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The Body of an American - the Pogues

"There is an ancient ballad form called dinnseanchas in the Irish poetry tradition. Dinnseanchas songs are songs about places; similar songs appear in the oral traditions of most displaced peoples. The profound yearning for a meaningful sense of place is so strong in the Irish psyche that it has survived centuries of exile; what I was hearing in the late 1960s in the bar of the Bridge House Hotel (in Spiddal, Connemara) were Americanized versions of dinnseanchas songs brought the long way home." - Joseph O'Connor, "Sweet Liberty".

In 1986 the Pogues released an EP aptly named "Poguetry in Motion" which featured four tracks, among which were the original version of "A Fairytale of New York" with the band's bass player Cait O'Riordan taking the female lead, and the wonderful "The Body of an American".

In US culture (ie tv, films and literature) the American policeman is stereotypically Irish, a truism which reflects or used to reflect the composition of the "boys in blue". In the 19th century the predominantly protestant USA population, amongst which the Irish were mostly protestant also, was for the most part prejudiced against the newer Roman Catholic Irish immigrants. This made it hard for them to get jobs and acquire property but, perversely, strengthened their communities as they had to stick together to survive. So while at first the Irish were most renowned for their criminal gangs in New York and other major cities, politicians soon realised that they needed the swelling Irish vote to get elected. The best way to achieve this was to give them jobs, and the main jobs available run by the state were the public services such as the new Police Forces along with the Fire Service, teaching in schools, and general city hall bureaucracy. As is often the case, incumbents tend to recruit their own, which meant that the proportion of Irish Americans in city police forces became higher than any other national group.

In possibly the all-time greatest ever television series, HBO's "The Wire", set in the Baltimore Police Department, the Irish culture within the police is underlined by the Department's ritual wakes for deceased or retiring officers which always feature a drunken massed rendering of the Pogues' "Body of an American". This occurs at least twice in the series, notably in the final episode for the retiring series lead character, McNulty, and another time as a tribute to the co-creator of the Wire, film producer Robert F Colesberry, who also played the minor role of Detective Ray Cole. Colesberry died unexpectedly while undergoing heart surgery, necessitating an off-screen death for Cole. The cast paid a moving tribute to their producer with the wonderful Delaney Williams providing an emotional eulogy ostensibly to Cole but in reality to Colesberry before the entire department joins rollickingly in with "The Body of an American". They're both a great watch, best starting with McNulty (so as to get the flavour of the wake format) and then Cole's, where the excellence of the scriptwriting blows the roof off: .

"....but Ray Cole stood with us, all of us, in Baltimore, working, sharing a dark corner of the American experiment. He was called, he served, he was counted" (raising a toast) "Old King Cole"

Shane MacGowan's genius is emphasised in that he has taken the Irish form that has rebounded back from America, and returned it once again to its new homeland with urgent street poetry that has a universality that perfectly reflects the modern Irish American idiom. Dinnseanchas "coming back the long way" thrice over. Here are the words, switch to the Wire links above, knock back a double shot of Jameson's and sing along with Shane and the Baltimore Police Department:

"The Cadillac stood by the house

and the yanks, they were within

and the tinker boys, they hissed advice

"Hot-wire her with a pin"

when we turned and shook as we had a look

in the room where the dead men lay

so big Jim Dwyer made his last trip

to the shores where his father's laid

but 15 minutes later we had our first taste of whiskey

there was uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history

the men all started telling jokes and the women, they got frisky

by five o'clock in the evening every bastard there was piskey.

Fare thee well, going away, there's nothing left to say

farewell to New York City, boys, to Boston and PA

he took them out with a well-aimed clout, we often heard him say

"I'm a free born man of the USA".

He fought the champ in Pittsburgh and he slashed him to the ground

he took on Tiny Tartanella and it only went one round

he never had no time for reds, for drink or dice or whores

but he never threw a fight when the fight was right

so they sent him to the war

Fare the well, gone away, there's nothing left to say

with a slainte Joe and Erin go my love's in Amerikay

the calling of the rosary, Spanish wine from far away

I'm a free born man of the USA, yeah

This morning on the harbour, when I said goodbye to you

I remember how I swore that I'd come back to you one day

and as the sunset came to meet, the evening on the hill

I told you I'd always love you, I always did, I always will

Fare thee well, gone away, there's nothing left to say

but to say adieu to your eyes as blue as the water in the bay

to big Jim Dwyer, the man of wire who was often heard to say

"I'm a free born man of the USA

I'm a free born man of the USA

I'm a free born man of the USA."


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