Book on love songs gets to heart of the matter

Joyce Redmond and Gerard Hanberry performing The Galway Girl at the launch of On Raglan Road; Great Irish love songs and the women who inspired them. PHOTOS: JOE O'SHAUGHNESSY.
Joyce Redmond and Gerard Hanberry performing The Galway Girl at the launch of On Raglan Road; Great Irish love songs and the women who inspired them. PHOTOS: JOE O'SHAUGHNESSY.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy meets multi-faceted Gerard Hanberry who explains the stories behind our romantic ballads

Sometimes an idea is so good when it’s finally been executed, you wonder why nobody had thought of doing it before.

On Raglan Road: Great Irish love songs and the Women who inspired them, a new book by Galway teacher, writer and musician, Gerard (Gerry) Hanberry certainly ticks the ‘good idea’ box.

It tells the stories behind 15 great Irish songs, from Danny Boy to Raglan Road and Grace, as well as later works including After All from the Frank and Walters and Steve Earle’s Galway Girl.

The range is broad and Gerard’s only stipulation was that each song had been inspired by a real and identifiable woman, he explains.

Gerard, whose previous books include a biography of Oscar Wilde’s family, as well as four collections of poetry, hit upon the idea for this book after being asked to participate in a concert a few years ago that was organised by the Galway Percy French Society.

The event, at An Taibhdhearc, included works by the renowned songwriter and painter, French, as well as other well-known Irish songs and ballads. It was a sell-out. Gerard narrated the concert and afterwards was approached by audience members who wanted to learn more about the songs.

Initially, he felt the concept could be developed into a touring show, but as he mulled over the idea, Gerard realised that if he selected songs based around a particular theme – namely, love – he could produce a book.

That’s what he did. All the songs in On Raglan Road are about women – Gerard says that’s because women tended to be the subjects of love songs, rather than their authors – and the material covers a huge span of time and genres, from the 40-verse Una Bhán to Johnny Duhan’s The Voyage. The lyrics of the songs are also included, with an abridged version of Úna Bhán.

That broad embrace was something Gerard, a singer himself, was keen to achieve.

“It brings together all my circles and my interests,” he says of the book, which took him some two years to research and write – with great help from freelance researcher and music journalist, Kevin Maguire, he adds.

“I live a very compartmentalised life,” Gerard observes. “I’m a published poet, a biographer, a working musician and a teacher, so I seem to have these circles that don’t intersect. But this book brings them together – music, writing lyrics and poetry and education.”

For the songs by living writers, Gerard conducted interviews using an old dictaphone to record the men’s insights. In the case of the older songs, he did extensive research in the National Library.

Gerard shares the fascinating stories behind songs such as Danny Boy, which was written to a traditional tune following extensive work by two women, although it was a man, Frederic Weatherly, who finally put words to the air.

The much-loved song Nancy Spain, made famous by Christy Moore, was written in the 1960s by Dublin-man Barney Rushe when he was just 18. Its subject was a young woman from the Irish midlands, but her name was not Nancy Spain.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.