I write this blog with one arm pinned behind my back.
That’s not the premise of some crazy St. Patrick’s Day drinking game. I’ve a trapped nerve in my neck and it really fucking hurts, and this is the only way I can relieve the pain and function with some level of normality. This is inconvenient in multi-fold ways: it’s the festive season, I have lots of writing do and (as previously discussed) it really fucking hurts. Yet I couldn’t let my ancestor’s (I know priests are nominally celibate, but then as now they were randy fuckers, one and all) feast day pass by without comment.
With the possible exception of the Jewish people, there is no nation that has relied as much on emigration and the diaspora to shape its traditions, and what we now know as St. Patrick’s Day is inextricably linked to the experiences of Irish emigrants across the world, particularly in the United States. More than that, Irish culture in general – and music in particular – has fed back and forth into American folk tradition for almost as long as the free world has been populated by we vulgar Europeans.
While the standard picture of Irish emigration has always been of the poor, tattered masses making their way across the ocean on “coffin ships,” the reality has always been more complicated. During the US Civil War, Ireland was an active recruiting ground for both the Union and Confederate armies, with almost 200,000 Irish taking part on both sides (of a total Irish population of 5.5 million). It’s hardly surprising, then, that Irish folk music had a formative influence on American folk music, nor that it fed back across the ocean again. The Clancy Brothers’ performance of ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is indicative of this effect.
To that American tune you can add Scottish-Australian Eric Bogle’s World War One compositions ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘The Green Fields of France,’ both of which were appropriated and improved upon by Irish acts – Liam Clancy in the case of the former, and the Fureys in the latter.
As Irish identity evolved, so did Irish music, and it developed a more overt nationalistic and militaristic character. The most striking example of this comes, oddly enough, in the form of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘ – literally ‘The Soldier’s Song’ – which graphically depicts an armed ambush on a British soldier’s regiment. This style of nationalistic songwriting – generically known as “rebel songs” – became more pronounced in the years before and after the Republic gained independence from Britain, though the tone of these songs is now considered distasteful by many on all sides of the political spectrum.
As a historian, I’ve decided to include examples of contrasting types of rebel song. The first, ‘On the One Road,’ comes from an unlikely source – there’s an old joke in Dublin dating to the IRA ceasefire in the mid-90s, that one of the conditions of the armistice was that the Wolfe Tones agree to surrender their instruments. Though it does, typically, reference the aforementioned national anthem, it exhibits a wit and softness that rebel songs rarely countenance.
On the other hand, we have a record that has always – and continues to – make me profoundly uncomfortably, not least because, musically, I actually enjoy it. ‘Go On Home British Soldiers’ is a song by Northern Irish/Scottish folk group Éire Óg that, heard within the context of Ireland’s dark sense of humour, can be considered a bit of fun, but which unfortunately still reflects the attitude of many. What’s more worrying is that this kind of music is actively marketed towards returning emigrants and visitors to Ireland. As any student of Irish history knows, the IRA’s murderous campaign in Britain was funded to a large extent by well-meaning descendants of Irish ex-pats in the US and beyond. Still, it’s an enjoyable tune taken with the requisite pinches of salt.
No discussion of Irish music could pass by without at least a mention of the Dubliners. As far as modern Irish folk music goes, these boys are the godfathers, and the death of Ronnie Drew two years ago following a long battle of cancer is still being felt at home. That’s to be expected – Ronnie was a behemoth – but those of a more recent vintage may not remember the group’s first incarnation, which was led by the altogether more cherubic-voiced Luke Kelly. Kelly (and this is a theme that will play out time and time again as we go on) died well before his time, of a brain tumour while on tour in Europe. Here’s Luke at his very best, performing ‘The Wild Rover’ for a whooping crowd of idiots.
That’s enough politics and war for now, though. What I assume you clicked this link for (and what I hope you haven’t left for the lack of) is the full-on Irish stereotype, exploited to the gluteus maximus: drink, drink and more drink, with a hint of rock n’ roll thrown in for good measure. I’ll start with something a little less toxic, however; a song that may not be instantly familiar to the vast majority but which is very much tied in with modern Irish folklore, forming as it did the arc for the theme tune to the Ireland football team’s campaign at Italia ’90, our biggest achievement in the sport to date: Horslips’ ‘Dearg Doom.’
As Horslips were pioneering the mixture of Irish instruments with electric guitars, Thin Lizzy were taking it one step further, playing traditional Irish music with an exclusively rock format. Rock history is littered with such ironies, but the mythology goes that Phil Lynott didn’t want to release the band’s arrangement of ‘Whiskey in the Jar,’ but was strong-armed into it by the record company. That is became one of their signature numbers – though not quite their biggest hit – didn’t seem to endear the song any more to the singer, who tragically died at his own hand before his 40th birthday.
If Phil Lynott was perhaps the ultimate example of an Irishman attempting to reconcile his love of rock music (Elvis in particular) with his native folk tradition, Rory Gallagher was the living embodiment of an Irish compulsion to break out and immerse oneself in an alien culture. That both would die young following a lifetime of substance abuse is a tragic commonality that binds these fundamentally alternate personalities, but their effect on rock history was similarly profound. Rory’s performance of ‘Too Much Alcohol’ is not his most incendiary performance, but is a song about drinking by the greatest Irish bluesman that ever lived. (Try and name the others!)
The Pogues may be best remember for Shane MacGowan’s legendary teeth and superhuman ability to avoid death, and at a pinch the epic Christmas classic ‘Fairytale of New York,’ but in musicians’ circles they’re best remembered for pioneering the art of Celtic punk, the fusion of traditional Irish music with the raucous and often xenophobic first wave of British punk rock. Though the Pogues’ music – and MacGowan himself – may have conformed to every single positive and negative stereotyped attributed to the Irish, there’s little doubting that MacGowan as a lyricist ranks among the very greatest of Irish writers: Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Behan, you name it – and it’s Behan who’s name-checked on the following track:
And, just because it’s a great song, here’s ‘The Sickbed of Cúchulainn’:
It’s a little tough to condense the last 25 of Irish music into one final video. The United States has given us plenty of great Irish-influenced music in that time, from Dropkick Murphys (video) to Flogging Molly (video), led by ex-pat Dave King. Closer to home, Marxman (video), the Infomatics (video) and Kila (video) have pushed the boundaries of what’s expected from Irish music, however I feel it’s fitting to end the musical history with the band that probably has the least ancestral links to Ireland but somehow still manages to embody the carefree spirit that we tend to constantly live up to, only to take umbrage with when it suits us.
And, for no reason at all, here’s the Rubberbandits chasing leprechauns. Slán agus Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh.