Stephen Hunt wrote this for Roots & Branches.
Subtitled “the Autobiography of the voice of Clannad,” the title doesn’t quite give the full picture. An investigation of the dust jacket reveals that the book was written with Angela Little, the editor of a Christian music magazine in the UK.
The publisher’s a bit of a giveaway, too.
Over the years I’ve read a few biographies/”testimonies,” all of which tend to follow the same pattern: “I loved music when I was a kid so I joined a band. After a few years of struggle we had some hits. I went temporarily insane and did loads of drugs and had loads of sex. When the hits dried up I realised that it was all pointless and accepted Jesus into my heart. Kids, if you’re reading this, don’t do any of the stuff that I did (except the struggle and Jesus bits.”)
So is this book one of those?
Well, it is, but it’s a lot more than that, as Maire Brennan’s “journey” — musical, personal and spiritual — makes for a compelling read.
The story begins, naturally enough, with her childhood as part of a large family in Gweedore, Co. Donegal. (Donegal is the most northerly county in Ireland, but is located in what most of the world still refers to as “Southern Ireland.”) From there we move into some thoroughly entertaining memories of the first few years of Clannad, the first four albums, and their successes on the outdoor festival circuit in places where hippiedom hadn’t yet lost its grip (Ireland and Germany).
The book includes some wonderfully evocative photographs of the band’s “hair flares” period.
Everything trundles along nicely until 1983, and the release of the single “Theme From Harry’s Game.” It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this record almost twenty years after the event; I certainly remember exactly where I was the first time that I heard it. This may sound incredible to anyone who wasn’t living in England at the time, but let’s not forget that relations between that country and Ireland weren’t exactly cordial at the time.
Less than two years previously, Margaret Thatcher had “taken on” the Republican hunger strikers and allowed Bobby Sands, MP, to die in prison. The general reaction of the English popular press was “good riddance.” It seems extraordinary that a record might have done anything to alter the popular perception of “Irishness,” but remember, this was before “Riverdance,” before The Pogues, before anything.
“Harry’s Game,” (a song in Irish Gaelic), rocketed into the top five in the charts, prompting the BBC, who’d commissioned the track in the first place, to get nervous and demand a translation of the lyrics in case they were “subversive.”
Once the BBC were satisfied, Clannad duly appeared on British TV and a whole generation of young men (OK, me) suddenly realised that the true meaning of their existence was to somehow find a beautiful green-eyed Irishwoman with a harp and a voice like an angel.
The world, overnight, became their Galway Bay oyster. More TV commissions, more hits, collaborations with U2, videos, then something else. Somewhere along the line Clannad changed from a “folk group” into a “coke group.” Maire eventually entered a doomed marriage with a musician and settled into a confused, and at times miserable, life.
The turning point came in the shape of her present husband, Tim Jarvis, a photographer working for the New Musical Express (British music weekly), who was dispatched to Ireland by his editor to do “a piece” on Clannad. As the pair became infatuated by each other and embarked on a relationship, it became apparent that Jarvis did not entirely meet the expected criteria for a working rock hack. He was, in short, a “born-again” Christian.
After a bit of turmoil (!) Brennan came to adopt a similar outlook with the zealous fervour of the newly converted. This sudden wholesale espousal of evangelical (British) Protestant beliefs suddenly opened up an intriguing can of worms within the ranks of “Clann Brennan,” staunch Irish Catholics to a man and woman.
How Brennan managed to personally resolve her newfound faith with that of her ancestors, and her vision of a modern “Celtic Christianity,” surprisingly make for some of the most satisfying parts of the book. She recounts her feelings of apprehension and fear before one of her first large-scale “Christian” gigs, in a church in a Belfast “Loyalist” stronghold.
The harp was set up centre stage, her band came out with a variety of traditional instruments, and Maire sang in Irish Gaelic.
In all the attempts at peacemaking, how often do we hear talk of reconciliation between “the two traditions,” or “the neighbours of differing faiths”? Maire Brennan is one of the few who has crossed “the great divide,” who sees the churches as expressions of one faith, and refuses to accept that places of worship are anyone’s “turf.” Incidentally, as a committed Christian, she loathes the fact that Clannad records are usually categorised as “new age” in the US!
Overall, this book is well worth reading. The Clannad faithful will buy it anyway, but it’s also worth having for its firsthand account of one woman’s attempt to find peace in a land (and a world) where it’s often a rare commodity. Sure, some of the writing does descend into “tract-speak” at times, but we’ll just blame that on Ms Little, shall we? After all, we still remember the first time that we heard “Harry’s Game.”
(Hodder & Stoughton, 2000)