The Loafing Heroes: raggle-taggle songs about Casement and Kierkegaard
The band want to bring back the fine art of loafing, along with a few more serious concerns
Bartholomew Ryan: ‘I see the great poets like Yeats and Wordsworth and Fernando Pessoa as loafing heroes.’ Photograph: Luis Barra
The Loafing Heroes sing the poetry of WB Yeats and TS Eliot, and the subject matter of their songs ranges from Irish revolutionary heroes to the devastation of losing a brother to suicide. They are based in Lisbon, but their lead singer is from Dublin. They will be touring their storytelling concerts in Ireland in January, on the back of their fourth album, Crossing the Threshold.
Their day jobs, though, are quite different. Lead singer Bartholomew Ryan is a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy. Fiddle player Giulia Gallina is an interpreter. João Tordo plays double-bass and is also a famous Portuguese novelist.
“It can be a blessing and a curse,” says Bartholomew Ryan. “Because people go, ‘Oh your man, he’s a novelist. What does he know about music?’ ”
The band are hoping to meaningfully translate big books into song. Their name has its genesis in Slowness by Milan Kundera. A line at the beginning of the book struck him: “Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Those loafing heroes of folk song?”
This lost figure of the “loafing hero” fascinated Ryan, and he discovered that the idea of “loafing” was cherished by Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth and Søren Kierkegaard. To loaf, as a poetic ideal, meant to daydream, to wait for inspiration, and then to work hard.
“The city version is the flaneur: a dandy, prancing around, broke as bedamned, always wearing the most expensive, in-fashion clothes, before going home to work,” says Ryan. “I would see the great poets like Yeats and Wordsworth and [Portuguese poet] Fernando Pessoa as loafing heroes. They are all emerging at the start of the technological age, when it’s all about speed. These poetic seers in these fast-paced places are all about slowing down. Of course, they’re workaholics. You can work extremely hard, but you’re doing it for your own soul. It’s soul-enriching.”
For Ryan, this means bridging a gap between university and playing music. “Academia is in a dangerous place. Lots of humanities are being closed down because they are useless. Loafing is useless: it’s about sitting back and thinking slow thoughts. What’s left is this fetishisation of publications. People will put anything on their CV. The wise man or woman is being ousted out.”
He is writing a second book on Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher whose work he first encountered while in first year in Trinity College. He picked up a book called Concluding Unscientific Postscripts to the Philosophical Fragment because he found the title so thrillingly ridiculous. He was soon immersed, and the message it taught him came at the end of 600 pages: to “throw away this book and go away and live”.
“What he did to me was inspire me to go out and do other things. To find your own voice or vision, and to question things we take for granted.”
For Ryan, Kierkegaard led the exemplary loafing lifestyle. “Kierkegaard wrote 15 books in six years. But he would go out in between writing, to the theatre. He was a rambler and walker. If he didn’t walk, he probably would have gone mad. He was a loner; he didn’t have a family to go back to, he had this empty room of his imagination. The loafer’s realm is the imagination.”
Their most Irish album
The band aspire to this philosophy, unpretentiously, and their songs have a raggle-taggle spirit. Crossing the Threshold is the Loafing Heroes’ most Irish album. “I was living in Lisbon on the Rua da Saudade, which means the ‘street of nostalgia’. I was thinking about homeness. I wrote a song about my brother, who died, and about Roger Casement. ”
Ryan was 23 when his brother Dwyer, who was a year older, took his own life. They grew up in Dublin’s Ranelagh. “He was the cool guy on the street. He had a great taste for music, and always found the zeitgeist. He was kind of lazy, very talented, and women adored him. He was always a bit of a wild one; got kicked out of my school. He didn’t have any time for authority.”
Ryan and his mother found Dwyer after he killed himself in January 2000. “We never saw it coming. But he was an impulsive individual. He was doing drugs. He was in debt, and there were many different things spiralling out of control.”
Ryan hasn’t lived in Dublin since his brother’s death, moving between Denmark, Holland, Germany and Portugal. “I was angry at Dublin, I was angry at his scene and what he represented. My family were all pretty successful, popular, good parents; my mother was a doctor. Suicide, it can happen to anybody. . . There is a point where you decide to let this eat you up, or to make you quite fearless. It really gave me courage. When I did something, I’d say, ‘I’m doing this for me and my brother’.”
The Loafing Heroes will play at St John’s Theatre in Listowel, Co Kerry, near where Roger Casement was caught after landing in a German submarine in 1916, before he was hanged for treason. An energetic ballad, Dream of the Celt, tells his life story.
Another loafing hero, Casement wrote flowery poetry before he left Ireland at 16 for Africa, and became a consul of the British empire.
“He was a bundle of contradictions. He was a Protestant and a Catholic, born in Dublin, who spent holidays in Antrim. He was also gay, but believed in the ideals of Victorian England and saw [being gay] as a sickness.
“He managed to get rid of [King Leopold II’s influence in the Congo Free State] who was doing obviously monstrous mass-murdering of the natives there. He came back to Ireland and became radicalised when he saw the poverty in Connemara and then he was hanged, in 1916, for being part of that. He was one of the great Irish figures, but he made no friends. It was a lone voyage.”
Crossing the Threshold is out now. The Loafing Heroes tour Ireland from Dec 31 to Jan 10, including a date at the Sugar Club, Dublin on Jan 9. theloafingheroes.com