WINTER 2018 / VOL. 18 ISSUE 1
‘Galway Girl’ Still Sways Hearts,
Despite ‘Me Too’ Movement
By Michael Corrigan
"And I ask you friend, what’s a fella to do
The Celtic rock group, Swagger, returned to Pocatello’s Portneuf Brewpub. Though the audience was small, possibly due to bad weather, it didn’t take long for the band to get the crowd dancing with one of their signature songs, "Galway Girl."
The song describes a young man in Galway, Ireland, who takes a walk along the famous Salthill Promenade and meets "a little girl" with black hair and blue eyes. Their walk leads to a brief fling. "What’s a fella to do?" Sadly, the narrator wakes up "with a broken heart and a ticket home."
"Galway Girl" has lyrics even drunks can memorize, simple chords, and rousing melody perfect for mandolin, guitar, a violin and/or accordion. A Celtic flavor runs through the tune that has become famous as an Irish anthem though the songwriter is Steve Earle, an American.
Evidently, Earle went to the musical city of Galway to recover from heroin addiction. They will teach you to drink deep in Galway, and possibly heroin isn’t the local drug of choice. While in Galway, Steve Earle found the inspiration for "Galway Girl." Like "Folsom Prison Blues," the opening notes of Earle’s song immediately ignites any audience, Irish or not. It has been covered by many musicians, including Ireland’s Mundy with the Sharon Shannon band.
Any popular song will have fans but also detractors. Irish comedian and Galway native, Sheela-na-Gig, a.k.a. Jeanne Rathbone, has condemned "Galway Girl" as a "trite and trashy" song. She puts it in the tradition of Irish songs "written by men who have objectified and fetishized women."
Rathbone has a point. "Galway Girl" is not trashy but it is a simple, perhaps even trite song, and that’s part of the fun. The word, "girl," could be seen as pejorative, since the narrator meets not a "little girl" but a woman. Though Earle’s song celebrates a woman’s hair, does that suggest a fetish as Rathbone argues in her article?
Rathbone mentions that the song’s reference to a "flat downtown" is an Americanism, and why, after a one-night stand, would the narrator have a "broken heart and a ticket home"? The narrator could be an American, and felt sad a glorious moment had passed. Maybe he had a bus ticket out of town. Does it matter? The visiting narrator is emphatic about one thing: "Boys, I ain’t never seen nothin’ like a Galway girl."
Jeanne Rathbone admits that she is in the minority:
"I might be dismissed by some for being a curmudgeon begrudger and grumpy old Galway woman. In my defense I would say that I would even prefer the song, ‘Galway Bay,’ to this drivel." Though a sentimental song made famous by Bing Crosby, the women in "Galway Bay" are workers, not objects of desire, as Rathbone notes.
There’s nothing wrong about anger against art that is racist, sexist,
or misogynistic, and Rathbone is angry: "It pisses me off that this silly
ditty by an American has become the definitive Galway song." Ditty or not,
"Galway Girl" is a rousing crowd pleaser. One day, I hope to walk
again the Salthill Promenade searching for my own "Galway Girl," but until
then, a visit from Swagger that will include "Galway Girl" in their
set is good enough for now.
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