An Evening with Ronnie Drew, Theatre Cité Bleue, Geneva – April 16, 2005
No historian could ever summon up the feel and texture of the nation the way Ronnie Drew does through the course of a ghost-filled evening.
In Geneva last Saturday night, he took us on an unsentimental journey down the last 150-odd years, in humorous yet often touching tribute to the lives of working men and women: from the mass graves of Famine-times through the streets of tenement Dublin; from the newly independent nation’s sometimes ludicrous sense of its own Roman Catholic self-importance to the uglitudes of SUV Ireland badly mauled by the Celtic Tiger.
His voice rolls out of a deep place to tug at your heartstrings and alert your ear to something important, stories full of grit and passion, told with remarkable sensitivity when required as in the impeccable rendition of Shane MacGowan’s “The Dunes”, a chilling evocation of the fate which overcame those who wandered starving among the dunes of mid-19th century Mayo.
Other stories are told with a rollicking, searing kind of jollity which makes familiar anthems like McAlpine’s Fusiliers and Dicey Reilly sound as fresh and potent as they must have, the first time he performed them in public with The Dubliners.
It’s as if, with the aid of Mike Hanrahan’s beautiful guitar, he has been able to revisit these word paintings and painstakingly remove the layers of disrespect shown to them over the years by all the rest of us who have beaten them to death in bars up and down the land in happy singalong mediocrity. (I was secretly glad he did not shame me by delivering my own so-called party piece Monto.)
Ronnie links up all these musical vignettes with the aplomb of an accomplished actor, wryly mining the comedy in his own life and the lives of those who were, and are close to him.
These narrative diversions included a side-splitting account of Ronnie, the not entirely proud father, recovering from a horrendous hangover in the uncomfortable surroundings of Dublin zoo’s hot-houses with his young daughter at his side.
Or his sobering account of the fate that befell himself and Terry Woods from the Pogues when they let Barney McKenna attempt to drive them home because he “only had five pints.” A hint: it leads into the Auld Triangle.
A shining moment occurs when he transforms himself unannounced into the person of Captain Boyle to deliver the magnificent “What is the stars” speech from O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock”.
His appreciation of literary life in Dublin has a nice cynical undertow thanks to his personal acquaintance with the citizenry of pre-Celtic Tiger Baggot St. and his own frank revelations about the paramount importance of whiskey in those circles. His sincere affection for Behan and Kavanagh comes through in his interpretation of some of their finest songs. Even Luke Kelly could not but have applauded Ronnie’s interpretation of Raglan Road last Saturday.
Mike Hanrahan’s guitar work provided the perfect foil for Ronnie’s voice, particularly on Nora from Sean O’Casey. Hanrahan’s own composition Garden of Roses was one of the musical highlights of the evening, a painful but deeply sympathetic evocation of the loss inflicted on victims of child abuse at the hands of the clergy.
The Swiss in attendance may have been puzzled at times but the Paddies working for the UN, the banks, SITA, DuPont, Proctor and Gamble, Immogen and the Red Cross were lost in the music, captivated by the words and transported back home for the evening.
And it was all in aid of a good cause. Euros 5,000 was given April 22 to Stu Flavell, international co-ordinator of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and another Euros 1,000 is earmarked for an orphanage in Harar, Ethiopia, pending finalisation of the project proposal.
All in all, it gave a great boost to those of us involved in organizing the event, the Geneva Literary Aid Society formed to support the arts and people living with HIV/AIDS who are estimated to number 40 million worldwide in the greatest public health emergency the world has ever seen with 7,000 to 8,000 people dying every day.
The GLAS web site is in its infancy but you can check it out at www.theglas.org and photos of Ronnie and Mike will be posted there shortly. They have won a new fan base in this part of the world.