When Ronnie Drew died in the summer of 2008, having lost a two-year battle with throat cancer, his death was greeted with the kind of pomp and reverence usually reserved for a military hero – the Irish President and Prime Minister issued statements of condolence within hours, and streets were lined as his funeral procession came to a halt in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. At his funeral, it was telling that, of all the songs and poems that were cited, none was as poignant as the excerpt from a lament to Brendan Behan: “Words have no meaning now, silence is master, laughter and songs bow.”
Behan was a child of old Dublin, born shortly after independence to a family of revolutionaries. His father fought in the War of Independence and his maternal uncle wrote the national anthem, which persists to this day and graphically recounts an ambush attack on a troop of British soldiers in Ireland. Infused by that same spirit, at the age of 16 Behan joined the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and went on a rogue mission to England to blow up the Liverpool docks. He was caught and placed in a youth prison for three years, whereupon he wrote his memoir, The Borstal Boy; years later, he would write his defining work, the play The Quare Fellow, and had his brother Dominic, himself an ex-convict, write a haunting ballad to open the work.
The track is usually performed a capella with a single lead vocalist, in this case Drew. A chorus of voices will normally chime in for the eerie refrain, which describes the ringing of the “old triangle,” a bell which would wake the prisoners at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin each morning, and which still exists today, though it has been retired as a rousing device. The Dubliners’ rendition is perhaps the most well-known, and certainly the most affecting, although versions of the song have since been performed by artists as diffuse as the Pogues, U2, Wilco and Bob Dylan, on his Basement Tapes bootleg album.
The Dubliners – ‘The Auld Triangle’