Father’s on the Drink Again


A song I heard a week or so ago that I hadn’t listened to in a while is “Story,” by the Minus 5, which is on their first album Old Liquidator. It’s a pretty amusing track, basically a short story in verse form about Kafka coming back to life to turn a butcher into a pig for no apparent reason. It includes the clever pun “he’s a trouble-making Czech clerk, and he knows just where you live.”

Then Scott McCaughey starts telling another story altogether, but it cuts off after a few lines. What I find interesting is that the first line of the second story is “Once there were two sisters in love with a whisky priest.” I didn’t know what a whisky priest was, but it turns out the same term is used in the New Pornographers song “Streets of Fire”: “This whisky priest, he burned the church to keep his girls alive.” It’s an excellent song, a duet between writer Dan Bejar and Neko Case. Like most songs by this band, however, the lyrics are rather inscrutable.

I wondered if these songs were referencing anything in particular, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, a whisky priest is essentially just a hypocritical preacher who promotes high moral standards while not acting all that moral. Obviously the main vice in question here is alcoholism, but it can pertain to other things as well. The term was coined in 1940 by Graham Greene, who wrote a novel called The Power and the Glory. The unnamed main character calls himself a whisky priest, as he’s a drunk and has fathered a child. He has, however, become quite repentant for his wrongdoing. And yes, the book spells it “whisky,” although “whiskey priest” sometimes used. There’s a pub in Boston called the Whiskey Priest, for instance.

The Gaelic word for the beverage was uisce, and while this was anglicized to “whiskey” in Ireland, it’s more common in England and many other places to use “whisky.” Why “whiskey” is the common spelling in the United States, I couldn’t say.

There are a lot of hypocrites to be found in churches, but I guess if the whisky priest is penitent, they can make a stronger case for the healing power of Christ than many ministers can. I don’t think either of the whisky priests in the two songs I mentioned were the one in Greene’s novel; I haven’t read it, but the description doesn’t make it sound like he ever burns down a church or roams the hot savannah on a sacred wildebeest (he was, after all, living in Mexico). On the other hand, maybe the priests in the two songs are the same, and the girls he burned down the church to save were the sisters who were in love with him.

This entry was posted in Etymology, Minus 5, Music, Neko Case, New Pornographers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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