Irish music muses: Meet the Galway Girl, Úna Bhán and Nancy Spain

Gerry Hanberry’s book, ‘On Raglan Road’, tells the story of the women who inspired great Irish love songs by Mick Hanly, Christy Moore, Percy French, Mundy and Phil Lynnott

Gerard Hanberry with Joyce Redmond, for whom Steve Earle wrote ‘Galway Girl’, a the launch of Hanberry’s book ‘On Raglan road: Great Irish Love Songs and the Women Who Inspired Them’. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Gerard Hanberry with Joyce Redmond, for whom Steve Earle wrote ‘Galway Girl’, a the launch of Hanberry’s book ‘On Raglan road: Great Irish Love Songs and the Women Who Inspired Them’. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

 

If life’s best secrets are the “open” ones, no more so than those with love at their heart. So it was with Gerry Hanberry’s research into the muses who inspired great Irish songs, from Úna Bhán to Nancy Spain.

Hanberry, who grew up in Galway, is an award-winning poet and a biographer of Oscar Wilde. His day job is teaching English, but his night-time passions include music, and he did much of his growing up in a garage band. Still rocking away at weekends with friends in the Atlantic Rhythm Section, he had always been curious about lyrics to some of his favourite cover versions.

“It was only when I read biographies of Patrick Kavanagh and Leonard Cohen that I began to think about it a bit more,” Hanberry says. “I was aware of Hilda Moriarty’s association with Kavanagh, but I was also intrigued to know about the real Marianne and Suzanne in Cohen’s life.”

His project crystallised when he was asked by An Taibhdhearc theatre to put together a production based on the songs of Willie (alias Percy) French. The Co Roscommon writer was best remembered for The Mountains of Mourne and party pieces such as Phil the Fluther’s Ball . His lesser-known love songs include the heart-piercing Gortnamona , inspired by his first wife, Ettie.

Ethel “Ettie” Kathleen Armytage-Moore was in her late teens when she met French, then in his late 30s, at a party in Cavan. They were married in 1890 and moved to Sandymount in Dublin. One year and one day after their wedding, Ettie died of septicaemia. She was only 20 years of age, and had given birth a month before to the couple’s first child. Also named Ethel, the baby girl died shortly after.

Great loss

Philip Green

Hanberry was amazed at the response in the Taibhdhearc. “It filled the theatre. And so I knew there was a hunger for more.”

And so began his exploration of the lives of “wonderful women of great beauty and charm” He quickly realised that he would have to temper his enthusiasm, narrow down a very long list, and confine it to this shoreline.

Christy Moore sings Nancy Spain on The Late Late Show

“Quite a few on the draft list went for various reasons, as the song has to be linked to a specific woman , and one that I could identify,” he explains. Some potential candidates in the Irish language had to be eliminated for that reason. However, the story behind the 17th-century air, Úna Bhán, had been researched by the State’s first president, Douglas Hyde.

It was, and is, Co Roscommon’s version of Romeo and Juliet. One Úna MacDermott fell in love with an athlete, Tomás Láidir Mac Coisdealbhaigh (Costello), who was known for his great feats of strength. The love was requited, but Úna’s father banned his daughter from seeing Costello. Heartbreak ensued, and both are buried together on the shores of Lough Key – where two ash trees are said to have grown from each grave, and intertwined.

Hanberry delved into the role played by two women, Jane Ross and Margaret Weatherly, in collecting, rather than inspiring, Danny Boy. The air attributed to Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin in the 17th century was written down by Ross two centuries later, reputedly after she heard it at a fair in Limavady, Co Down.

Irish miners

ColoradoFrederick Edward Weatherly

Hilda Moriarty, the Co Kerry medical student who inspired Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road, and Edith Laura Armstrong and Katharine Tynan, who influenced WB Yeats’s Down by the Salley Gardens, also form chapters. Contemporary songs include Johnny Duhan’s The Voyage, inspired by the relationship with his wife, Maureen Biggins; the late Phil Lynott’s beautiful Sarah, about his baby daughter; and Mick Hanly’s Past the Point of Rescue and Crusader .

One of the biggest surprises for Hanberry was the background to Nancy Spain, sung by Christy Moore, and written by Dubliner and pub owner Barney Rushe, who died two years ago.

“Rushe decided not to use the real name of the girl who stirred his heart, and he used a name from a newspaper as he thought it had a romantic ring to it,” Hanberry explains. “She was Nancy Brooker Spain, an English journalist and broadcaster who was killed in a plane crash in 1964 on her way to report on the Aintree Grand National.”

Spain was educated at England’s exclusive Roedean. She became a sport reporter, served with the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the second World War, and returned to journalism and broadcasting. She was in several gay relationships, and lost her first love to illness. She was with her life partner Joan Werner Laurie en route to Aintree when their Piper Apache crashed.

Enthralled

Galway GirlSharon Shannon

“Everyone in trad circles seemed to know that this was Joyce Redmond, who is not from Galway at all,” Hanberry says. “But it wasn’t generally known that she is from Howth, Co Dublin, and her mother is an Aran islander. And it was in Galway that she met Earle – though not on the old Long Walk of his lyrics.”

Hanberry describes how Earle and Redmond, herself an accomplished singer and bodhrán player, were both at fragile stages in their lives when they first spoke in Cafe du Journal on Galway’s Quay Street. Earle was looking for a phone number. They became inseparable during Earle’s three-month visit to the city, and still stay in touch. It was thanks to Tom Dunne, of the band Something Happens and Today FM, that the song which Earle wrote about that friendship became such a hit for Sharon Shannon and Mundy.

And so, when the book was the focus several weeks ago of a musical celebration in a Galway pub – named after another woman, Róisín Dubh – the author was delighted to welcome many guests, but two in particular. One was Johnny Duhan, who gave a rousing rendition of The Voyage. The other was Redmond, in striking black dress, and both she and Hanberry rocked the room with their own interpretation of Galway Girl.

On Raglan Road: Great Irish Love Songs and the Women Who Inspired Them by Gerard Hanberry is published by The Collins Press, €14.39

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