Tuesday, May 24, 2011

James Young - "The Real Ireland"


Some typically patronising Hollywood fare dished up yesterday by the American President in the Irish Republic for the poor who never got away.

Reminds me of a scene from James Young's early Seventies Saturday Night TV series on BBC Northern Ireland when Hank and Mary Lou Effincracker arrive in the terraced Terence O'Neill Steet in South Belfast in search of "the real Ireland". They knock on Lily McCondriac's door in search of leprechauns in her yard to be told that the only thing in her yard is the IRA, the UDA and the British Army...and that all the "leprecorns" died swimming to America.

Young is such a unique figure yet sadly almost forgotten now outside the remit of certain older Ulster generations. The owner of the Group Theatre, his one man shows commenced in the mid-to-late Sixties and his albums outsold The Beatles in Northern Ireland. These contained a mixture of comedy songs, sketches, straight stand-up and monologues.

The monologues in particular focus on life, death, poverty and bigotry in industrial Belfast and - although perhaps overly sentimental to the modern ear - are an incredible mixture of bathos, humour and reflection. His timing and ability to invert sectarianism into the ludicrousness it ultimately represents is impeccable.

Even when the Group Theatre closed down in the early Seventies due to the scale of violence he took his one man show seperately to each divided community - while performing the exact same material - right through to his death in his mid-fifties on 5th July 1974 in North Belfast on the way to a friend's funeral.

In the midst of such a testosterone-driven city Young certainly stood out that's for sure. I have an aunt in Australia who can remember him out "shapping" for his "messages" in Donegall Pass in his house slippers and wheeling his wee basket behind him.

Another problem to an extent while listening to Young these days was that he did have a certain statist conception of Northern Ireland in that - albeit unintentionally according to the social norms of the time within a Protestant community considering itself historically "under siege" - Catholics perhaps were construed as still essentially "the other" within his material. It is difficult to avoid this and I say that as a huge admirer of his work.

Nevertheless in the depths of truly terrible times he was one of the rare voices in civic society cautioning reason, rapprochment and the acceptence of a shared identity of sorts.

The BBC series of 1972 and 1973 - which always ended with Young encouraging the Ulster people "Wid yiz stap fightin'" - obviously was produced on a micro-budget and the comedy songs are hideously dated in the main.

However some of his most famous monologues still available on CD have certainly stood the test of time: Why I Am Here, Slum Clearance, We Emigrated, Wee Davy, I Married A Papish, Salute to Belfast, The History Lesson, The Stranger, I Believe In Ulster, The Oul Black Man, The Feud, This Is Us and the final and incredibly moving We're Here For Such A Little Time.

Within the context of the time, Young's comic talent, warmth and humanity allow us glimpses into a lost Ulster society and a now decimated industrial urban culture.

With only two books having considered his career to date - and that including a posthumous overview by his partner Jack Hudson - he is a criminally overlooked albeit minor figure in British and Irish social history.

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