Doohamlet without the Prince

An Irishman’s Diary about the strange relationship between Monaghan and the Blues

‘As well as wearing a skull-cap, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is sitting alongside an actual skull. Maybe this is a dark reference to the deal supposedly done by his ancestor, but I prefer to think there’s a more innocent explanation.’

‘As well as wearing a skull-cap, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is sitting alongside an actual skull. Maybe this is a dark reference to the deal supposedly done by his ancestor, but I prefer to think there’s a more innocent explanation.’

 

One of my favourite Irish place names is the village of Doohamlet in north Monaghan. In English, it sounds like a favour you might ask of a Shakespearian actor, by way of a party piece. And the anglicisation has a certain aptness, in that the place is indeed a hamlet, in the English-language sense. But this is completely accidental.

In the original Irish, Doohamlet’s first syllable is just the northern pronunciation of dubh, as in “black”. The rest of the name refers to a “burial place”, presumably ancient. The usual explanation is that there was a mass grave somewhere locally for victims of the (black) plague. As such, the name may have a similar derivation to that of an area near Dublin’s Coombe: Blackpitts.

Anyway, what reminded me of Doohamlet was the arrival of a flier for the annual Harvest Blues Festival (harvestblues.com). It takes place in Monaghan town this coming weekend. And as well as the usual acts from Lousiana and Kansas, the line-up this year includes a fully indigenous performer from the aforesaid Black Burial Place.

I haven’t seen Grainne Duffy and her band play. I’m told, however, that they’ve been a big hit at festivals all over Europe, including Glastonbury. Moreover, the lead singer’s voice has drawn comparison with Bonnie Raitt’s, while the rest of her has been likened to a female reincarnation of Rory Gallagher. So she must be good.

I’ll come back to the festival in a moment. But the hitherto unsuspected connection between Doohamlet and the Blues in turn reminds me of one of the more charming quirks of the Irish language: namely that it renders the English term “black man” not as “fear dubh”, which is what you’d expect, but as “fear gorm”.

I have seen some fanciful explanations, including the suggestion that, by the time an Irish person first set eyes on an African, “fear dubh” was already spoken for, as a figurative name for the devil.

This would suggest that “fear gorm” was an early example of political correctness. But so would an alternative theory: that in centuries past, Moorish traders in Galway were described as fir gorm not for their skin colour – which by implication went unnoticed – but for their blue dress.

The truth appears to be more prosaic. As well as meaning blue, according to dictionaries, “gorm” can also just mean “dark, swarthy (of complexion)”. Still, the confusion retains some entertainment value: as, for example, when we note that among the fir gorm who will be playing na Gormacha in Monaghan this weekend is one Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, from Los Angeles.

With his skin colour, visual impairment and nickname, Blind-boy Paxton could be almost the quintessential Blues performer. He might lose a couple of points for being from California. But he gets them back again, doubled, when we learn that he’s descended from a cousin of the famous Robert Johnson.

This is the same Johnson who, according to enduring legend, met the Fear Dubh at a Mississippi crossroads one midnight in the 1920s or 1930s and asked him to tune his guitar. In other versions, the exchange happened in a cemetery. Either way, it’s an obvious twist on the Faust story, and in Johnson’s case probably arose from something he is actually known to have done: ie practised his guitar-playing in cemeteries. (He wasn’t the only musician to do this. As last year’s documentary about him recalled, Bob Marley and his band sometimes played in graveyards. In their case, it related to a Jamaican belief that, by so doing, you could face down evil spirits, or “duppies”, and ensure good luck. Hence such songs as “Duppy Conqueror”.)

But getting back to Blind Eye Paxton, he is not a completely archetypal Bluesman. He also happens to be Jewish. Which explains why he wears a yarmulke. And why the organisers of this weekend’s festival had to take into account that he couldn’t fly in late tomorrow, the Jewish Sabbath.

As for one of the strange, promotional photographs I was sent of him, I’m somewhat mystified. It depicts him seated, playing the guitar, in what looks like a forest. And as well as wearing a skull-cap, he is sitting alongside an actual skull. Maybe this is a dark reference to the deal supposedly done by his ancestor, but I prefer to think there’s a more innocent explanation. My guess is that on this, his first visit to Ireland, somebody just invited him to Doohamlet, and he misunderstood.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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