Rebel balladeer without a cause – An Irishman’s Diary about John Todhunter
Liam Clancy and the haunting ballad ‘Aghadoe’
Liam Clancy: his version of the ballad ‘Aghadoe’ has helped keep the name of John Todhunter alive. Photograph: Alan Betson
The name of John Todhunter, poet and composer, is all but forgotten in Ireland today, nearly a century after his death. But thanks to Liam Clancy, at least one of his songs lives on.
If you don’t know Clancy’s version of Aghadoe, look it up on Youtube. It demonstrates why Bob Dylan considered him the greatest of all ballad singers. The combined effect of his voice and Todhunter’s words is such that, unless you’ve had the back of your neck shaved recently, it’ll make the hairs stand on it.
I don’t know if the event described in the lyric was based on any real-life story. It’s a 1798 ballad, narrated by a bereaved female, about a rebel lover hidden, betrayed, and executed. But I suspect that the name Aghadoe, hypnotically repeated throughout, was chosen only for its mellifluence. And as sung by Clancy at least, it helps make the song almost a lullaby.
His version is also, by the way, an example of the power of good editing. In Todhunter’s original, there’s a verse naming the traitor – the woman’s brother – and showering curses on him. And even the curses are poetic. But Clancy wisely omits them.
Instead, in four elliptical verses, his song moves gently and elegiacally from love to loss, to what we would today call the grieving process. Thus, the prelude to the dead lover’s burial includes the lines: “I walked from Mallow town to Aghadoe, Aghadoe/I took his head from the gaol gate to Aghadoe...”
Which might look like a grisly detail in cold print, but not in song. In Todhunter’s words, as mediated by Clancy, the bringing home of the severed head is an act of tenderness. The song’s lullaby quality somehow survives it intact.
Mind you, I only chanced on Clancy’s recording a few months ago, not long after seeing a desperately sad but beautiful film called Ida. This had nothing to do with Aghadoe, nor with Ireland. In fact, it may have had the least promising scenario of any film I’ve ever attended – being about the spiritual struggles a young nun in postwar communist Poland, shot in black and white.
But it was a masterpiece nonetheless. And in case any of you still plan to catch up with it somewhere, I won’t say anything here other than this. There’s a scene in it reminiscent of the last verse of Aghadoe – if it doesn’t make you cry, you’re already dead.
Getting back to Liam Clancy, I’m not alone in admiring his treatment of the song. Among the many posthumous tributes paid him back in 2010 was a recollection by his nephew, Robbie O’Connell, of a recording session they had done together in Kildare some years before.
The various performers, including the Irish Philharmonic Orchestra, were working on a collection of 1798 songs, to mark the bicentenary, and took a break for lunch. And as they were eating sandwiches, reading newspapers, etc, Clancy sang Aghadoe, to electrifying effect.
“When he finished,” recalled O’Connell, “there was just stunned silence for about 10 seconds. Then all the musicians, they all stood up, and gave him a standing ovation . . . it would give you goosebumps. I had never seen anything like it.”
Todhunter must have written the ballad when under the influence of the Gaelic literary revival, to which he was an early recruit. Early for the movement, that is, not for him. Born to a Dublin Quaker family in 1839, he was a contemporary of WB Yeats’s father, rather than of the poet.
But in the 1890s, when they were both in London, Yeats jnr converted him to the cause of writing Irish literature in English. Unfortunately, as the younger poet saw it, the conversion wasn’t permanent. Todhunter continued to have a weakness for Ibsenite drama, in which he did not flourish.
His 1893 tragedy, A Black Cat, was performed for one night only. A follow-up called A Comedy of Sighs played to a chorus of jeers. WB recalled the author sitting in the theatre stoically, throughout all four acts, “listening to the howling of his enemies, while his friends slipped out one by one”.
Had Todhunter been committed to any cause strongly enough, Yeats believed, he might have become famous. He had, for example, on “some casual patriotic impulse” (Yeats’s words) written “certain excellent verses now in all Irish anthologies”.
But his flaw was that he never persisted with any one thing. He was considered a literary failure by the turn of the new century, and lived his later years out of the public eye before dying, with somewhat ironic timing, in 1916.