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The Great Northern Songbook - 4. The Island

Stuart Bailie | 11:40 UK time, Friday, 15 June 2012

Like many listeners from these parts, I had filtered out a lot of music from the Troubles. Too many bad songs and an excess of glib lyrics. Could we not just pretend that 'Zombie', 'Belfast Child' and 'Through The Barricades' had never happened? Or at least we might decommission the records, sealing them in a soundproof bunker. So I was a little nervous about coming back to Paul Brady and 'The Island'.

Thankfully, it holds out well. Some of Paul's records sound distinctly Eighties. The heavily processed drums and the digital synths have something to do with it. But 'The Island' is just voice, acoustic guitar and piano. It's pure. Meantime the lyric is an evident battle for the author - he's so concerned with getting it wrong. For the Ulster Hall rendition, the gig went to Ciaran Gribbin, on parole from INXS, clearly learning from his new job on the stadium circuit. He found the kind sentiment in the song, but also recognized the instinct to escape and the yearning for a new deal, however remote. Ciaran sang it like a gospel tune. It broke your heart.

In the mid Eighties, Paul Brady found himself at Utopia Studios in London, trying to finish off his new album, 'Back to The Centre'. But he was going through awful difficulties with the final track. He was literally writing the lyrics at the microphone. It was a song that he'd been working at for years, and he just couldn't get there.

It was called 'The Island' and it found the artist at odds with the political situation in Northern Ireland. More than that, he was also thinking about the appalling war in Lebanon, and how perceptions are formed by simple news stories on television. And as if this wasn't enough, he was also trying to weave in some kind of a love song, to put some humanity in there.

So it was a complex idea, and he was naturally worried about getting it wrong. Neither was Paul Brady a controversial act. That wasn't his style at all. Sure he had written about his personal experiences as an Irish person on the older track 'Nothing But The Same Old Story', but that was hardly a political gesture either. What he was holding out for was a discovery in the song, the answer to his questions. But the deadlines were looming and the studio sessions were due to finish. Paul Brady was basically forced to articulate those last lines and then wrap up the album, set for a 1985 release.

It was only with hindsight that the artist realised he'd done well with 'The Island'. It was enough that he had presented the questions. Each person who listened to the song could work out a personal response to that.

The song is like a variation on Bob Dylan's 'Desolation Row' in that history is being painted over and brutalised. It's about slogans and flags, and the doctrine of an unnamed "witchdoctor". The business of sectarianism has brought the place to an awful pass. There are car bombs on main street and a cult of violent sacrifice. Paul Brady clearly believed that this mindset was out of date.

Much of this related to his own background, growing up in Tyrone. His father came from Sligo and taught across the border in a National School in Lifford. His mother was from Irvinestown and she taught school at Sion Mills. Paul had attended a mixed primary school here, although the family home was in Strabane, between the two worlds. As he grew up, he became strongly aware of the tension in Tyrone, and in his mind, Donegal represented a kind of escape from much of that. It gave him distance from where he might view the difficulties of Northern Ireland. And it was also an artistic perspective, to better view the burning cedar trees of the Lebanon and the horrendous death toll there. Finally, the Atlantic coastline had to potential for barefoot lovers, looking for their own connection.

With all this in mind it was important not to crowd out the song with instruments and a fancy production. Wisely, it was Paul Brady's voice that carried the meaning. His was a signature tone that had been conditioned by traditional music, by ballads and by rock and roll. He could effectively relate the modern Irish condition with his voice. And while there was a little acoustic guitar, the chief accompaniment was the piano playing of Kenny Craddock, pure and unembellished, like a Sunday School moment.

Paul Brady admits in his song that it might all sound like a liberal cop-out, that love may not be the solution. But he makes a great case for himself, suggesting that real peace and real freedom may come out of a collective spirit, causing us to march down that battered Main Street together. Amen.

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