Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature

An open letter to Joan Baez

Dear Ms Baez,

I will start by confessing that in my love for the folk era of the 1960’s I have failed to pay attention to your work, not just as a singer, but as a human being who endeavors to use your skills and resources to make the world a better place.

In my focus on the earnest political (topical) songs of Phil Ochs, the obscure lyricism/mysticism of Leonard Cohen, the brain-splitting poetic scalpel of Bob Dylan, sage wisdom of Pete Seeger and the whimsy of Joni Mitchell, I foolishly passed over you as a beautiful voice alone.

I have been reading your autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, and while I am only a third of the way through the book, I feel that I can’t hold off on writing this letter.

It is one thing to sing about the problems of the world, but an entirely different thing to put your hand to the wheel and endeavour to generate change. Not just the political style change of ideals and promises, or even the important, but inherently limited, work of treating local symptoms, but the work of seeking to change the psyche that creates inequality and suffering.

Having a tangible hand in the abolition of segregation in the American South and bringing an end to a pointless war in Vietnam are no small achievements.

When I read about your establishment of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in 1964, now the Resource Centre for Nonviolence, I see the inspiration and foundation for the way in which the resistance against the violent and pervasive suppression of Falun Gong in China has been conducted.

I am sure that, given your status, you receive many appeals for assistance related to any number of human rights atrocities occurring around the world. Here in Australia we have our very own self-generated crisis in the treatment of refugees on Manus Island and a little further away the terrible abuse of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Hopefully you will indulge my efforts to bring this particular situation to your attention, if it has not already been.

I have personally being involved in the effort to work peacefully towards an end to the persecution of Falun Gong since I started the practice myself in 1998, before it was banned in China. The consistent commitment to non-violence in the protest has been adhered to world-wide for 18 years now. This is despite some documented cases of external attempts at infiltration to instigate violence and even violence staged by the Chinese Communist Party.

As a singer/songwriter myself, I started writing songs to try and raise awareness about this issue back in 2003 and finally published them in 2011. Quite a few other people who practice Falun Gong have tried to do the same thing with their music, including The Good Seeds and on a more professional level with Shen Yun performing arts.

I greatly enjoyed your tribute to Donald Trump, it is so inspiring that you have been making a stand in word and deed since all the way back in 1958 when you refused the contrived nuclear fear propaganda. I am so delighted that I picked up your autobiography at the local Book Fair last month, which was, incidentally, raising money for Refugees.

Sincere thanks for your time, and your continuing contribution to our world,

Daniel Kelly

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Folk Music

The Auld Triangle

This post is a book review of Confessions of an Irish Rebel, an autobiography of Brendan Behan. Brendan is best known for his play The Quare Fellow, based on the time he spent in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

In Confessions Brendan specifically refers to the prisoner that inspired the play, a man sentenced to death for homosexuality.  Brendan was serving a 14 year sentence for attempting to shoot a policeman. He was released after serving 4 years under a general amnesty for Irish Republican Army IRA prisoners.

I first heard about the connection between the song The Auld Triangle and Brendan Behan when I sang it at a small singing session here in Australia. I had assumed that the song was about a prisoner in the 1700s and mumbled something to that effect before singing it. There happened to be an Irish gentlemen in the audience who explained to me that I should probably know something about a song before singing it. Fair call.

I am writing this some ten years on, and while I did do some initial research back then, it was only reading Brendan’s book that really brought the song and its subject into focus for me.

There are some fantastic versions of this song, Luke Kelly and the Dubliner’s version being my favourite. Some other notable versions include the Doug Anthony All Stars here, and Brendan singing himself here. My own attempt here. Brendan did not write the song but attributes it to Dicky Shannon, who he mentions in the video of him singing.

You can still get a copy of Confessions on Amazon. I was fortunate enough to pick my copy up for $1 at a local charity book fair last week. The book had to be dictated, as by 1964, Brendan’s fondness for alcohol made it difficult to write or type himself. The book was published in 1965, after Brendan’s death at just 41.

The debilitating nature of Brendan’s relationship with alcohol comes across strongly in the text. Whether in Dublin, Cannes or London, there is always a stop for a pint or glass of something, even on the way to prison. This aspect of the book had me wondering whether part of the subjugation of the Irish people by the English was achieved with provision of access to cheap alcohol, just as it was achieved with the original populations of Australian, America and other colonies.

When Brendan is taken on a pub crawl by his grandmother and a Mrs Murphy, on her way to a retirement hospice, it becomes clear that the taste for a drink was not a new pastime in Dublin.

I am surprised that this book was published in the 1960s at all, with its frank discussion of homosexuality, IRA operations, prostitution, swearing and blasphemy. As the book doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, I’m not sure whether it was banned (I did find a reference to it being banned in South Africa).

I don’t think Brendan was writing for fame or notoriety, I think this quote from an Amazon review on Borstal Boy sums it up well:

Brendan Behan may have been dead these 50 years but this book is like sitting next to him on a barstool telling this slice of his life story. As a teenager, Behan was arrested for his IRA activities and spent some time in custody at various English correctional facilities. He makes friends, he deals with prejudice, he deals with stupid rules. Really nothing happens in this book and yet it was entertaining. Wicked sense of humor and wonderful sense of the man both come through in this story of a young Republican serving his time. ARG – Amazon Reviews

I greatly enjoyed Brendan’s insertion of Gaelic throughout the text, I didn’t realise that The Quare Fellow had originally been called Casadh an tSúgáin eile, which means twisting the rope again, or twisting another rope, making reference to the hanging rope, but also the traditional song Casadh an tSúgáin (and in English). Brendan made good use of his time in prison to learn Gaelic.

The other enjoyable aspect of the book was spotting the names that so frequently come up in Irish song, probably mundane to those that live in Ireland, but of great interest to me.

It is timely that I am writing this on the day that Australian’s voted to endorse gay marriage. Of course we still have a conservative government in power and a conservative lobby engine that plans to do everything it can to avoid changing the law, despite a 61% yes vote and 79.5% participation.

This hypocrisy really irks me, all through the campaign the idea of marriage as a human right was dismissed by the religious conservatives, but now suddenly their right to be a bigot is a human right. I published my own, probably controversial, views here, but now that the people have spoken, the government should get on with making their will law as soon as possible.

Around the time that Brendan Behan was in Mountjoy and Borstal, 35 people were executed for homosexuality (between 1923 and 1954).

I highly recommend reading Confessions of an Irish Rebel, by no means high literature, but a raw and fascinating view into the events that shaped Brendan’s work.


For Brendan

Another drink, another glass friends,

Another song to the heros here and gone,

Let me sing the streets of Dublin, the cells of Borstal,

Drown them both in a fine dram.


Aughrim was lost, but Ireland fights on,

Fights with gun, and with a voice in song,

Devil take you haughty folks of pretence,

Give me a good solid girl and a bottle.


Though I am long from this world,

I lived full, and drew hard on the lit toitín of life,

Whether painting a lighthouse or a church,

I found the joy where it was to be found.

Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Lessons from the Garden

Apart from my interest in folk music, I also love gardens. No so much the tame and manicured, but the rambling and full of life. Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year here in ‘cold-climate’ Australia, The irises are just finishing and the roses are in their first bloom. Fruit is starting to appear on the peach, plum, apple and pear trees.

I don’t pretend to be a spiritual nature guru, or a re-discoverer of ancient Druidic wisdom, but I feel that part of the answer to the question of a good human existence stems from our observation and understanding of the cycles of nature.

Two lessons in the garden this week are about judgement, patience and proximity. A stone-fruit tree of an un-known variety self-seeded by the chicken house about four years ago. Each year that it didn’t fruit my wife would suggest that it should be pulled up and replaced. I insisted that it be given another year to establish itself. Today I discovered one nectarine on the tree; enough to ensure its continued existence in the garden and confirm that some trees, and some people, just need a little longer to fruit.

Similarly, I was about the pull up the Ash sapling that I had planted two months ago because the apple trees that had been planted at the same time were already covered in leaves. Despite appearing lifeless, the leaves on the Ash just started to open last week, saving the tree from a premature and un-necessary death. I see this problem so often in parenting and in schooling, where children are compared to others in their year and judged against an irrelevant average or ‘high bar’. Each person is unique and grows at their own, different, pace. The only thing that enforced conformity achieves is false confidence in the early and false shame in the late.

Each tree interprets the signs given in the temperature of the air and soil, the rainfall, the frost and the sunlight and decides when to expend the energy required to sprout leaves. Some plants, like roses, can even have two or three attempts if the first is the victim of frost, mould or predators. As people, I don’t think we are any different. We each are suited to do things in our own way and our own time. Treatment that makes one person thrive, will make another wither.

I recently watched the film The Last Shaman, by Raz Degan, which followed the journey of a young man to South America in search of healing from depression through traditional medicine (including Ayahuasca). Whether accurate or not, the film leads viewers to the conclusion that pressure from an over-achieving father and mother was probably the cause of the situation. Bizarrely, this film, which I really enjoyed, has no Wikipedia page and has been slammed by Rotten Tomatoes. It could be the fact that the film points to the American Psychology treatment culture being largely ineffective; a very unpopular opinion in a country where billions is spent on medicating people for mental health issues. Normally this view would be dismissed as Scientologist style pseudo-science, but the parents of the subject of the film (described as a documentary) are both medical doctors and both criticize the psychiatric industry from a position of authority. If people have a mental illness and medication or electro-shock treatment has helped them live a life that they would otherwise not be able to, I think that is great. In the situation described in The Last Shaman, however, those methods hadn’t succeeded, and appear to have done more harm.

One theme in the Last Shaman that I found particularly fascinating was the way in which the traditional users of Ayahuasca (see this great JP video for an overview) say that the spirit of the plant spoke to them and told them the process for preparing it. Unfortunately, when I walk through my garden none of the plants speak to me, at least not in a way that I can understand as speech.

The second lesson from the garden is based on the reason for moving my raspberry canes away from the blackberry canes. For the past four year we have had magnificent crops of blackberries and almost nothing from the raspberries, despite both plants sharing the same spot along a wall and being almost the same species. I can’t find anything official, but the home gardener ‘vibe’ seem to be that you shouldn’t plant them together. It could be that when two similar things share a space, one has to shine and the other retreat. I think this is true about human relationships as well, we each influence those around us and it bears thinking about whether, in our ambition, we are dimming the lights of others. Similarly, if we are amongst people that are only interested in themselves, it might be time to find a new spot in the garden.

I will leave you with two favourite gardening songs, this one by Karine Polwart and my own cover of Dave Mallet’s excellent Garden Song.