The neck of my Guitar
Irishman's Dairy Irish times, 19 Apr 2008

HOW MANY roads must a man walk down? Douglas Adams suggested it was ´42´, which is as good an answer as I can think of so far, writes FRANK MCNALLY

But at any rate, I´ve been wrestling with the old question anew since the revelation this week that the DUP leader-elect Peter Robinson wrote ´Donovan-Dylan, American protest-type songs´ in his youth.

This is rather jarring news. Yes, Robinson is a Protestant, and if a protestant can´t write protest songs, who can? Even so, he´s a Belfast Protestant, whose formative years happened before the Troubles. And as everybody knows, Catholics had a monopoly on grievances in 1960s Northern Ireland. So what on earth would the young Robinson´s songs have been about?

All right, they were, as his sister said, ´American´ in style. But even so. Northern Catholics had the exclusive import franchise for those too, or so we used to think. It´s hard to imagine We Shall Overcome being sung in East Belfast during the old days of Stormont.

No doubt Robinson´s songs were just a passing phase. By the dawn of the 1970s, he was on his way to becoming an estate agent, and this probably took a toll on his youthful idealism. After that, his protest songs may have been more along the lines of the one written by US humorist Dave Barry: ´This land is your land/ This land is my land/ Looks like one of us/ Has a forged deed to the land.´ Still, it would be fascinating to hear Robinson´s early stuff now. Indeed, the possibility that the lyrics still exist somewhere could make them the Belfast equivalent of the ´Basement Tapes´. I look forward to bootleg versions appearing in the near future.

Road-walking is, of course, central to the Northern Protestant´s identity. There must have been times in recent years when the Dublin and London governments asked in exasperation: ´How many roads must an Orangeman walk down?´ Yet ironically, it was the refusal to let them walk down certain roads that helped create a belated culture of grievance in the North´s majority population.

By the 1990s, membership of the famous community group MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) was in sharp decline in many Catholic areas, where it had once claimed 100 per cent of the population. And simultaneously, the feeling of being oppressed was becoming fashionable for the first time among unionists.

It´s very possible that We Shall Overcome was sung around the campfires at Drumcree in the late 1990s, when the times they really were a-changing. Unfortunately, that all came much too late for Peter Robinson the protest singer.

THE SECOND part of Bob Dylan´s rhetorical road question was ´before you call him a man?´ Being recognised as a man was not necessarily Robinson´s challenge, historically. But becoming the man, at least in the DUP, certainly was. And walking down roads played a memorable part in the effort.

Infamously, one night in August 1986, he walked down the R214 into the Monaghan border village of Clontibret, along with several hundred loyalists. Together they the paraded military-style on the hamlet´s main (indeed only) street - part of the N2 - before gardaí intervened. Thus, after only two roads, Robinson succeeded in bringing the words of the classic protest song to life.

Within hours, journalists were indeed calling him ´a man´ (as in: ´A man was arrested in Clontibret last night following disturbances in which two gardaí were injured´). And in the process Robinson acquired the short period of incarceration essential for future DUP leaders. Even so, it´s questionable whether the stunt advanced his accession.

Expressing embarrassment on behalf of all Belfast Protestants, Sam McAughtry wrote subsequently in The Irish Times that, for their level of daring, Robinson´s military manoeuvres were on a level with the Salvation Army.

In the event, it would take a further 22 years before the party leadership came the former songwriter´s way. There must have been times in between when, if he picked up his old guitar and started composing again, it would have been in another American style - the blues: ´I woke up this morning/ And Big Ian was still in charge´ (Repeat for 495 verses).

I´m sure Robinson´s partners in government would particularly love to hear some of his old protest songs. After all, they may have causes in common. Perhaps Sinn Féin´s researchers are already on the job, and humming a line from a song about another person called Robinson as they go: ´We´d like to know a little bit about you for our files/ We´d like to help you learn to help yourself.´ There´s an intriguing thought. With his curly, red hair and slightly high-pitched voice, Martin McGuinness has always been something of an Art Garfunkel clone. And as for the dark-haired Robinson - well, now that we know he was a songwriter in the 1960s, he certainly looks more like Paul Simon than he did last week.

The question is: Can they sing in harmony? If so, the future may be more hopeful than it looks. Perhaps the time for simplistic protest songs is over; and a new era of love, peace, and more sophisticated lyrics is about to begin. Goodbye the Chuckle Brothers. Hello darkness, my old friend.

© 2008 The Irish Times

See also these last articles

Irishman's Dairy Irish times, 19 Apr 2008 - 0000-00-00 posted by unknown

Simon's monthlong residency at BAM The Hollywood Reporter International - 0000-00-00 posted by unknown

Paul Simon likes Grizzly Bear www.pastemagazine.com - 0000-00-00 posted by unknown