Middle aged, floating somewhere on the middle deck of this ship of life, somewhere between an older traditional Ireland and screen hugging modernity. Maybe most people feel this way in middle age. They find themselves providing two similar yet opposite information functions – explaining to their offspring about the past and to their elders about the present (and occasionally the future). Its an important role to be this conduit but its not very well remunerated.
One thing that struck me in recent weeks was the obsession my parent’s generation had with the Western. I was reading a great book by John Connell from Ballinalee, County Longford about life on an Irish suckler farm. Johns father, of a generation that grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in rural Ireland, loves nothing better than a good Western. Then last night I was getting through another self-isolating evening watching YouTube. I came across a video of the wonderful bawdy Dubliners song ‘The Mero’. One of the lyrics goes ‘Bang Bang shoots the buses, With his golden key’. This is of course reference to a well-known and much-loved street character who carried a large key and spent his time shooting people around the city with it. Bang Bang was what they used to call a Duine le Dia, but he kept himself busy mimicking his favourite gun men from the Wild West.
Our local Cinema was in its heyday in the 1940s and 50s and Westerns were the staple on the Billboard. Comics contributed to the cultural colonisation. Through these mediums Ireland learned about life on the Great Plains and the High Chaparral. We crossed the Rio Grande, took the Oregon Trail and sadly some of us ended up in Boot Hill.
By the time I came into the world so too had cowboy suits for Christmas. It wasn’t unusual to meet gangs of young lads running amok around the town in Chaps and Stetsons. Rows broke out over important matters such as who wore the sheriff’s badge. Or it could be finding the renegade who stole your ammo (your ‘caps’) leaving you inadequately armed with a revolver that made a harmless click when you pulled its trigger. The Milky Bar kid was the coolest man on telly, dishing out endless bars of chocolate goodness to his posse. The airwaves told us all about the Wichita Linesmen, The Cowards of the County and the Gambler imparted excellent advice on how to play your hand in poker.
The 1960’s was the Golden era of the Western TV series. The three biggest were Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Virginian. Between them these shows produced over 1,300 episodes and captivated an entire generation. They continue to be syndicated around the world to this day. Gunsmoke was set in the wild town of Dodge City where the battle to maintain law and order was a constant struggle. LA Times columnist Cecil Smith once wrote: “Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey ..”
Bonanza was set in the high ground of Nevada, close to Virginia City, on the famous Ponderosa ranch owned by the Cartwright family. The Virginian was in the middle of the other two, in Wyoming, on a ranch called Shiloh – homage to the famous bloody Civil War battle that made the name of General Grant and wrestled control of the Mississippi from the Confederate South. The lead character as his name suggests was also a Southerner. The Virginian was played by James Drury who although been born in New York City, spent a lot of his youth on his mother’s ranch in Oregon. The role was that of a tough ranch foreman. He commands authority and respect. We never get to know the Virginian’s name nor much about his past which is shrouded in secrecy. He is a constant presence though – only Drury and Doug McClure were present in all the seasons the show ran. Drury was inducted into the Great Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1991. He is in good company there with the likes of Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood & John Wayne.
Drury’s grandfather, also James, left Kingsland, Boyle, County Roscommon and the farm of his birth in the 1890’s for New York. About ten years ago The Virginian arrived back in Boyle in his Stetson. There was much fanfare in the town. There was a band to meet him and local dignitaries clamoured for photographs with the returning son. By all accounts Drury was very patient and polite. There were quiet moments too when he met his cousins and visited the west of Ireland ‘Ranch’ where his grandfather was born. He lowered his Stetson as he said a quiet prayer over the graves of his ancestors. The big wheel of life had brought him back to the land of his forebears, where his roots ran deeper than on the plains around Medicine Bow. Drury was visibly moved by his visit. The following year he even helped fundraise for the local Alzheimer’s charity. One of the prizes was a ten-day trip to Texas that included spending time in the Cowboy’s company. I know many people who would consider that trip a dream come true.
James Drury, The Virginian died on Monday last at the age of 86.