As Jimmy Crowley and Lankum join forces for a gig, Marjorie Brennan delves into the fascinating history of the wartime ballad they both perform.
Cork owes Helena Ronayne a huge debt for rescuing one of the city’s iconic ballads from extinction. It was a chance encounter with the Cumann na mBan veteran that led the city’s legendary troubadour Jimmy Crowley to discover Salonika, and thus the rousing traditional folk song was saved for posterity.
The song was popular around the time of the First World War but had fallen out of use in later decades. Crowley was playing with the band Stokers Lodge, when he came across it.
“Helena was a tremendous woman, she was in Cumann mBan and took part in the War of Independence. We were up in [Stokers Lodge member] Mick Murphy’s house in the northside one night, she was his granny.
“We were eating spiced beef sandwiches, chatting and practising and she heard us. She couldn’t understand why all these young fellas had a hold of all these old songs. I told her we were on a campaign, trying to do for Cork what The Dubliners had done for Dublin — singing in our own accents, and performing old street ballads, the ones that had the social history of the people. She said, ‘If that’s the case, I’m the last woman in Cork to sing this song’ and she gave me what she had of ‘Salonika’.”
The jaunty ballad is sung from two different female perspectives — the first, a woman whose husband has enlisted in World War I, the title referring to the Greek city of Thessaloniki, which was home to a British military base. These women were known as ‘seperas’ as they were paid separation allowance by the British government when their husbands went off to fight. The other woman in the song is the wife of a ‘slacker’, the term given to men who did not join the army. The women in the song swap jibes and sprinkled through the song are references to Cork locations such as the Coliseum and characters including Dicky Glue, a well-known pawnbroker.
“It would have been popular as a street ballad up to the time of the Second World War,” says Crowley. “It is a tremendous song because it gives an insight into the lives of women around the time of the First World War. It kind of died out later, when ballads became uncool, because they were associated with the poor and uneducated. They would have started coming back into vogue with the rise of folk music in the 1960s.”
Crowley and Stokers Lodge gave the song a new lease of life in the 1970s and ’80s, with artists such as The Dubliners going on to perform the song. More recently, it has been recorded by Lankum, whose rendition on the iconic BBC music show Later with Jools Holland in 2015 gained the song a whole new audience. Their version reworks the lyrics, reflecting the fact that the song was likely sung with different verses in other parts of the country.
“It was Jimmy’s rendition we would have heard first,” says singer Ian Lynch. “It was one of the first times I got paid for playing at a session and the first Jimmy Crowley and Stoker’s Lodge album was one of the first things I got with the money. I loved the entire album, there were lots of great songs on it, but I latched on to ‘Salonkia’ straight away. It’s such a catchy tune and I really loved the vibe.”
Lynch wanted to discover more about the song, but information was scarce until he met the late Finbar Boyle, a Dubliner who was an authority on folk and traditional songs.
“For a long time, I couldn’t find out anything about it, other than what Jimmy had written about it. Then I met Finbar who said that although it is very much a Cork song, versions of it would have been sung all over the country. He also pointed me towards a Brendan Behan book, Hold your Hour and Have Another, which has a version of the song with different verses. He talks about people singing it in Dublin at some time in the 1940s.”
Boyle told Lynch that the Dublin version apparently had a verse that was inspired by events in the War of Independence. “The area around Wexford St used to be known as the Dardanelles, because the Black and Tans would get a dreadful time there driving down there from the barracks [in Portobello]. There were tenements up there and they used to get stuff thrown at them in the back of the Crossley tenders. This led to them building cages on the back of the tenders.
“The extra verse goes: ‘The Boers put them in khaki, The Germans beat them black and blue, But we put them in the cages like the monkeys in the zoo.’
“So that’s another really interesting take on it. You realise that most songs would have been found in a lot of different places and different variations. I also heard a recording of some Traveller women in Newry singing a similar song in the 1950s.”
Jimmy Crowley is Lankum’s special guest at the band’s performance at Live at St Luke’s in Cork on Patrick’s Day and while their version is different, Lynch says different rules apply on Crowley’s home turf.
“When we play Cork, we always revert back to the strictly Cork version. Out of respect and because we want to leave the place alive,” he laughs. “Especially playing with Jimmy, it’s a really big honour for us. He’s a living legend and we can’t wait to play with him.”
Lankum are at the forefront of a renaissance in folk music in Ireland and Britain, and Lynch believes the younger generation is particularly well-primed for traditional ballads with a political message.
“Songs like Salonika are fascinating because they afford us an insight into what people were thinking at a certain time in a certain place — people from social classes who might not necessarily have had books written about them or who might not appear in the great histories of the world.” Performing such a song on a show like Later….with Jools Holland was not something the band had ever envisioned, he says.
“I thought it was funny to sing a song like that on Jools Holland and just get away with it. Going on the show changed everything for us. It was just before we did our first UK tour and after that, all the gigs were packed and we have been doing really well since then.” Despite the anti-British army sentiment in the song, Lynch says it has been well-received by audiences there.
“We always give an introduction to the song, where it comes from and the sentiment behind it. It is a really good opportunity to let people know the Irish point of view. In English schools, they don’t really learn about the other side of events. We don’t really get any hassle. The kind of people who come to our gigs would be more sympathetic to Irish culture anyway. I’d imagine if we were playing in more mainstream places or outside the folk scene, it would be a very different story,” he says.
Lankum plus special guest Jimmy Crowley play Live at St Luke’s Cork, on Sunday at 8pm. Other performances at the weekend: Interference plus Elaine Malone, Friday; Scullion plus Anna Mieke, Saturday. Tickets: €23-€25 + booking fee from liveatstlukes.com; Pro Musica, Oliver Plunkett St; Henchy’s Bar, St Luke’s
Oh, me husband’s in Salonika
And I wonder if he’s dead
And I wonder if he knows he has
A kid with a foxy head
[REFRAIN AFTER EACH VERSE]
So right away, so right away
So right away Salonika
Right away me soldier boy
When the war is over
What will the slackers do
They’ll be all around the soldiers
For the loan of a bob or two
And when the war is over
What will the soldiers do
They’ll be walking around with a leg and a half
And the slackers they’ll have two
And they taxed the pound of butter
And they taxed the ha’penny bun
And still with all their taxes
They can’t bate the bloody Hun
They taxed the Colosseum
And they taxed St Mary’s Hall
Why don’t they tax the Bobbies
With their backs against the wall
When the war is over
What will the slackers do
For every kid in America
In Cork there will be two
They takes us out to Blarney
And they lays us on the grass
They puts us in the family way
And they leaves us on our ass
There’s lino in the parlour
And in the kitchen too
And a lovely glass back chiffonier
We got from Dickie Glue
Oh, never marry a soldier
A sailor or a marine
But keep your eye on the Sinn Féin boy
With his yellow, white and green