson

    Michael Thompson Arvada, Colorado

    I resonate your feelings on the possibly racist line in that song Mick. Whenever we do it, I sing, "I lost her to a student chap, with hair as black as coal." Makes the change as minor as possible I thought, and retains the original meaning pretty well. Yours echoes the emotions of change and nostalgia better. Like you, we don't do this song as much as we used to. For one thing, fewer Americans even understand the references very well, though the tone of the song conveys the emotions well even without that. But more, the song speaks of changes that have long since passed away themselves. The great glass cages along the quay are themselves showing their age now, and few remember the Royal or the Met. Still, as you say, it's a great song. Perhaps I'll work it up again myself.

    I resonate your feelings on the possibly racist line in that song Mick. Whenever we do it, I sing, "I lost her to a student chap, with hair as black as coal." Makes the change as minor as possible I thought, and retains the original meaning pretty well. Yours echoes the emotions of change and nostalgia better.

    Like you, we don't do this song as much as we used to. For one thing, fewer Americans even understand the references very well, though the tone of the song conveys the emotions well even without that. But more, the song speaks of changes that have long since passed away themselves. The great glass cages along the quay are themselves showing their age now, and few remember the Royal or the Met. Still, as you say, it's a great song. Perhaps I'll work it up again myself.

  • Mick

    Mick Arvada

    Hello Michael ~ Yes, it's true what you say about the changes having changed. But, as you also point out, it's that feeling of loss or displacement that comes across and touches the sad places ... that's what the song is really about.

    Hello Michael ~ Yes, it's true what you say about the changes having changed. But, as you also point out, it's that feeling of loss or displacement that comes across and touches the sad places ... that's what the song is really about.

  • Grainne Gillespie

    Grainne Gillespie

    I've also heard it as 'I lost her to a student lad who looked like Ashley Cole'/other black celebrity who's surname rhymes with soul

    I've also heard it as 'I lost her to a student lad who looked like Ashley Cole'/other black celebrity who's surname rhymes with soul

  • John

    John USA

    Ok 1. I'm an American and I knew damn well the very first time I heard this song (Flogging Molly's rendition) That "Birmingham" most certainly did not refer to Birmingham, Alabama. 2. That you seem to be so bent out of shape over that one little line is asinine. Purely asinine. The song is from the perspective of a man who's generation is fading. It's in the context of what he knows, and the song neither condones nor condemns it; it is simply presented.

    Ok 1. I'm an American and I knew damn well the very first time I heard this song (Flogging Molly's rendition) That "Birmingham" most certainly did not refer to Birmingham, Alabama.

    2. That you seem to be so bent out of shape over that one little line is asinine. Purely asinine. The song is from the perspective of a man who's generation is fading. It's in the context of what he knows, and the song neither condones nor condemns it; it is simply presented.

  • Madeline Cottee

    Madeline Cottee ASIA

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  • A Listener

    A Listener New York City

    I think the song is beautiful, however I think the original line about the student lad is unfortunate and it makes me cringe. I found this site because I wondered whether others felt the same. A change to the line that allows it to be sung in the 21st century is welcome. “Hair” for “skin” is a good one.

    I think the song is beautiful, however I think the original line about the student lad is unfortunate and it makes me cringe. I found this site because I wondered whether others felt the same. A change to the line that allows it to be sung in the 21st century is welcome. “Hair” for “skin” is a good one.

  • Mike Giordano

    Mike Giordano Brookllyn

    It doesn’t matter what his skin color. It is a fair observation for an aging dubliner to state this peculiarity. Besides, I thought Phil Lynott was the first black person in Ireland. I’m joking. I wouldn’t get upset about it. And everyone knows this isn’t about Alabama god damnit. We’re not that stupid

    It doesn’t matter what his skin color. It is a fair observation for an aging dubliner to state this peculiarity.
    Besides, I thought Phil Lynott was the first black person in Ireland. I’m joking.
    I wouldn’t get upset about it. And everyone knows this isn’t about Alabama god damnit. We’re not that stupid

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