Paul Durcan on Van: "The Drumshanbo Hustler"

The Drumshanbo Hustler:
A celebration of Van Morrison

by Paul Durcan
From the May 1988 issue of Magill (page 56)
Transcribed by Denis Healy

(Paul Durcan is a Dublin-born poet. He co-wrote (and jointly sang) the lyrics for "In the Days Before Rock and Roll" with Van Morrison. See also the Glossary entry for Justin)

"The important thing to remember is that I'm not an entertainer, I'm an artist - a musician." - Van Morrison, Amsterdam, July 1973.

I've spent the last six months travelling about, giving recitals from my book Going Home to Russia: Ireland, the UK, Canada, Italy. Some day I'd like to publish a blow-by-blow journal of this kind of living - a kind of Forked Lightening Logbook - one night stands from Hull to Bolton, from Montreal to Cape Breton, from Coleraine to Castlecomer, from Olivetti to Perugia - but, just for now, I'd like to report that I brought along with me for company the tapes of Van Morrison. The operative word is company.

Being an artist of any kind is by definition a lonely occupation. But in addition to the nature of the job there is the fact that socially it's lonely (I mean socially as well as spiritually) because I don't like the company of literary people or, rather, there are very few literary people in whose company I'd want to be in or, rather I don't find literary people companionable - neither their violence nor their holiness.

Literary people seem to me to specialise in a unique blend of insincerity and sanctimoniousness; it's a combination that makes me cringe and I am glad to take refuge in my Sony Walkman. When I wake up in the morning in a bedroom on the seventeenth floor - after the initial shock - I reach for my Sony Walkman.

But it's now only the actual Jaws themselves - it's that whole mafia of literary wheeler-dealers comprising James Bond academics, Ayatollah publishers, hysterical columnists, club critics, who bestride the one vast literary bidet on the slopes of Parnassus; there they squat all year round, hooded fossils, self-regarding, satisfied, oblivious, brooding, conspiring.

There are exceptions. There have been times when I have carried my Sony Walkman half-ways around the world without ever taking it out of my bag; with Tom McCarthy in Yorkshire, with Anthony Cronin in Russia, with Jennifer Johnson in Montreal, with Dermot Bolger in the Hague, with Seamus Heaney in Boston,with Medbh McGuckian in Saskatoon.

The day I arrived back from Canada - Saturday March 19 - was the day Ireland reached its nadir. After twenty years mucking around in the depths of our own nadir, we finally got there, just before noon on Saturday March 19. I was half-asleep - having got off the jumbo from New York at 8.15 am. But strangely enough - strangely - it was on the evening of the same day that Van Morrison from East Belfast climbed up on an open air stage outside the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. And not only that but he chose to collaborate with Mícheal ó Súilleabháin, a traditional musician par excellence who, precisely because he is a truly traditional artist, is more avant-garde than the avant-garde.

And not only again but - and this is the cake beneath the icing - their finale was "On Raglan Road."

Van Morrison's rendition of Patrick Kavanagh's "On Raglan Road" is fitting because it brings together the two finest poets in Ireland in my lifetime. No other Irish poets - writing either in verse or in music - have come within a Honda's roar of Kavanagh and Morrison.

Both Northerners - solid ground boys. Both primarily jazzmen, bluesmen, sean nos. Both concerned with the mystic - how to live with it, by it, in it; how to transform it; how to reveal it. Both troubadours. Both very ordinary blokes. Both drumlin men - rolling hills men. Both loners. Both comedians. Both lovepoets. Both Kerouac freaks. Both storytellers. Both obsessed with the hegira - from Monaghan to the Grand Canal, from East Belfast to Caledonia. Both originals, not imitators. Both first-time cats, not copycats. Both crazy. Both sane as sane can be. Both fascinated by at once their own Englishness and their own Irishness. Both obsessed with the audience and with the primacy of audience in any act or occasion of song or art. Both fascinated by the USA. Both Zen Buddhists. Both in love with names - placenames as well as personal names: Cypress Avenue, Inniskeen Road; San Anselmo, Islington; Boffyflow and Spike, Shancoduff; The Eternal Kansas City, The Rowley Mile; Madame George, Kitty Stobling; Jackie Wilson, Father Mat; O Solo Mio by McGimpsey, John Betjeman on Drumcondra Road.

You hear talk about the Leaving Certificate Poetry Curriculum. They say that they might change it. But you don't hear them saying that they might put Van Morrison on the Leaving Certificate Poetry Curriculum. "Van Morrison, are they a group?" asked whizzkid EEC Commissioner Peter Sutherland in a courtroom in 1982.

Myself, if I was Minister for Education, I'd bring in a new curriculum in the morning and top of my list would be Kavanagh and Morrison. All of Kavanagh and Morrison - not my selection or Saint Augustine's selection or Barry McGuigan's selection or Dean Martin's selection but the entire oeuvre and let the audience (students are a free audience - not a concentration camp of suitable victims) pick out what they like and what they don't like. Having been Minister for Education, I'd like then to be a member of the audience and for my essay in the Leaving Certificate Examination at the end of two years listening to Morrison, I might choose to offer the following Top Thirty of Morrison's poems:

  1. Summertime in England
  2. Rolling Hills
  3. In the Garden
  4. Cleaning Windows
  5. Listen to the Lion
  6. Snow in San Anselmo
  7. Rave on, John Donne
  8. Alan Watt's Blues
  9. A Sense of Wonder
  10. Hard Nose the Highway
  11. Madame George
  12. Queen of the Slipstream
  13. Gloria
  14. Into the Mystic
  15. If You and I Could Be As Two
  16. Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
  17. Tore Down a la Rimbaud
  18. Cypress Avenue
  19. Foreign Window
  20. Tir na Nog
  21. One Irish Rover
  22. Ballerina
  23. And It Stoned Me
  24. The Streets of Arklow
  25. T.B. Sheets
  26. Ivory Tower
  27. Hey Girl
  28. St. Dominic's Preview
  29. And the Healing Has Begun
  30. Full Force Gale
And I'd state in my Leaving Certificate essay that no Irish poet since Kavanagh had produced poetry of the calibre of those thirty compositions. Even the very titles are original. I'd state that in order to introduce William Blake to an audience you don't necessarily give them poems by William Blake. You give them Morrison's "Listen to the Lion."

I'd write a love letter to the examiners about my favourite Morrison poems. I'd tell them about "Summertime in England", which to me is an Irishman's Hymn to the Englishness that is in all of us if we care to look inside ourselves - which, of course, so many of us don't, except when we are eating young English soldiers for lunch.

Can you meet me in the country,
In the summertime in England,
Will you meet me?

The middle of the poem contains some of the sweetest lines in the 20th century Irish poetry.

Oh my common one with the coat so old
And the light in the head
Said, Daddy, don't stroke me
Call me the common one.
I said, Oh, common one, my illuminated one.
Oh my high in the art of suffering one.

It is also a humorous poem and each time he sings it, down the years, Morrison improvises; like Kavanagh, he is a maestro of the improvised line. In fact, the only new development in recent Irish poetry was Kavanagh's introduction of the jazz line and Morrison's continuation of it. Kavanagh was a great tenor sax who was content to blow his horn in the sunlit angles of Dublin street-corners in the 1950s. He was the King of Anonymity.

I'd tell them about the spiritual adventure of Morrison's poems which parallels Kavanagh's philosophy on "not caring." From No Guru, No Method, No Teacher I'd quote the poem "In The Garden" and the lines:

The summer breeze was blowing on your face
Within your violet you treasure your summery words;
And as the shiver from my neck down to my spine
Ignited me in daylight - and nature in the garden

I'd quote a refrain from "Alan Watt's Blues":

When I'm cloud-hidden;
Cloud-hidden;
Whereabouts unknown

I'd quote the pearl from "Queen of the Slipstream":

There's a dream where the contents are visible,
Where the poetic champions compose.

I'd quote from "Hard Nose the Highway":

Seen some hard times;
Drawn some bad lines;
No time for shoeshine;
Hard Nose the Highway.

I'd write about Morrison's visit to the "Church of Ireland" in his "Tir na Nog" as if it was the only church in Ireland. There was just this one church in Ireland and one day, after thousands of years, a man stopped there, a man called Morrison, and he wrote a poem about it - about this strange place, this strange site, this strange building called "The Church of Ireland."

Maybe I'd tell them also that I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry - the level of daydreaming; that he's out to annihilate ego; that he's after same "nothingness" as Kavanagh was after. In this sense, he's really not a poet at all, no more than I am. He's after the musical technique of how to live.

I'd wind up by saying that in the end only two things count; that poetry is of its very essence part of an age-old oral and placename tradition (known in Irish as the dindsenchas) and Morrison is a modern Irish exemplar of that ancient tradition; and that, secondly, in anything to do with anything we call art, it is in the end all about audience - so that even if, say, you're a writer, it is what you read that counts most, not what you write. The reason that many poets write awful poetry is because they don't read or listen or watch; they are too busy listening to their egos or parading their competing nationalism, instead of being part of the audience that we all are. As Morrison says in "Tore Down a la Rimbaud":

Showed me pictures in the gallery;
Showed me novels on the shelf;
Put my hands across the table,
Gave me knowledge of myself.

In 1973 on RTE television Morrison sang a poem which he called "Drumshanbo Hustle." I have never met him and I am glad to say that I know little or nothing about his personal life - an achievement in anonymity which is as refreshing as it is inspiring. I think of him simply as "The Drumshanbo Hustler" or, in his present incarnation on Raglan Road, as "The Secret Signatory" who, over a span of twenty-five years, has given us a body of work to put beside the legacy of that great other Irish jazzman of the twentieth century, Kavanagh:

I gave her the gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign that's known To all the artists who have known true Gods of Sound and stone And word and tint - I did not stint - for I gave her poems to say With her own name there and her own dark hair like the clouds over fields of May.


Sean-nos (there should be an accent on the o) is a Gaelic word which literally means "old style" and it is the term used for a particular style of unaccompanied singing, often in Irish. If any reader wants to sample the style, seek out the greatest modern exponent of the genre, the late Joe Heaney. (back to reference)

Drumlins are small hills. They were caused by glacial drifts (I think). (back to reference)

The hegira is a term often used for an escape or a flight. The word came originally from the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. cf. Joni Mitchell's Hejira (back to reference)

Part of the van-the-man.info unofficial website

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