I'm going to try and do this once a day (won't happen)…
Post the Second in 100 Awesome Musical Things to be Found on YouTube:
(Trigger Warning and General Good Advice: Do not read the comments on YouTube videos. That way bigotry and trolls do lie)
"The Octopus Jig" – The Dubliners.
You might need to watch this twice to get what's going on. Let me lay it out for you:
Barney McKenna is the little dude with the beard and the banjo.
John Sheahan is the auburn-haired dude with the beard and the violin.
Ciarán Bourke is the tall dude with the beard and the tin whistle.
Luke Kelly is the dude with the ginger afro and the beard and the glass.
Now, it gets complicated.
Barney is picking the banjo with his right hand while his left is fingering (oo-er, get over it) the notes on the violin..
John is bowing the violin with his left hand and fingering the notes on the banjo with his right. He is also blowing (oo-er, get over it) the tin whistle.
Ciarán is fingering the notes on the tin whistle. And drinking a glass of something unspecified but looks like a pale ale to me.
Luke is pouring beer down Ciarán's throat.
There are versions on YT with Luke's introduction but the quality is shite and these are the fifty seconds we're interested in. So anyway, if your mind isn't at least a bit blown by this I'm not sure you've quite understood what's going on.
Can you pat your head and rub your belly at the same time? It's a bit like that, only really fast and with the great complication of needing to find different notes.
Next question: do you know someone else well enough to be able to coordinate it with them? Have you ever tried to pat your head and rub someone else's belly (with their permission, please) and do it in time?
Barney McKenna died a couple of weeks ago, having a cup of tea at home. He was, as the press said, the last of the 'original' Dubliners, but given Sheahan's been in the group since 1964 (they started in '62) it seems a slightly trivial fact to me, but hey-ho. I've been listening to the group again on and off since. I find their astonishing go at The Mason's Apron really useful for cycling in the gym…
Luke, he of the clear-as-a-bell voice, died in 1984. He's the fellow who sang the near-impossible Rocky Road To Dublin some of you will recognise from Sherlock Holmes. Seriously, try and sing along… If the Dubliners were good at anything, it was making the Really Difficult seem Really Easy.
Ciarán died in 1988 after years of ill health (Check out his last TV appearance here, worth it for the faces in the crowd…).
Ronnie Drew, he of the coal-under-a-door voice, who you see in the background of the Octopus Jig video, died in 2008. I don't mind telling you that when I heard the news I burst into tears. I love voices you see, and his is so distinctive, so interesting and full of soul…
By the time I was attending Dubliners gigs, Luke and Ciarán were long dead. Ronnie had left the band and rejoined and left more than once. I saw them first with my mammy at The Cambridge Corn Exchange. The crowd were having a nice time but being very English and muted about it. The other times I saw them was in Dublin itself, at Vicar Street. Vicar Street is probably my favourite venue in the world, and mostly because of them… and in spite of the bar prices.
I had the chance to be at their Royal Albert Hall gig not long ago but balked at the ticket prices and with the sad feeling derived from the last time I saw them that they were not quite at their best anymore. The last time I saw them, at the 'A Time To Remember' show at Vicar Street, some of their zest and zip was missing. They are, after all, old men. I don't say it to criticise: on my best day I'm not half the musician they are on their worst… just that I couldn't quite face the creeping mortality of my heroes.
The Octopus Jig never fails to make me smile. It's silly and funny but still breathtaking. I've seen it dozens of times – linked a bunch of people at work to it randomly back in March sometime – and it still make me go 'whuh? how?'. I wish I was in a band where we were all so awesome, so in tune with each other that we could do something like that… I suppose that's why I like this particular moment so much, because you can't do that without being so close as to share a single musical brain. Are there even any other groups who have done it? I don't know.
The Dubliners are the sound of the home I miss and never fully had. It's not simple dewy-eyed and rose-tinted ah jaysus isn't Oireland in the Rare Aul' Times de best? nostalgia for an Ireland which never actually existed. The Dubliners to me are the warmth of Gallagher's Boxty House on a rainy night; they're a walk through Stephen's Green or up the Liffeyside; and of driving though County Kerry's majestic beauty with my family; of the solitude of an empty road in Galway; of dark moments of desperate yearning; of a wet August Sunday morning in Cork; singing "Raglan Road" and "Love Is Pleasing" myself; walking through Islington late one night yelling "The Sons of Roisin" along with Luke; walking to work on a Tuesday morning past the British Museum… a thousand everyday moments half-forgotten but fully lived.
There are musicians I've loved for longer, ones I've loved more passionately, more obsessively, more intensely… but the Dubs are part of the musical fabric of my heart and soul. You know me: that means that they are my heart and soul.