We’re nearly two months into our stay in Ireland and I still haven’t heard any traditional Irish music.
I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I just don’t like traditional Irish music. I can listen to it for about ten minutes in a pub (or through half a pint of Guinness) before my head feels like a tin can being smacked with a spoon and I have to walk outside and listen to the tire wheels passing by on the surface streets to get that sound out of my head. My friend, Andy Auge, reminded me a few weeks ago, that last time we were both over here together, we were standing in a pub somewhere in Dublin and I (allegedly) turned to him and said, “I need to hear some bass,” and promptly left the pub. I gravitate toward music that blows your hair back and that you can feel from the inside out, so, it makes sense that I’m not, for the most part, taken with treble-governed traditional Irish music
There are, of course, many varieties of traditional Irish music and song. I don’t mind the ballads and the laments so much; in fact, I love “Raglan Road,” a Patrick Kavanagh poem that’s been put to music. It’s a haunting poem set to a simple and beautiful four-chord melody and when you hear it, it kind of pulls at you in the way an old photograph from the time when you were a child might do. “She Moved Through the Fair” is another good one, as is “My Lagan Love.”
As you’d expect much of traditional Irish music includes strong political themes. The republican/nationalists historically have had the corner on this market and since about the time of Wolfe Tone’s rebellion of 1798 they’ve been writing and singing nationalist/anti-British occupation songs in the pubs and at public meetings. My favorite of this genre of Irish music are the anti-war or protest songs. In one of my favorites, “Arthur McBride,” the narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, are walking “down by the seaside” on Christmas morning when they are approached by a sergeant for the British army who tries to trick them into joining up with the King’s army. The sergeant offers them 10 guineas apiece and paints a picture for them of a fine and comfortable life should they sign up. Arthur basically tells the sergeant to fuck off and then he and the narrator whack the sergeant over the head and throw his sword in the ocean. Fair enough.
On the other hand, I absolutely cannot stand the rebel songs. There’s a long tradition of rebel songs in Ireland and their function has been generally to inspire the populace to support armed resistance against the British occupation of the island. I’m no fan of occupation, but I’m less of a fan of political and communal violence which has, for the most part, resulted in little more than sorrow and heartache on this island.
This, too, is kind of an unpopular opinion, although, I have to say that yesterday in my American literature class, I made an offhand and subtly critical comment about the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the students raised his hand and sang out, “Oh, well, just so you know, most of us here thing that Padric Pearse was a total gobshite.” Pearse was the ‘mastermind’ of Easter Rising and he couched much of his rationale for armed resistance in images of blood sacrifice. I’m not sure why my student took a dim view of Pearse, but I suspect it had something to do with that.
And, after 30 years of communal violence (the period known as the Troubles, 1968-1998) waged by the IRA, the island is still partitioned between the Republic and Northern Ireland. So, what did those 3,000-odd people die for?
I don’t like the Irish rebel songs because I’m basically opposed to any kind of music that attempts to raise nationalist goosebumps on my neck. So, in regards to classical music that leaves out Wagner, some Mozart and, sometimes, Copland. Nationalism in popular music is more problematic, though, than it is in classical music because whenever you put nationalistic or pro violence lyrics up against three chords and a guitar, bass and drum, watch your back. Before you know it, there are fists pumping in the air and half-crazed people yelling about making American great again. No thanks.
When it comes to Irish music, then, I prefer the Pogues and Bob Geldof. Geldof has been a hero of mine since I was in grade school. I loved his first band, The Boomtown Rats, and then, of course Geldof was the mastermind of the 1985 Live Aid concert to benefit people starving in Africa (“Feed the World”). He’s spent the better part of the past 30 years speaking out against genocide and encouraging western governments to provide aid to developing countries. Beyond that, Geldof (Bono followed him in this regard) had no truck with the IRA and the senseless political violence that was happening here during the Troubles and, more recently, he has spoken up of England staying in the EU. Good on you, Bob Geldof.
The Pogues are basically two bands: there’s a rock and roll outfit made up of electric and bass guitars and a drum kit and then there’s a traditional Irish ensemble that plays instruments associated with traditional Irish music: acoustic guitars, tin whistles, accordions and banjos. The rock and roll side of the Pogues is decidedly punk–that’s the part of the band that makes you want to pogo stick across the living room. The traditional Irish side of the band sounds like a ceili band and that’s the part of the band that makes you want to tap your toes, lift a pint of Guinness to your lips and feel a bit of sentiment. So, bringing those two (quite contradictory) musical traditions together on one stage was, well, exciting.
The Pogues enjoyed their heyday in the late 80s/early 90s and even if you think you’ve never heard of them, you have. Their Christmas song, “Christmas in New York,” is played incessantly over the loudspeakers in any given mall across the world from early November to Christmas Day. Around the holidays, you can’t get away from that song anymore than you can hide from “Hotel California” if you listen still listen to FM radio.
Beyond the music, the Pogues, especially their troubled and brilliant lead singer and songwriter, Shane McGown, were fucking crazy and it was that part of the band (the excessive use of alcohol and drugs) that truncated their career. That said, I like the Pogues and I think they are still relevant because of the way they embraced and sloughed off parts of their Irishness (and it needs to be said: not all of the members were Irish, but McGowan is and he was basically the heart/heat center of the group). While McGowan has always taken pro-republican stances his songs never tip over into a kind of hard-headed, hot-blooded, pro-nationalist cauldron.
In fact, perhaps the Pogues’ most political song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” sounds more like a cry for justice and a critique of the British legal system than it does a call to arms. It’s a brilliant song about a terrible event. In November of 1974, the Provisional IRA set off a bomb in a pub in Birmingham, England that left 21 people dead and over 180 injured. The British police went looking for the culprits and when they couldn’t find them, they did what they were wont to do: they rounded up six Irishmen, accused them of the crime and threw them in jail where all six of them sat until March of 1991 when they were released because they hadn’t actually committed the crime. The Pogues song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” is about the six men who were falsely accused of the pub bombing and appears on their 1988 album If I Should Fall from the Grace of God. The same year the album was released, the Pogues performed the song on BBC Chanel 4 and halfway through the song, someone behind the controls shut off the audio and sent the show to commercial. Shortly after that, the song was banned in Britain because of it’s criticism of the British justice system. Three years later, the Birmingham Six were released from prison. Here’s the song.
Give it a listen.