There are very many geographical themes and metaphors in the songs of Luka Bloom. (1) If we take Geography as being concerned with, to paraphrase Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the study of the Earth as our home and if we follow the common practice of identifying Space, Place, and Environment as the fundamental building blocks of geographical theory, then, Luka Bloom’s art is profoundly geographical.
Let me begin with environment or nature. About half the songs written by Luka Bloom have nature as a direct concern or a central metaphor. Antinuclear politics are evident in several songs including, ‘Rainbow Warrior’, a celebration of the Greenpeace campaign to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean. There is also a surprising commentary upon the environmental damage wrought by consumerism expressed in a song of respect for a homeless man whose ‘CO2 emissions are pretty much zero […] a model urban citizen’ unlike the singer for ‘if everyone lived like me, we’d need about four planets just to keep it all going’ (‘Homeless’). Metaphors drawn from nature are ubiquitous from the contemplation of endless change in ‘Here and Now’, to the comparison of the fever of love to the rush of a rain in ‘Love is a Monsoon’. There are dozens more and certain motifs return. For a child of the Midlands, Bloom has a perhaps surprising love of the sea. ‘Moonslide’ treats the plunge of commitment as akin to swimming while ‘Salt Water’ treats swimming in the sea as perhaps an activity out of time that releases someone, at least for a time, from the claims of history. There is something pagan and pantheistic about the reverence for nature in these songs. It is ‘[o]utside the churchyard walls’ that one Sunday, the singer offers the sacrament of song, for ‘[e]very note is sacred | Every word’s a little prayer | As the blackbird’s call | Or the last leaf’s fall’ (‘Sunday’). In ‘The shape of love to come,’ the singer remarks that ‘[p]eople are leaving God’s houses | Looking for footprints in the sand’ and goes on to anticipate a love of nature celebrated in the open air of a circle rather than the cloistered space of a church.
If place is a sort of effect produced by people being in each other’s presence, then, as we know, this can produce a strong sense of rootedness although that is certainly not the only form of place that matters. Luka Bloom was born in Newbridge, Kildare. The region features in several of his songs. I just described as a broadly pagan account of the worship of nature, ‘The shape of love to come,’ yet the song also recalls Brigid with her ‘cell of oak’ and Luka Bloom has shown a particular reverence for the memory of the patron saint of Kildare. In 1995 he was involved with a music festival associated with St Brigid’s feastday, ‘singing The Curragh of Kildare to accompany the lighting of St Brigid’s flame on the Hill of Allen’ although in talking of this event he made a fairly secular pitch for tourism: ‘[t]he fire has been lit and there’s no going back […]. From now on we have to make sure that Kildare is seen as a place to come to rather than to come through.’ (2) More recently, in praise of Maura ‘Soshin’ O’Halloran (1955-82), a young Irish-American woman who trained as a Buddhist monk in Japan but who then died in a coach crash while on her way back to Ireland to set up a Zen centre, Luka Bloom offered that ‘She could have become a 20th Century Brigid.’ (3) The Brigid that he cherishes in ‘Don’t be afraid of the light that shines within you’ has more to do with nature and the seasons than with any specifically Christian witness and it is perhaps the goddess Brigid who rather presides over his prayer: ‘[o]ut of the cold, dark winter space | We come together, looking for Brigid’s grace | We dip our open hands deep into the well.’
Kildare as a place is championed in the very funny, ‘I’m a bogman,’ a song which challenges what the singer feels as the condescension of so many towards the Midlands, a place with ‘[n]othing to do for the body | Nothing to do for head.’ For Luka Bloom, though, the bog promises ‘[t]urf smell’ that ‘warms hearts | ’Til the huggin’ and kissin’ starts | Bog love surrounds you | A beautiful place to come to.’ He even called one of his albums, ‘Turf’ (1994).
There is an achingly beautiful evocation of place in another song that relates place to memory, to death, and to continuity. In ‘Sanctuary’, Luka Bloom contrasts the ‘calm’ of the Kildare fields with the ‘shock’ of time passing, as registered in the ‘loss’ of someone very dear to the singer. But he can ‘leave daffodils where you lie’ and be warmed by a memory that is as ‘[a]n easy voice making everything all right | Sanctuary.’ A sense of rootedness is produced by the association of one’s co-presence with someone very dear in that place, and then of one leaving that person’s body into the soil of that place. Yet, not all is dead and interred with their bones. In another arresting elegy, ‘The man is a alive’, he sings of being ‘brought up near the riverside | In a quiet Irish town | An eighteen-month-old baby |the night they laid my daddy down.’ This did indeed happen (4) but in the song Luka Bloom finds that his father is yet alive, ‘[a]live and breathing | The man is alive in me.’ If the son brings the father with him, so will home, place and people also travel. In ‘Tribe’, Luka Bloom asserts that ‘[h]ome’s a place inside, I take it with me | I meet my tribe wherever I may be.’ This conclusion was wrested from the strict schoolmaster of the open road and it recalls directly the central chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses where another Bloom, Leopold, the Irish-Jewish man, is baited with the question, ‘But do you know what a nation means?’ (5) In the song, Luka Bloom is dissatisfied with those who ‘stand saluting, saying this is who I am | A piece of cloth, a field, an island’ and recalling that ‘Joyce lies in Zurich, Beckett lies in France’ asks ‘[w]hat anthem has the tune to their dance’ before posing the rhetorical question, ‘[w]ho is my tribe, is it only green | Or is it the rainbow of my dreams.’
Those dreams were, in large part, ‘Dreams in America.’ The wisdom of ‘Tribe’ comes from travel, diversity of experience, and the different lessons to be learned from the various ways of living of different people in different places. Recalling among other things perhaps, W. B. Yeats criticism of the fanatic that ‘[h]earts with one purpose alone | Through summer and winter seem | Enchanted to a stone,’ (6) an early song about leaving Ireland used the image of the ‘Treaty Stone’, to represent Ireland. (7) Although the Treaty Stone recalls the conquest of 1691, the notion of an Ireland ossified by an inglorious treaty could as easily apply to the state of politics in the Republic at the time that the song was published (1978) with the contending parties of national politics claiming to distinguish themselves from each other on the basis of their attitude towards the Treaty that created the Irish Free State in 1921. In the song, he promises soon to ‘leave the treaty | Say goodbye to the stone’ admitting only that he is ‘sometimes sad to go.’ In another early song, ‘Mother, father, son’, a son tells his parents that he has no wish to go back to their home, ‘[n]o I won’t go back there | Not this time’ for ‘[c]hasing wealth and discipline | Have been your only goals’ and he can no long live with the injunction to ‘[h]ide your feelings.’ In his mid twenties he spent time in Holland but in his early thirties, he left Ireland for the United States and Barry Moore now became Luka Bloom, after the affecting Suzanne Vega song about child abuse, ‘My name is Luka,’ and the pacifist hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom.
Using the relations between how life is lived at different locations to think about proper conduct is certainly to invoke the geographical framework of space. One of the songs on his first album as Luka Bloom concerned a Chilean exile, ‘Rodrigo’, living in the United States but who is drawn home by fond memories. But he arrives to find the place turned into a charnel house by the vicious military and ‘[o]ne young Chilean soldier smiles to his friends |And douses Rodrigo’s body in gasoline.’ Nostalgia is a treacherous siren. Safe in New York, Luka Bloom took pleasure in being ‘An Irishman in Chinatown’: ‘[s]he says “I come from China” | I says “I’m from Ireland” | And “Isn’t this a fine small world.”’ A ‘fine small world’, indeed, and several songs from this period give a sense of comparisons being made. In ‘100,000’, he explains why illegal Irish workers want to stay in the United States since back home in Ireland is no place for ‘a young lad | there is only bitching and begrudging and there’s no jobs.’ In ‘Colourblind’, he sings of ‘[a] rainbow of faces’ that ‘walks alongside me, right beside me.’ The melting pot of New York promises a chance to ‘let go of all the pain I left behind,’ to ‘leave my Irishness at home,’ to ‘leave all sense of race behind | To be among you colourblind.’ But four years in the United States was enough and he sang in ‘This is your country’ of feeling a ‘tug […] | Inside your heart’ which recalls the happy days of youth ‘[b]efore the age of the cruel and the unkind’ and which ‘is your country waiting for you | Come back home.’
But a mind enriched by life in Europe, in the United States, and soon nourished also by extended stays in Australia, would not confront Ireland in quite the same way as before. Local engagements could now be nourished with foreign experience.
Rosa Parks, 1956
Thus in ‘Freedom Song’, the attempted eviction of a Dublin traveler community is resisted by one woman who stood her ground to assert her dignity and her dream that her children should be ‘loved | As Irish brothers and sisters by and by’ and in the song Nan Joyce is inspired directly by the example of Rosa Parks with her comparable fight for fair treatment on behalf of African-Americans through the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama: ‘[s]he lit the flame and the fire is still burning | Inside every heart that’s longing to be free.’ (8)
Nan Joyce and her family, 1971
In ‘Gypsy music,’ he turns the comparison around and uses the freedom and mobility of the traveler lifestyle as a new paradigm for the post-1989 Europe where ‘[a]ll the old walls are tumbling down | Bringing us freedom for moving around.’ The mobility of movement in space is a very important imaginative resource in Luka Bloom’s songs. In ‘Change’, he enjoys ‘the moment of change […] when the road is clear.’ Just as he celebrates freedom as movement, so that means he accepts the immigrant as readily as he does the emigrant. With the brilliant phrase, ‘No matter where you go, there you are,’ Luka Bloom knits together space and place. In this marvelous song, a young Muslim forced out of his country by his refusal to go to war, finds a new home in the sound of the Irish music he first hears in Paris and that he follows to Galway, ‘[f]or the music in his spirit, is his shelter and his home | Mohammed’s fir ignited with the ancient jigs and reels.’
These connections and comparisons between here and there might be thought of as a sort of spatial moral imagination. With ‘I am not at war with anyone,’ Luka Bloom insists that he doesn’t ‘need to be friends with everyone |But I’d like to live in peace with everyone | This rush to war is wrong | And so I sing this song | I am not at war with anyone.’ In ‘Listen to the hoofbeat,’ Luka Bloom sings of a Native American ‘medicine man’ who brings the tribes together, calling for ‘[s]haking off ancient pains’, ‘a wiping of tears’ and thereby ‘mending the sacred hoop.’ The relevance to Ireland was only implicit in that song but has been explicit in some of Luka Bloom’s newer songs about Irish history. He invites people to set past hurts aside for there is little to be gained in ‘[c]ounting our sins on the path to forgiveness | Hoping we’re heard by a merciful witness.’ Far better, as in the title of the song, to engage with ‘Right here, right now.’ Making peace with the past is the only way to engage fully with the present and in ‘Forgiveness’ he sings of the ‘[o]ne word’ which ‘[b]rings freedom home at last’: ‘Forgiveness … | For the ancient wounds still hurting | For the wrongs I’ve never known | For all the children left to die | Near fields where corn was grown.’ In ‘The miracle cure,’ he promises ‘[n]o losers, no winners | In forgiveness | Together we’re free.’
It may be that only someone who spent time away from Ireland could put forgiveness and the famine in the same song, only the imagination of space and not just place could recognize that much hurt is indeed for wrongs that the present generation has never truly known. This fierce adherence to nonviolence has been nurtured by the travels of Luka Bloom. It has been fed by his appreciation in the United States of the achievements of the civil rights movement there, and has also been watered by Buddhist teaching. Luka Bloom has great respect for the Dalai Lama and has not only written a song about him, ‘As I waved goodbye,’ but also has performed the song as the curtain raiser for the monk’s Australian concerts. In ‘Primavera’ Luka Bloom continues with his reflections upon the need to cultivate an ethic of nonviolence as the only salve for ‘this cold, dogmatic world | Where the righteous are on song | They talk God on every side | And all humility is gone.’ Cultivating humility through experience is part of this troubadour’s métier and while ‘Background Noise’ dramatizes doubt – ‘[w]hat the hell do I know– | Crying out for love,’ it also gives the reassurance of lofty ambition – ‘[w]e all need a new speech– | The words of love.’ There is true grandeur in the geographical imagination of Luka Bloom.
(1) I have given a listing of Luka Bloom songs on our Department website. I also give there links to the lyrics for most of the songs, and to live or radio performances of many of them (from Youtube).
(2) Katie Donovan, ‘Kildare festival remembers St Brigid,’ Irish Times (3 February 1995) 2.
(3) Quentin Fottrell, ‘Reviews, cues and predictions,’ Irish Times (3 January 2009) B16. Luka Bloom has himself written a song in her honour, ‘Soshin.’
(4) Andrea Smith, ‘Brothers striking a chord: Christy Moore and Luka Bloom have inspired each other through lives filled with music,’ Sunday Independent (9 August 2009).
(5) James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Bodley Head, 1986 [first edition, 1922]) ch.12, l. 1419.
(6) W. B. Yeats, ‘Easter, 1916’ , ll 41-3, in idem, The Poems (London: Everyman, 1990) 229.
(7) The Treaty Stone is in Limerick and is reputedly the surface on which the treaty of 1691 was signed.
(8) Nan Joyce is a traveller woman who has collected songs and stories and whose life story has been published: Nan Joyce, Traveller: An autobiography (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985). There is a discussion of this book in Paul Delaney, ‘Sean Maher and Nan Joyce,’ Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 93:372 (2004) 461-472. Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was a civil rights activist in the United States who began a boycott of local buses in Montgomery, Alabama, when, on 1 December 1955, she refused to move out of a seat in the whites-only (front) part of the bus when asked. You can watch an inspiring interview with her here. The photograph of Nan Joyce and her family is from the George Gmelch Collection, South Country Dublin Libraries, http://hdl.handle.net/10599/7594. The photograph of Rosa Parks is a United Press photo from the New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/083_afr.html#ParksR. It shows Ms Parks sitting at the front of the bus after the Supreme Court ruling of 1956 confirmed her right to do so.