When I finally decided to compile this website I knew it was going to be a formidable task mainly because my songs lyrics, notes and tapes are all over the place and I have great difficulty locating certain items at any one time. This has always been a problem for me, ever since I first started writing songs and is exacerbated by people constantly tidying up my desk or my room. If things were left alone I would have no bother laying my hand on anything I needed, as I know exactly where everything was placed, I think.
Friends often ask if I remember the very first song I ever wrote and where it occurred. The answer is ‘yes’. Composing your first song is like looking on the face of your firstborn child as you baptize her with the tears of joy you shed as the angels who gave you this blessing hover unseen overhead.
I suppose it is only fitting that I tell you something about my firstborn:
The Mountain Stream
For a number of years before 1966, I had been trying, vainly, to grasp the nettle of song writing. By that I mean I felt drawn to composing bits of melody in my head and putting bits of words to parts of the tunes, which was very frustrating for me as I used to think that one needed to be a trained musician with a knowledge of music theory to compose a song. However, I had felt for a number of years that I was destined to write songs and in the Autumn of 1966 I finally emerged from the shell which hatched after a difficult and overdue birth. I had been well nurtured through my parent’s and grandparent’s love of song and some of my teachers at Ard Scoil Eanna who, thankfully, considered learning the folksongs of our nation to be as important as learning the three ‘R’s.
Although I had spent most of my teenage years listening to and collecting ‘pop’ songs, I had also the benefit of hearing many fine renditions of our native music on Radio Eireann by people like Margaret Barry, Joe Lynch, Dominic Behan and others on the Walton’s Program (‘If you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song’). This was in the early days of Irish Radio, before the national broadcaster became a veritable Masonic lodge for Fianna Fail hacks and artless hangers on.
Anyway, back to the song. The melody for The Mountain Stream and the accompanying lyrics came to me practically simultaneously and so naturally and casually, it felt as though I had somehow been
transported back in time and was hearing the echoes of something strangely familiar. Such experiences stem, I’m sure, from an awakening, a spiritual force which operates within human kind like a collective subconscious. The late poet and spiritual writer, John O’Donoghue, often made reference to the ancient rocks in Connemara as containing ’Memory’. I think I understand what he meant.
On that fateful day in August 1966 I was working as a roller driver for Sir Robert Mc Alpine on a stretch of motor way between Pucklechurch and Tormarton, in Gloucestershire.
I had commenced work in April of that year as a labourer, digging trenches on the batter along with a couple of hundred other men, mostly Irish like myself. That particular April was extremely cold and for many weeks the west of England was in the grip of icy gales and heavy snowfalls which made for a very chastening introduction to the life of navvying, especially as I was only nineteen with a ten stone frame and no previous experience of ‘muck savagery’.
As time went on I became more hardened to the work and met many interesting men, each with his own story, some humorous, some tragic, some I later wrote into song.
The Foreman, or ‘Walking Ganger’, as he was called, was a man named Smith from the north of Ireland, who seemed to take an instant dislike to me. I suspected it was because I was the youngest member of the crew, but although I endeavored to prove myself by working as hard as any of the other men, Smith gave me a hard time of it for the first three months during which time I tried to avoid contact with him as much as possible.
I had procured a pair of Wellington boots, one green and the other blue, which made me slightly conspicuous, consequently, whenever Smith could find an unpleasant job for me to do the roar would come up the batter, “Send yon lad with the green boot doyne-a-me”.
The sound of his voice made my Drimnagh blood curdle and I secretly swore that one day I would decapitate him with the thin edge of my shovel.
One day in June we were finished our work for the day and were making our way down the batter to the blue work bus which took us daily to and from Bristol when I overheard Smith saying to one of the crew, “I think I’ll give yon lod with the green boot the boot on Frayday”.
The man to whom Smith directed this remark was quite fond of me and quickly pointed out that I was a Dublin lad. On hearing this Smith raced down to me, whereupon he struck up a conversation in the most friendly manner, enquiring about my name and where I came from.
I’m sure his conscience bothered him about his previous treatment of me because from that moment on it was Brendan this and Brendan that, instead of the green boot references of previous months. Indeed, two days later he called me aside and told me I was to become a roller driver, at sixpence an hour extra plus bonus and lodging allowance which amounted to an extra £5 a week, a considerable amount at that time.
Whenever I sing ‘The Mountain Stream’ in the bath I always think back on those days with fondness. I also remember Mick Turner from Tipperary and his grudging remark, “Mind Smith doesn’t ram ye”.
It was on a beautiful August afternoon as I ambled along on my roller, gazing at the perfect blue sky ahead and dreaming my romantic dreams of Ireland that this song came to me, to stay with me and become part of me, like a child conceived of me.