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Bang Bang: you’re … alive! From the Bard of the Liberties to the Liberty of the Westmoreland Street Bard

20/10/2009

Anyone of a certain age who knew Dublin in the ’50s and ’60s might smile at the header. To anyone who’s not in the know, I hasten to explain. ‘Bang Bang‘ was a real person. Nobody’s entirely sure of his true name; but he was one those street people who pass into folklore – if only because they’re somehow too … noisy to ignore!

But it’s an old Dublin tradition, street entertainment. And with it the embracing, the encompassing more or less comfortably within mental and emotional boundaries, of the strange, the marginal, the otherwise excluded.  In historical terms you don’t have to reach back too far to come up with other, and more colourful, characters from the poor quarters making their mark on city and memory.

Zozimus (Michael Moran), picture from Wiki

Zozimus (Michael Moran), picture from Wiki

Zozimus (Michael Moran) was one such. Born in about 1794 and blind since infancy, Zozimus used his prodigious memory and versifying ability to earn a meagre crust – and more sustaining respect. He was a ‘gleeman’ – a street performer, specialising in the telling of tales.  His audience in central Dublin gleefully dubbed their very own gleeman ‘Zozimus’ for his high style, their wit characteristically combining mordant mockery with surreal exaggeration – the grudging affection and pride somehow filtering through. (Bishop Zozimus was a compassionate figure featuring in a pompous but nonetheless popular contemporary poem commemorating the good prelate’s attendance upon the dying St Mary of Egypt.)

Zozimus died in 1846, and in 1893 the poet Yeats was describing him as ‘the last gleeman‘ in one of his yearning essays looking back upon what he regarded as a tragically oppressed and therefore moribund culture. Correct on the first count, Yeats was resoundingly wrong on the second. There are gleemen alive and well now on the streets of Dublin. You can’t, it seems, keep a good gleeman down. And the very best of their illustrious brotherhood – for Zozimus set high standards  – may be seen and heard today on those very streets.  More precisely in and around Westmoreland Street, although you may also catch sight of him in Clontarf if you’re lucky enough.

Pat Ingoldsby, poet, playwright, columnist and erstwhile broadcaster; a heroic survivor and celebrator of those tiny joys and sadnesses of everyday life that escape most – and are ignored by so many who are perhaps fearful of feeling too much too often.  Pat, a brave man, has no such fears – even though he knows, and has often faced, the worst. He looks life in the eye – and he blinks, winks, sheds a tear or lights up at the sight of it all. Sometimes all at once. Almost. ‘Welcome to my head,’ says Pat, ‘please remove your shoes.’

But don’t be deceived by the lightness of tone in his invitation, for the eyes in that head are not looking inwards in shallow, self-absorbed vanity. Far from it, they’re constantly focused with unerring insight on the outer world. Here’s Pat Ingoldsby on a Downs Syndrome child singled out for her sweetness among a group of other such children on a bus:

… time for you to learn

Pat Ingoldsby at his pitch in Dublin

Pat Ingoldsby at his pitch in Dublin

that you can’t go on loving like this.

Unless you are stopped

You will embrace every person you see.

Normal people don’t do that.

Some Normal people will hurt you

very badly because you do.

I like that upper case ‘N’ for ‘normal’, which adds ironic emphasis (you can hear his voice). He’s right, isn’t he? There’s punishment awaiting in some form or another for those who step out of line, shock the complacent and – more bitterly still –  offer the true coin of kindness to those unable to discern its value.  Finally and gloriously, Pat shouts out –  calling for love to triumph: ‘if you’re not normal’ he says to that dear little girl whose heart brims with affection, ‘there is very little hope for the rest of us.’

Pat knows. He’s one who has looked into the abyss, and carried on looking even when it stared back at him. You only have to look at a few of his works to understand that. For me, this is demonstrated by his poem on Northern Ireland, ‘No More’ or ‘Don’t Kill Anyone for Me’ (from How Was it for You, Doctor? 1994). The man’s for peace and firmly on the side of the angels, however heavily disguised they may be – and often are, as the title poem from his 1999 collection Beautiful Cracked Eyes bears witness:

In a world of people afraid

to speak or to listen

It is the ones

who are supposed not to know

time after time

they are the ones

who come and speak with me.

Time after time

when I am drowning

they are the ones

who come and save me.

But you’ll be getting the impression that Pat is all gloom and doom – and that would never do, for his work and life are full of the light of humour.  So let me end this tribute to the Bard of Liberty with one of my favourites, which never fails to make me laugh: verse which contrives to weave apparently paradoxical strands into living, breathing – leaping! – wholeness. Here, a streetwise form of innocence runs together with a heartfelt plea for tolerance, acceptance and understanding – love, even. Love, especially. From the source of life to life itself – time to let the man speak in his own write:

Vagina in the Vatican

A vagina sneaked into the Vatican.

It sneaked past the vagina-detectors.

It tip-toed into the very heart

of the rules and regulations section

where all the cardinals were sitting around

in circles making rules about

times of the month, thermometers and how many

erections are allowed through

the eye of a needle.

The little vagina sprang out suddenly

and shouted “peace be with you!”

The cardinals all replied

“and also with you”because none

of them had ever actually seen one

and they hadn’t got a clue what it

really was so they gave it cups of tea

and chocolate biscuits.

When Father Bartholomew came in for

the cups he paled and gasped and

was just about to say “my dear Cardinals,

with respect you have been sharing your

biscuits with a vagina.”

But he said nothing because it might

have led to awkward questions.

The adventurous little vagina

hopped and skipped and danced

along the corridors shouting

“Peace be with you!”

and all the priests who had never

seen one said – “And also with you”

and all the priests who had seen one

said it too.

In theory it should be just as easy

for an erection.

but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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15 Comments
  1. firebyrd permalink
    20/10/2009 21:05

    There was a man years ago in Cambridge called Snowy, who had mice running round the rim of his top hat and rats sitting on his shoulder. he was famous for his animals, and collected money for charity.
    Good poems, made me think on all sorts of levels
    xx

  2. Minnie permalink
    20/10/2009 21:17

    Firebyrd: glad to see you back. What a lovely anecdote – what happens to these people, and how do they live? There’s a man in Nice, who appears in the town centre in spring/summer sporting black-and-white 18th cent. costume + matching make-up with a pair of white cats sitting on his hat. So glad you liked Pat Ingoldsby’s poems; they’re definitely worth exploring further.

  3. 20/10/2009 23:57

    I had not heard of Pat before, from your post I don’t find him gloomy, but I do find him wise. I really love this one, it is so very true 😉

    In a world of people afraid

    to speak or to listen

    It is the ones

    who are supposed not to know

    time after time

    they are the ones

    who come and speak with me.

    Time after time

    when I am drowning

    they are the ones

    who come and save me.

  4. Minnie permalink
    21/10/2009 00:04

    Cherie: yes, isn’t it wonderful how such simple language can be so complex and rich – and beautiful. I agree – and I wish I’d said it, too! – Pat Ingoldsby is a wise man, indeed. I suspect you’ll be adding him to that book list of yours ;-)! x

  5. 21/10/2009 18:04

    hello… this is really to see if WordPress will let me ‘talk’ to you – but it has turned into a ‘I love poems about vaginas in the Vatican’ instead…(as if there are masses – poems, I mean, not vaginas…)

    hello!

    Vanessa

  6. Minnie permalink
    21/10/2009 18:11

    Vanessa: hello yourself, and welcome. Coogoshlumme, but that was quick! Of course WordPress permits access. It is not snooty like Blogger ….;-)! Mind you, WP has some wonderfully sneaky extra functions where comments are concerned: very useful if, like me, you are afflicted by the odd (very odd) nasty! So glad you too love Pat Ingoldsby’s poem about the vagina in the Vatican. Pat, like the poem, is a one-off.

    • 21/10/2009 18:16

      ah yes, it was quick – I am bored. I was weighing up whether to play Freecell or go to the supermarket. (I am also waiting for what I hope to goodness is the final pdf of the book that is meant to go to the printers this week….) But you won, and the Vatican. Pat Ingoldsby might just become addictive…

      and thanks for your sweet comments re Shapwick. I will have to see if Blogger will flex a bhit.

  7. Minnie permalink
    21/10/2009 18:45

    Vanessa: well, no contest … obviously! Bon courage for your final edit, and the very best of luck for the publication (I know talent & hard work are of the essence; but luck’s the 3rd vital ingredient/success factor ;-)). Now go and visit Pat’s own website – and, yes, he IS addictive. Life-enhancing form, tho’. A la prochaine, x.

  8. 21/10/2009 20:02

    I love Pat. He used to pitch on Nth Earl St and I went to school on Marlborough St. It seemed normal to see a poet selling books on the way home from school! He had a kids’ TV programme and he called a cup of tea a ‘cupán tae O’Toole’. I still say that from time to time and it always reminds me of him. Nice blog!

  9. Minnie permalink
    21/10/2009 20:15

    Nuala @ WRW: thank you! Ah, I know the spot … and envy you that lovely memory. And, of course, your childhood self was perfectly right: nothing more normal than to have a poet selling books of poetry on the street. I appreciate your contribution and, from now on, my cups of tea will bear that name: love it! Will be over to see you at yours shortly. Slan go foill.

  10. 22/10/2009 11:13

    I’ve never been to Dublin although I hope to one day.

    The poem Vagina in the Vatican is brilliant!

  11. Minnie permalink
    22/10/2009 11:28

    Dumdad: you must go there, you must! Bet you’d love it. Delighted you like the final poem – one of his best (although there are so many …).

  12. 30/10/2009 18:41

    Thanks for stopping by – and for the introduction to your wonderful Irish poet. It’s amazing how he uses such simple language to share complex thoughts. Vagina in the Vatican is wonderful!!

  13. Minnie permalink
    30/10/2009 19:04

    Pauline: you are most welcome. Pat Ingoldsby is a marvel, isn’t he? So pleased you enjoyed this sample of his work. It’s always a pleasure to spread the word about glories like him.

  14. 01/11/2009 22:28

    I had not heard of Pat before either but what a fascinating character. As you say, he is one who has “looked into the abyss”.

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