Great Irish Writers: Garbhan Downey on Van Morrison

A Libraries NI initiative saw four Irish writers make the case for four Irish writers. Read the fourth speech and give your opinion

On February 10, 2011, Derry Central Library played host to one of the most fiercely contested debates the city has ever seen. The topic? No, not politics for once - but Ireland’s Greatest Writer. Organised by Kevin Quinn and Libraries NI, and chaired by historian Sean McMahon, the event attracted a huge crowd and garnered extensive media attention in the city.

Four Northern Irish authors – Garbhan Downey, Carlo Gebler, Brian McGilloway and Anita Robinson – put forth their cases for Van Morrison, Francis StuartSeamus Heaney and Brian Friel respectively, with Irish News columnist Robinson eventually winning the house vote for her masterful tribute to the Derry playwright.

Culture Northern Ireland will be publishing the speakers’ four speeches over the next few weeks – and inviting readers to comment for or against the arguments made. Here, Garbhan Downey makes the case for Van Morrison.

Like all the great bare-knuckle brawls, there were no ground rules for this fight. It was left to us, the combatants, and us alone to decide who to propose as Ireland’s greatest writer. We had no-one to instruct us – or as a great man once said, 'No guru, no method, no teacher'.

I chose Van Morrison. Not because I’m an iconoclast and have a point to prove - but quite simply, because I was allowed to. And because he is. Ireland’s greatest writer, that is.

What criteria could I possibly use to justify such a bold statement? What makes greatness in writing?
Talk to any publisher and they will tell you there is one factor and one factor alone. Sales. Or, as Morrison so cuttingly termed it, 'blue money'.

In fairness, though, if pure profit were the sole criterion for greatness, there would be no debate. It would probably come down to a straight shoot-out between Jack Higgins, who has sold more than 250 million units of novels such as The Eagle Has Landed and The Eagle Has Flown, and Neil Jordan the film-writer, who has grossed up to a billion dollars in receipts for movies like Interview With The Vampire and The Crying Game.

Nonetheless, as regards mass popular appeal, Morrison more than holds his own. Since the late 1960s, he has been selling up to two million albums a year worldwide, which in Irish terms is unmatched by any sole-trading singer-songwriter.

U2 may have sold more albums in total, but there are four of them. And while Enya slightly outranks Morrison in terms of sales, her songs are co-written with Roma Ryan. Morrison writes his own.

Morrison compares very favourably too, as regards the quantity of product and his longevity – he has amassed more than 40 albums and written or re-mastered more than 600 songs, over a career that began in the mid 1960s. Keats had died and Rimbaud burnt out by the age at which Morrison truly started to get going – with his second solo album, Astral Weeks.

Morrison has stayed at the summit for 40 years.

I’m not happy with sheer mass as a yardstick, however. We should have a look at trophies as well. These are never a completely satisfactory measure of quality either - anything that can be rigged, will be rigged. But, while it’s possible for even the very worst to garner some critical acclaim, top athletes are gauged by how many cups they’ve won.

In Morrison’s area of expertise, there is only one cup worthy of mention – the Grammy. U2 have won 22 Grammy awards – more than any other group ever. That’s five-and-a-half each. Morrison has won six. On his own.

Morrison has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has won a boatload of other prestigious music gongs including an Ivor Novello, a Q award and a Brit. Rolling Stone magazine puts Astral Weeks as number 19 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time. That takes on real significance when you realise that more than half of the top 20 come from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elvis. And, of course, Morrison is the top Irish entry.

Hollywood loves him too. Morrison’s songs have featured in dozens of movies including several Oscar-winning films, and several Emmy-winning TV shows. He sang 'Brown Eyed Girl' in Born on the Fourth of July, 'Hungry for your Love' in an Officer and A Gentleman, and 'Moondance' in The West Wing. He even performed four different songs in The Sopranos (and was the hardest man on the show every time).

But ultimately – and the real difficulty for all of us in this discussion – is that ‘great writing’ is more than all these things. So much of it is a matter of personal preference and taste. If I were to ask you, dear readers, to list the top ten greatest writers of all time, there isn’t a hope that any two of your lists would match.

Many factors have a bearing on our choices: age, sex, race, class, schooling and religion. Not forgetting where we’ve travelled to - or where we were brought up.

Your taste changes over time too. As a child I liked the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but now that I’m old, grey and full of sleep, I’ve had enough of war - even reading about it. The same goes with fiction reading. I spent my 20s and 30s reading Runyon, Hiaasen and Sharpe, but today I much prefer straight American noir – from the likes of Chandler, Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.

Morrison though, has met me at every juncture of my life. As a teenager, I loved the optimism, romance and sense of expectation of his writing in the Moondance collection. Then, just a few years later, after my first visit to the States, I found myself gripped by the rolling, Whitmanesque poetry of Morrison’s St Dominic’s Preview.

Now that I’m in my 40s – and my days are so noisy that I sometimes forget the important things in life – I find myself returning time and time again to the tranquillity of Hymns to the Silence.

But, while I would accept that we’re all entitled to a certain amount of subjectivity in our changing preferences, there is a strong argument – a Buddhist argument, as it happens - that the intrinsic greatness of any product, or in this case a writer, is unchanging.

True quality is timeless. As, my friends in the Sports Department have it: class is permanent, form is temporary. Morrison is permanent. As one critic said recently, people will be listening to Astral Weeks in 500 years time as a piece of classical music.

I accept that there are those who will refuse point blank to accept Morrison’s inclusion on the list as a great writer because he sets his words to song. For all that, in my entire life I have never sat in a crowd of 10,000 people reciting, silently, along with any Irish poet, playwright or novelist. Except for Morrison.

On that occasion, at the Point Depot in Dublin, he held us spellbound. A couple of years later, there were 2,000 of us in the Kings Hall when the shivers from our necks down to our spines ignited us, as Morrison gave us a love elegy straight from Eden. 

He wrote of childhood, love, philosophy, his Celtic soul, Caledonia, Avalon, enlightenment, and sometimes just the sheer drudge of day-to-day living. He did it with such art, and grace, that he always made it epic. It never mattered when you came across him, Morrison always shared his stories - which are also our stories - and he became part of our lives. He was the wise old owl reassuring us. Reminding us never to sweat the small stuff.

He established connections on so many levels – from the mundane to the ethereal – sometimes all in the one song. Just consider 'Cleaning Windows', which jumps from Woodbine cigarettes, and finding a 3d bit on the windowsill, to Jack Kerouac and Zen Buddhism.

Morrison entered our language and our lexicon. He was that important. He gave us touchstones and he painted us pictures. For instance, Morrison on the first flush of love: 'I can hear her heartbeat from a thousand miles, and the heavens open every time she smiles.' Simple and beautiful, from 'Crazy Love'.
Or on the excitement of a first date: 'A fantabulous night to make romance – ’neath the cover of October skies.' The scene is set for an exhilarating - and joyous - 'Moondance'.

Bob Dylan once said that 'Tupelo Honey' had always existed as a song, and that Van Morrison was merely the vessel, the earthly vehicle for it. The song is always there and, like all great poets, Morrison digs for it.

Unlike many story-tellers, I have never got tired of Morrison. Every time I come across him, I find something new; whether it’s a new song, a nuance or inflection I had missed before; a new subplot, or maybe even just a quirky lyric.

As I attempted to prepare for this essay, I got to spend one of the greatest days of my life, a day of sheer pleasure, as I listened and re-listened to an old friend telling me some of my favourite stories.

Wrapping up for the night, I found myself wondering why he still does it – why 45 years on and with more money than he will ever want, Van Morrison still writes, and he still performs. Why does he spend so much time honing and perfecting songs that will be given and gone, like summer showers?

The closest answer I can muster is that he does it because he has to. It’s who he is. There’s little point in greatness if you don’t share your gift as widely as you can. It is his calling. Van Morrison’s purpose was - and is - to be a great writer.

I certainly have never thought more about any writer – from Ireland or beyond - than I have about him.
And for that reason, above all others, I can say with complete conviction in my own mind, that George Ivan Morrison is Ireland’s greatest writer.