My old (and very tedious) Latin teacher used to repeat at length his mantra “by indirections are directions found out.” Well he may have a point for I stumbled onto a site and an article about Liam Weldon because somebody in Chicago asked me a question about “Fields of Athenry” written by Pete St John. They both featured in traditional music sessions at Tailors Hall and elsewhere in Dublin which I and a group of friends used to attend. Whilst I had heard that Liam had passed on I was saddened to see he had died so many years ago in 1995 but still reading about him brought back many happy memories in the late 70’s and early 80’s of a wonderful coming together of visitors and natives and some magical music sessions animated by Liam who was something of the Godfather of traditional music in Dublin City.
Whilst I’ve been in the UK over 20 years I knew Liam and Nellie his wife (who was invariably and affectionately referred to as Nellie Wellie) well but lost touch when I moved over. I have many happy memories of the sessions in Tailor’s Hall and afterwards in the Brazen Head when An Taisce took over the Hall. Liam’s key phrase was “There is a great difference between a folk singer and somebody who just sings folk songs.”
The sessions at Tailor’s Hall were almost like a musical university with Liam’s gentle but firm MC’ing and the many visitors from abroad who would turn up based on word of mouth with musical instruments in hand to join in a real rather than a staged music session. But my favourite times were the laid back Sunday morning sessions and Liam’s (in) famous pot of “pigs’ bits” on the fire! We were often suspicious of the contents but Liam would swear to us that this pig really did have two tails! Often as well Pete St John or one of the Furey’s would drop in. The Furey’s were from a Traveller Family and Liam had encouraged their musicality as well as teaching them the bodhrán. Indeed there was hardly anybody in folk circles Liam didn’t know or hadn’t made a bodhrán for.
We campaigned together to keep Tailor’s Hall open as a folk venue with the “Save Tailor’s Hall” campaign based in my office and we enlisted John Buckley of Hickey Beauchamp, Solicitors (who very graciously took on the case Pro Bono) to stop the licence at Tailor’s Hall being extinguished. Tailor’s Hall is the only surviving medieval guildhall in Dublin and was once a place for the Tailor’s Guild to meet. This early 18th-century building is architecturally and historically significant to medieval Dublin. Until recently it was obscured by a high wall, making it one of Dublin’s lesser-known gems.
It turned out that we couldn’t do anything to stop the licence being transferred as only the residents of the civil parish it was being transferred to (Baron John’s Disco Pub in Crumlin!) could object as the Victorians assumed closing a pub was a good thing which would remove a nuisance from the neighbourhood! The barrister on the other side was a John Cassidy who was unfailingly courteous and helpful to us and who the Judge turned to for advice on a number of occasions. The Judge was helpful but he then explained that he was not displaying bias but that John Cassidy was THE authority on the licensing acts and even he as a judge couldn’t find any logic in them – they had never been updated in Ireland since Victorian times. John later became a judge himself and I was very saddened to hear he died in a car crash. His daughter Constance is with her husband the owner of Lissadell House in Sligo.
After Tailor’s Hall the sessions decamped to the Brazen Head where the owner Mary Cooney, assisted by her barman Dessie, was fighting a losing battle in trying to keep it going in the middle of a Dublin Corporation created wasteland after another notorious “road widening” scheme knocked down the buildings in Bridge Street around it and destroyed the alley way entrance which protected it from the outside world and gave it its special atmosphere. When I see the tourist goldmine the Brazen Head has become today I feel sorry for Mary who sold the place very cheaply. Established in 1198 is at just over 800 years old the oldest pub in Ireland. It is mentioned in Leon Uris’s “Trinity”, Napper Tandy and the United Irishmen met there and Winston Churchill stayed there when he was young.
Liam and Nellie were special people and, along with many others, I never remember being made anything other than welcome in their presence and being put at ease. I had heard about his passing and while it was good to find the details it was sad to read but there are many happy memories of somebody who loved people and their music.
Liam was born in the ‘Liberties’ of Dublin in 1933 and spent his early youth living in that area of the city where he learned some of his songs from the travellers who used to stay in his granny’s yard. Liam always had a great affection for the travelling community and one of his finest songs ‘The Blue Tar Road’ which tells of the hard life endured by the travellers seems to have been accepted into the tradition and is widely sung by traditional singers. Liam often told of the time when he heard a street singer singing a song called ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ and after hearing it sung he bought it from the singer for a three penny bit he learned the song off and later won a prize for singing it at a party.
Liam, like many people in inner city Dublin at that time, was moved out of the developing city to Ballyfermot, a suburb of large scale public housing on the outskirts of the city more commonly known to Dubliners as “Ballyfarout”. Liam had a lifelong interest in the songs of the Irish Travellers and his own songs reflected a strong awareness of poverty, disadvantage and exploitation. His personal ballad style had features of other genres, but the precision of intent in his abrasive lyrics was unmistakable.
LIAM WELDON – James Connolly
Six years working in England from the age of sixteen tempered his social awareness, but yet his lyrics often have deep lyric sensitivity. He sang first at the Central Bar in Aungier St., Dublin, and with his wife Nellie ran gigs and clubs through the 1970s. In Dublin, he organised the Pavees Club in Slatterys on Capel Street and sessions in the Tailor’s Hall and the Brazen Head. In the early seventies, Liam sang and played bodhrán in the group “1691”. Named after the year of the signing of the Treaty of Limerick, other members of the group included Tommy Peoples, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Peter Browne, and Matt Molloy, who later went on to form The Bothy Band.
Liam was well known for his songs “Dark Horse on the Wind” and “The Blue Tar Road”. “Blue Tar Road” is a criticism of Dublin Corporation in the eviction of Traveller families at Cherry Orchard, County Dublin. “Dark Horse on the Wind” is a lament for the lost dreams of the 1916 Volunteers and a criticism of the conflict then (1960s/1970s) raging in Ireland.
In this article from 1999 from the Sunday Tribune Fintan Valley reflects knowledgably on his contribution to the urban folk tradition of Dublin after the unveiling of a plaque to Liam at Ballyfermot Library.
“But last month’s launch of a CD collection of the songs of singer/songwriter the late Liam Weldon – ‘Dark Horse on the Wind’ – at the Cobblestone bar at Smithfield draws attention to the singer in city. This was verified on Wednesday last with the unveiling of a plaque to his memory at Ballyfermot library. Born in Dublin in 1933, Weldon was passionate about song words and singing. He learned from the Travelling people and from the remnant of the broadsheet ballad singers and his own songs reflected a strong awareness of poverty, disadvantage and exploitation. Uncompromising, these challenged the middle-class complacency of the Irish Free State; dangerously he trod ground shared with critics of an Irish national identity which he believed in. His personal ballad style had features of other genres, but the precision of intent in his abrasive lyrics was unmistakable and did not endear him easily to the keepers of the intensive care unit that incubated the Celtic Tiger. He sang first at the Central Bar in Aungier St., Dublin, and with wife Nellie ran gigs and clubs through the 1970s.
His Blue Tar Road, is an indicts us for our indigenous racism implicit in the eviction of Traveller families by Dublin Corporation at Cherry Orchard; Dark Horse on the Wind, from 1966, criticised the 1916 commemorations in the face of what he saw as the failures represented by emigration and poverty:”In the ashes of our broken dreams / We’ve lost sight of our goal / Oh rise, rise, rise, dark horse on the wind.
Dublin singer Frank Harte regards Liam Weldon as someone who gave Dublin people an awareness of the culture of the city they occupied, and for Christy Moore he was “one of the great singers”. Liam Weldon had other standards too – about performance, and in Harte’s memory “he never tolerated anything but silence for a song.” A collector too, he is noted by Tom Munnelly of the UCD Dept. of Folklore as “the only urban-based singer with a genuine interest in the lives and song of the Travellers”. Liam Weldon had his brushes with the possibility of stage success too, playing in the pre-Bothy Band group ‘1691’ with Tony MacMahon, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Peter Browne and Donal Lunny; his songs are sung by such as Mick Flynn, Kevin Mitchell and Tim Lyons. Perhaps his power as a singer is summed up best by close friend Colm Keating who recalls the intense silence which he generated at the Ballyfermot Phoenix Folk Club while singing Patrick Galvin’s James Connolly: “the dishwasher filling up sounded like a waterfall”.
Fintan Valley, Sunday Tribune. 1999
Liam was multi-talented as a songwriter, musician, folklorist, collector of songs, raconteur and also had a great knowledge and interest in the Travelling Community and Dublin working Class History. He was one of the movers to have a plaque erected at St. Catherine’s Church next to Tailors Hall in Thomas Street. This was the scene of the execution of the leader of the 1803 rising Robert Emmet. But Liam and the Dublin Historical Society raised funds to commemorate the 18 ordinary Dublin working men who were also executed there and I was privileged to be at the unveiling by ITWGU General Secretary Michael Mullen. The men commemorated on the plaque are;
Edward Kearney, John Killeen, Thomas Keenan, John Hayes, Michael Kelly, Henry Howley and John McIntosh;
Owen Kirwan and John Begg;
Thomas Donnelly and Nicholas Tyrrell;
Denis Lambert Redmond;
For the background see; The Years of the French
It was a privilege too knowing Liam for as somebody who could not hold a tune to save my life watching Liam in action was a real education. He had great presence and a unique style and I include some of his lyrics and songs below. He was never driven by self interest and was unselfish in the way he shared and facilitated others. He was ahead of his time in campaigning against racist attitudes to the Travelling Community. He was great friends with the Furey family who were from the Travelling Community and encouraged them to learn instruments and play and thought them. In the 70’s they were one of the biggest Irish folk acts. He was the progenitor of the Bothy Band and his sessions over the years acted as an incubator and testing ground for many Irish musicians and singers. He was a talented instrument maker and his bodhráns were sought after by musicians but with all his other interests production was never regular. After the Brazen Head closed for renovation he decamped to Mother Redcaps across the road from Tailor’s Hall but his health was poor (Liam had what he called his “dicky ticker” for years) so he rarely performed. In hindsight An Taisce (The National Trust for Ireland) taking over Tailor’s Hall was probably best for this venerable old building.
For all that I’ll treasure the special memory of those gentle Sunday mornings in the basement under the hall with the dull light coming in through the lunette windows being refracted in the fragrant smoke from the peat fire where Liam would be stirring his pot of “bits” and all the while enticing musicians and singers who had come to this unique place to perform and entertain. A special place, a special atmosphere and in our friend Liam Weldon a special person who was a life enhancer and whose memory endures.
Liam Weldon (15 October 1933 – 28 November 1995)
In compiling this piece I was delighted to find D Fallon’s excellent Blog on Liam on the Come Here to Me Blogsite which is a superb site full of Dublinese and this Wikipedia article on Liam. They inspired me to write this reminiscence of Liam and I’ve used material and quoted from both of them. “Come Here to me” is an excellent site and you can find it on my Blogroll.
DARK HORSE ON THE WIND (Liam Weldon)
Oh those who died for liberty, have heard the eagle scream.
All the ones who died for liberty, have died but for a dream.
Oh rise, rise, rise, Dark Horse on the wind,
For in no nation on the earth, more broken dreams you’ll find.
The flames leaped high, reached to the sky, till they seared a nation’s soul.
In the ashes of our broken dreams, we’ve lost sight of our goal.
Oh rise, rise, rise, Dark Horse on the wind,
And help our hearts seek Róisín*, our soul again to find.
Now charlatans wear dead mens’ shoes, aye and rattle dead mens’ bones.
E’er the dust has settled on their tombs, they’ve sold the very stones.
Oh rise, rise, rise, Dark Horse on the wind,
For in no nation on the earth, more Pharisees you’ll find.
In grief and hate our motherland her dragon’s teeth has sown.
Now the warriors spring from the earth, to maim and kill their own.
Oh rise, rise, rise, Dark Horse on the wind,
For the one-eyed Balor* still reigns king, in our nation of the blind.
*Balor was the one-eyed evil god of Irish mythology.
*Black Róisín, a code name used by the Irish when referring to Ireland during the invasion, when natives were forbidden to practise their Catholic religion, speak their own language, or speak of an “Ireland”. Hence writings were disguised as love songs, and poet’s names usually concealed.
MY LOVE IS A WELL (Liam Weldon)
My love is a well, a deep dropping-well,
As deep as the bottomless sea.
Immersed am I, in the well of my love,
Immersed in ecstasy,
Immersed in ecstasy.
My love is an eagle and fierce is her cry,
As she calls me to mate, with her for to fly,
To the land of the mountains, the mist and the sky,
Where our young eagles scream at the dawning,
Our young eagles scream at the dawning.
My love is a fraughan, royal purple and black,
A fraughan that dwells by the rude mountain track.
And we’ll sink deep our roots, in the mountain’s broad back,
And our seed will spread over the mountain,
Our seed will spread over the mountain.
My love is a flower, so shy to behold,
A primrose emerging from winter’s cold,
A song of the dream-time that’s new and yet old,
And I love my bright love till the dawning,
I will love my bright love till the dawning.
Sixteen Ninety-One: Irish Folk Songs, 1973 (Arfolk, France)
Dark Horse On The Wind, 1976 (Mulligan, Ireland)(also on CD)
Liam Weldon with Pol Huellou, 1989 (cassette only, Goasco)
Séan Howley, Liam Weldon, Brian O’Donohue – Elixir (on Goasco, no further information available)
LIAM WELDON – Smuggling the Tin