Book review by Frank O’Shea
Gerard Hanberry: On Raglan Road. Great Irish Love Songs and the Women who Inspired Them. The Collins Press. h/b 252 pp
The first time I heard the song was at a school assembly. This was a large rugby-playing 7-12 college and while I wouldn’t say that the students were all macho he-men, it was a place where there was predictable tension between sensitive emotions and boisterous hormones. But when a quiet Year 11 boy, sitting with his mates, stood and sang it with only piano accompaniment, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
The song was You Raise Me Up and I have heard it countless times since. It has been recorded by many singers and is also a favourite of those whose living is made by performing the songs of others – Frank Sinatra or Glen Campbell, say, Dolly Parton or Adele. It has broken many records for number of people who have recorded it, number of times played on radio, number of sales of the sheet music and is as likely to be heard in a church as in a crowded concert hall.
No doubt it is the music, but there is something in the lyrics also. That opening You of the title can stand for a lover or a friend, a teacher or a coach, a parent or a child, God or a god and can be singular or plural, animate or inanimate. It may have a different meaning for everyone who hears it.
The song began life as a piece of music written by Rolf Lovland, one half of the Swedish-Irish duo Secret Garden. How the words came to be added is one of those pieces of serendipity that is more common than we sometimes think. The other half of Secret Garden, the violinist Fionnuala Sherry loved the novel The Whitest Flower and suggested that Lovland should read it also. When the latter found out that the book’s author Brendan Graham was also a song lyricist, he sought him out and suggested that he might like to put words to the music. The result is the song we have today.
Brendan Graham is one of those Irish success stories that many people may not have heard of. An engineer by profession, he was a youth international in basketball and played the game for some time in Perth, Western Australia. It was while he was there and researching The Whitest Flower that he came in contact with the Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong region of South Australia. He learned how they saw humans and animals, plants and land, sun and sky as all part of one whole and has suggested that the You of his song is that Aboriginal entity.
The first person to record the song was Melbourne-born ‘Irish’ singer Johnny Logan. Secret Garden’s record company would not allow that version to be released as they did not want an implied association with Eurovision. The next recording, by Belfast singer Brian Kennedy, appeared on a Secret Garden album where it had moderate success. Then it was picked up in the US and the recording by Josh Groban became an instant hit. The same happened in the other side of the world with the Westlife recording.
In 1993, Graham was made redundant from his job as an engineer and turned his hand fully to writing songs and fiction. His work won the Eurovision contest for Ireland in 1994 and 1996 and it is not surprising that his name on a piece of music is much prized by many performers. His trilogy The Whitest Flower, The Element of Fire and The Brightest Day The Darkest Night are set in the Irish Famine and the American Civil War: novels of the highest quality.
Graham who comes from Tipperary originally, now lives in Mayo.
The story of the background to You Raise me Up is one chapter in Gerard Hanberry’s 2016 book. It covers the Patrick Kavanagh poem in the title and the story of the Monaghan man’s brief affair with Hilda Moriarty who went on to marry the rakish Donagh O’Malley. There is also a chapter on Danny Boy which settles the origin of both the words and the music. Other songs included among the 14 in the book are Gortnamona, Nancy Spain, Grace, The Voyage and Galway Girl.