“Can You Tell Me Who The Villains Are?”: Rock and Religion, Irish-Style

I appreciate Brent Plate’s analysis in these pages of Indie religious contemplation. But he must know that Americans are newcomers to the history of musical pronouncements on religion, and particularly the criticism of institutional religions. The Saw Doctors — one of my favorite bands — have been astute observers of religious hypocrisy for twenty years now. They have a well-deserved reputation for insulting Catholicism.

The band is the project of two boys from Tuam, County Galway — Leo Moran and Davy Caton — who left their respective reggae and post-punk bands to create a duo playing Galway pubs, which then became a bona fide folksy rock group in 1986.

Their first major hit, “I Useta Love Her” (1989) is still the all-time biggest-selling single in Irish history. It topped the charts for nine weeks. The lyrics reminisce about a former object of the singer’s affection, whom he courted in church as she sashayed up the aisle to take Holy Communion:

I useta see her up the chapel when she went to Sunday mass
And when she’d go to receive, I’d kneel down there
And watch her pass—
The glory of her ass!

Although they have written songs about football, going home, leaving home, small town life, traditional music, baling hay, Celtic mythology, joining the army, and many other crucial life issues, Moran and Caton have repeatedly leveled their mockery at bishops, priests, and nuns, along with all those unquestioning believers who inhabit the villages and farms of the Irish Republic and Christendom more generally.

From shenanigans at church, they went on to write a hit song about Galway’s famously liberal bishop, Eamonn Casey, a man who had witnessed Oscar Romero’s assassination, criticized US policy in Latin America, and led the charge to block Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland. Casey was also a stern advocate of priestly celibacy who frowned on fornication, adultery, and abortion. But the bishop abruptly fell from glory in 1992 when Annie Murphy, his former lover, revealed in an autobiography entitled Forbidden Fruit that she had given birth to Casey’s son more than twenty years earlier. Casey had urged her to give the baby up for adoption, but Murphy had chosen instead to emigrate to the States and raise her child with the help of her parents.

The Saw Doctors were not the only bunch to take the piss out of the hypocritical Bishop Casey. Christy Moore, the famously political folk singer, did his bit with a cover of Martin Egan’s song, “Casey”. But everybody was used to Christy’s whingeing about politics. The Saw Doctors, with foresight formerly reserved for prophets and druids, captured public reaction with the upbeat “Howya Julia”, skewering episcopal hypocrisy and clerical cover-ups.

In a cheery chorus, they imagined the spiritual predicament of Bishop Casey and Annie:

Oh, mighty, mighty Lord almighty
It’s off with the collar and off with the nightie
Jesus, Mary, and holy Saint Joseph
The beads are rattling now!

In 1996, Moran and Carton tackled the subject of abortion, which is still illegal in Ireland. They called their moving, genuinely feminist plea for legalization “Every Day.” It’s about young women taking the boat to England to seek operations:

Far from small town eyes she floats
Across the Irish Sea
She’s the girl you know from down the road
She’s your one from out the other side…

She’s wondering what they’re thinking
Do they know what’s going on?
She feels examined by their eyes
Is she right or is she wrong?
She’s got a number in her pocket
And one change of clothes
Her innocence is fading
Like last years winter snow’s

Light a candle in the window
So she can see it from the road
With all the loving in your heart
Welcome her back home.

The Docs’ keening for a fallen innocent seems all too prescient, given the recent negotiations over revelations of priestly sexual abuse of both girls and boys.

In all, the Saw Doctors have produced seven studio albums and thirty number one singles. Music critics have compared the band’s effect to that of the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen because of their ability to make the small negotiations and crises of everyday life seem so politically urgent, and to do so in catchy melodies and upbeat rhythms.

But the real secret to Docs’ success lies in their devoted cult following among Irish, British, and American fans, who clearly sympathize with the band’s religious politics. Compared to a consciously self-righteous band like U2, the Saw Doctors are stealthy but incisive critics of restrictive religion.

They’re humble, good-humored, musicians from down the pub of any small town: lads that anyone can chat with about things that hardly matter, which are actually the things that matter the most. For the Irish, that means religion.

“A victim’s asking for the road to Knock,” begins another great Saw Doctors’ song, referring to the famous pilgrimage site where villagers saw the Virgin Mary in the late 19th century, and where pilgrims come from around the world to await miracles. Just last year, a Dublin man named Joe Coleman gathered hundreds of believers at Knock to await another apparition. “Can you tell me who the villains are?” the Saw Doctors go on to ask.

The answer is obvious to an Irish band: self-proclaimed faith leaders and putative models of morality who don’t understand the lyrics.