Portadown, County Armagh, is a town in the mid Ulster Province, traditionally the heart of Gaelic Ireland. Ulster has nine counties, three of which are in Ireland, six in the United Kingdom. Confused? Graffiti on a Belfast wall should explain it …. “If you are not confused you don’t understand the situation.” There.
In the 1600’s, Portadown was at the centre of the ‘Plantation of Ulster’, an agricultural way of describing a forced, hostile take over of land stolen, then ‘implanted’ with hordes of Scottish Presbyterian ‘settlers’. Och aye the noo, I’m probably Scottish. The River Bann, Portadown massacre of 1641 of course ‘justified’ atrocities that followed.
Where’s the music?
I grew up surrounded by marching bands. Brass bands, flute bands, bagpipes, massive Lambeg drums. And a piano. I would parade with the Cubs and Boy’s Brigade behind the bands. I would learn the songs of No Surrender and The Sash my Father Wore. And a few hymns. Yearly. Religiously. I would singe at the burning of effigies and huge bonfires. July in Northern Ireland.
I thought I could sing. At the age of 9. To prove the point I embarrassed my family at the weekly Town Hall variety show. It was the usual song, dance, comedy entertainment show and at the interval the audience was invited to strut their stuff. I was one of three strutters. I won. Ruby Murray’s ’Softly, Softly’. I repeated my effort at the Pierrot’s Bandstand on the Promenade at Newcastle, ‘Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’. My career had begun. No contracts were entered into. I blame Australia.
I got on a boat, the S.S. Stratheden in late 1957. My piano wouldn’t fit. I went straight into Tech at Footscray, Melbourne, an institution not known for its music program. My other love, soccer, kept me going representing and captaining the State for seven years. A ruptured knee ended that dream. But converging at about the same time were The Beatles, a guitar, a church, a faith, a pipe organ, a Teaching degree, Beach Missions, Theos, David Cummings (Wycliffe). Another piano. And a marriage.
Heather and I took a year off teaching to go to Papua New Guinea. To teach. Serendipitously, on staff, was a couple with close ties to Chuck Girard and the other members of ‘Love Song’, who at that time was finding his feet and his faith. I had just been introduced to his music by Geoff Bentley and had been performing his songs with Geoff, John Ballis and Steven Grey.
Music would be key to my teaching throughout my career but it really wasn’t until my return from PNG and my introduction to the Truth and Liberation Concern community that I began writing. This extraordinary community had a vibrant creative tone led principally at that stage by Morris Stuart and Mike Peele. The community always had wonderful bands and musicians but the mid to late 1980’s and onwards saw original plays and musicals thrive and my writing took off. John Bosua, of course, got me to record.
Songs are emotions. Scratched from the itches of pain and love. From justice to injustice. From friends who died, or survived, prison. From ancestors who died from colonialism. My greatest work has been in the writing of a musical ‘Annie Callahan’. Lés Mis proportions. The story of a young girl caught on the wrong side of imperialism, strangled by oppressive discriminatory laws, robbed of land, impoverished by landlords, trapped by the violence of hunger and disease. Not a famine. For in the late 1840’s, Ireland had an abundance of every stock and crop. But they were earmarked for exportation. Locked behind barriers and guns at ports. Headed for England. And the troops in India. The starving could not be given food. The British market economy saw to that. And those totally dependant on the humble potato on a squalid rocky plot, saw them rot before their eyes, watched their people die from starvation and disease. Over a million. Another million and a half fled.
I have always regarded the arts as a means of reaching the guarded soul. So when Hamlet tells us "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," he's saying that Claudius' guilty conscience will shine through when he's watching the play that Hamlet's arranged. It's literal. He wants to catch Claudius red-handed—or red-faced, so to speak. Or when the prophet Nathan told a story that enraged David, the story of the rich pillaging the poor, only to have Nathan expose the ‘enraged’ David for adultery and murder, David being the powerful ‘rich man’ who had taken advantage over the ‘poor man’, Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.
The shining example, using the art of self discovery and enlightening , is Jesus’s use of parables, to tease the mind into active thought. Rather than just always parrot answers, he would engage his audience and followers into creative thinking and problem solving. A great work in exploring the parables is Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Songs I’ve written post ‘Hold On’, continue to pose questions, tease the mind. For a mind that doesn’t just parrot cliches and follow indiscriminately policies of one brand or other, is a mind that won’t be squeezed into a mould but “let God re-mould our minds from within, so that we may prove in practice that the plan of God for us is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”