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Shane MacGowan Is One Of The Greatest Writers Of Modern Times. Exhibit A: The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Cuchulainn was a powerful leader in Irish mythology. He is the central figure in the "Ulster Cycle" of poems which is roughly the Irish equivalent of the Arthurian legends in England. One of the poems in the cycle is "Serglige Con Culaind & Oenét Emire," or "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn" where it is translated as "The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind".

In the story, Cuchulainn is taken ill when he is attacked in a dream by two women with horsewhips (he lay asleep in his sickbed for a year as a result). The tale eventually relates how Cuchulainn is summoned to aid some "spirits" in battle, with the upshot being a resounding victory for Cuchulainn, and with the queen of the "spirit" side and Cuchulainn's wife in the "real" world vieing for his affection. Cuchulainn eventually opts for domestic bliss (of course he immediately goes berzerk and runs off to live alone in the mountains... his return is possible only after some druids give him a potion that causes him to forget the entire episode).

"McCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed..."

John McCormack and Richard Tauber were two of the most recorded artists in mid-twentieth century classical music. McCormack was one of the leading Irish tenors of the period (if you click on the link I provided, you can hear some RealAudio samples, including versions of "Wearing of the Green" and "The Minstrel Boy"); Tauber was born in Austria but eventually fled both Austria and Germany during the rise of Nazism to escape persecution (he was Jewish), before ending up in London. In A Drink with Shane MacGowan Shane speaks at length about McCormack.

"Frank Ryan bought you whisky in a brothel in Madrid..."

Frank Ryan was a member of the IRA, coming from the James Connolly (i.e., socialist) wing of the Republican movement. He fought on the pro-Republican (and anti-Free State) side during the Irish Civil War, and in 1934, with George Gilmore and Peadar O'Donnell helped establish the Republican Congress as a republican, anti-capitalist organisation. The Congress succumbed to factionalism at its first convention held in September of that year and disbanded by 1935. In 1936 as the Spanish Civil War erupted, Ryan led a contingent of 200 Irish soldiers to fight on the Republican (i.e., anti-fascist) side of the conflict (for the Irish fighting on the fascist side, see the reference to the blueshirts in "Boys from the County Hell"). He was captured and received a death sentence in Spain. It was commuted and he died in German custody in Berlin in 1944.

"and you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids..."

Both Italian and British fascists referred to themselves as "Blackshirts" (the official newspaper of the British Union of Fascists was called "The Blackshirt"), but given that the scene here is set in Madrid, it probably refers to the Italians since Italy (and Germany) sent forces to aid Franco.

"Yids" was British slang for Jews.

"and in the Euston Tavern you screamed it was your shout..."

Euston is a London area containing Euston Station, the main terminus for trains coming from the northwest of England. Of course, going in the other direction, if you want to get from London to Ireland without flying or driving, your journey starts at Euston since that's where you catch the "Boat Train" to Holyhead

The lyrics in full -

McCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed There's a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head There's devils on each side of you with bottles in their hands You need one more drop of poison and you'll dream of foreign lands

When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne And you heard the rattling death trains as you lay there all alone Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids

At the sick bed of Cuchulainn we'll kneel and say a prayer And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil's in the chair

And in the Euston Tavern you screamed it was your shout But they wouldn't give you service so you kicked the windows out They took you out into the street and kicked you in the brains So you walked back in through a bolted door and did it all again

At the sick bed of Cuchulainn we'll kneel and say a prayer And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil's in the chair

You remember that foul evening when you heard the banshees howl There was lousy drunken bastards singing "Billy In The Bowl" They took you up to midnight mass and left you in the lurch So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church

Now you'll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks And they'll take you from this dump you're in and stick you in a box Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground But you'll stick your head back out and shout "We'll have another round" At the graveside of Cuchulainn we'll kneel around and pray And God is in His heaven, and Billy's down by the bay

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