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Thunder on the Mountain – Frank McNally on a busy weekend for Bob Dylan’s Irish disciples

An Irishman’s Diary

Conceived and compiled by Westport-based Liamy MacNally, Happy Birthday Mr Bob is an anthology of poems, prose, and personal reminiscences from a hundred or so of the Bard of Duluth’s Irish admirers

One of the more unusual tributes to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday on Monday involved a group of his admirers climbing Croagh Patrick. Well, a bit of Croagh Patrick anyway. Like Giovanni Trapattoni a few years ago, when he was giving thanks for Ireland’s Euro qualification, Dylan’s disciples went up only as far as the St Patrick statue – the first station – to give thanks for Bob.

But as pilgrimage leader Liamy MacNally (no relation to the diarist) explained, the weather would have made a full ascent dangerous. A hard rain – what else? – was falling and conditions in general were so bad that when the group stopped to sing Blowin’ in the Wind (another invitation to trouble there) they couldn’t unpack their instruments.

Instead, still unaccompanied, they also sang One More Cup of Coffee for the Road, the chorus of which continues: “One more cup of coffee before I go/To the valley below.” After which, they took the song’s advice and scampered back to the safety of sea-level.

This quasi-religious devotion would not surprise anyone who attended the previous night’s Zoom launch of a book called Happy Birthday Mr Bob. Conceived and compiled by Westport-based Liamy, it’s an anthology of poems, prose, and personal reminiscences from a hundred or so of the Bard of Duluth’s Irish admirers, some of whom are more ardent than others.

I thought I was a fan, but I’m in the book for a piece I wrote about his 2019 concert in Kilkenny, which was somehow only the second time ever I saw him live. The first was at Slane in 1984, so the intervening 35 years of mixed reviews must have put me off. Anyway, I felt like a Bob-less agnostic compared with some of the book’s other contributors, including Paddy McGinnity, a vet from Armagh who had been to about “100” Dylan concerts. And that sounded impressive until we heard from Ken Cowley, a medical recruiter. He’d seen him at least “200” times.

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It’s well-known now that Dylan’s stage name was borrowed from Dylan Thomas, a poet he admired. But before that, he must have just liked the sound of the name. Because in his earliest days as a performer, he appears to have spent a period spelling it as “Dillon”.

Whether that was in tribute to anyone is unclear. Many of history’s famous Dillons were Irish, including several Arthurs who fought in exile for France; John the Nationalist MP; and his son James, the Fine Gael leader and orator who once, defending himself against a charge of pro-Britishness, lectured Eamon de Valera: “my ancestors fought for Ireland […] on the continent of Europe while yours were banging banjos and bartering budgies in the backstreets of Barcelona.”

None of those are likely to have featured much in Minnesota, however. If the pre-Dylan Bob was borrowing anyone’s name, it may instead have been an American football star called Bobby Dan Dillon, who played for Green Bay Packers in neighbouring Wisconsin. Not only was well known locally during the 1950s, he may also have appealed to the singer for an ailment unusual among sports stars: as a result of childhood accidents, he had only one eye.

The later Dylan often sang about people with physical infirmity, ocular deficiencies included, eg: “And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a feudal horn.” Indeed, among the old Blues singers he studied, the loss of at least one body organ was almost a professional requirement. Not so in football. And yet Bobby Dan Dillon became one of the best defensive linesmen of his era, still holding the Packers’ record for interceptions, despite the added handicap of playing for a bad team.

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I mention this partly in defence of a former Irishman’s Diarist, Seamus Kelly, who as late as June 1966 – the zenith of Dylan’s 1960s fame – referred to him in these pages as “Bob Dillon”. Had the error not been visual, I might suspect Kelly’s hearing had been affected by the singer’s concert in the Adelphi the previous month. Another contributor to Sunday’s book launch was Anne Heraty from Castleblayney, was at the Adelphi gig and, after the acoustic opening half, nearly had her “ears blown off” by the electric second.

Thanks to other Dylan cult members, who specialise in collecting his setlists, we know that the penultimate number that night was Ballad of a Thin Man. This must be what The Irish Times’s reviewer George Hodnett (now best known for writing “Monto”) really heard. But tinnitus must have been kicking in by then. According to his review, the set included “Ballad of a Lampshade”, a song not even the most devoted Dylanologists, nor indeed Google, have heard of since.

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