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The Irish For: I'm getting tired of the same Christmas pop hits - here are some alternatives

What harm if we learn some words as Gaeilge along the way?

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THIS IS THE latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy. 

Some 20 Christmases ago, I was a student working part-time in a shop where the radio would play as we went about our tasks.

When December came around, I was only too eager to take the opportunity to work a few extra shifts to make a little money. 

It was during these few weeks that I lost all goodwill towards the great Christmas pop song book.

I didn’t even like the good ones anymore – and most Christmas songs are not good, even by the standards of the artists who sing them. 

Worst of all, however, is the fact that the December radio playlist back then is pretty much identical to the one currently on offer – they stopped adding new tracks around the time that Ireland stopped winning the Eurovision.

Given that some of these seasonal hits have a very tenuous connection to the Yuletide, why don’t we add some new songs that do make a reference – even a brief one – to the season?

And sure if we learnt a few Irish words along the way, it wouldn’t kill us. 

An triúr saoithe – the three wise men

These are referred to in the Bell X1 song Rocky Took a Lover, a song which has a seasonal feel without shoving sleigh bells down your throat.

Songwriter Paul Noonan even manages to shoe-horn an Oscar Wilde reference into the lyrics: “And from this gutter we’re still staring at the stars.”

Sáirsint earcaíochta – recruiting sergeant

A recruiting sergeant features in our next Christmas tune, Arthur McBride.

It bears similarities with one by a band closely associated with the season – The Recruiting Sergeant by the Pogues – and a subplot in Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea traces of different versions of the original song spread in England and Ireland.

Of the multiple versions of this song, Paul Brady’s is probably the best known. It features two Irish cousins out for a walk on a Christmas morning when a recruiting sergeant tries to sign them up for the British army.

However, our narrator and his cousin Arthur reject his empty promises. Brady’s version even drops an Irish word, spailpín (a wandering hired labourer), into the lyrics. 

Dreoilín – a banger from holidays at the Gaeltacht if ever there was one, this song concerns the sorry fate of a wren who ran afoul of a cat.

While it doesn’t allude directly to Wren Day traditions held on St Stephen’s Day, this line makes reference to the pagan symbolism of the King of Birds that informs those festivities: “Mar ‘bheadh éinín Dé ann, Is í imithe suas ar Neamh” (if there was a god of little birds, it’s to heaven she’s gone). 

Cathair Dháiví – David’s city

The Anglican carol Once In Royal David’s City, which features on the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album, was written by Dublin woman Cecil Frances Humphreys.

Every December, there is a discussion about whether certain songs should be changed or discarded on account of how their lyrics are out of tune with modern values.

In this context, it is worth considering the history of one of Humphreys’ other works, the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.

Many decades before snowflake became an insult, the entire third verse of this was discarded on account of its suggestion that the class system was divinely ordained. 

Cumha – homesickness

Every December, 90s boyband East 17 get included in the Christmas playlist on account of Stay Another Day, a song that isn’t remotely seasonal but had chiming bells cynically shoved in by a producer after the fact.

Personally, I think we should have less E17 and more N17 by the Saw Doctors. What could be more christmassy than a song about emigration, homesickness and the anxiety that things will be different if and when you go back? 

Aiteacht – returning

Can an advertisement ever reach the heights of a work of art?

It’s an evergreen debate, but it is interesting to compare the arguments about the appropriateness of certain seasonal songs and films to the uncomplicated affection for old seasonal ads.

In particular, the ESB ad from the 1980s featuring Comin’ Back by Dusty Springfield (Mary Isabel O’Brien when she was offstage) is as welcome every year as the returning son in the ad itself. 

Nollaig shona díobh! 

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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