Rebel yell: how the Irish dominated British rock music
From The Beatles to The Pogues, Oasis and The Smiths, musicians of Irish descent played a key role in UK scene, writes Johnny Rogan
Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the Beatles: after the break-up of the band, Lennon and McCartney turned to Ireland for source material, with the Troubles being the catalyst
Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners: his finest achievement was “Don’t Stand Me Down” which articulated his troubled feelings about Ireland, past and present. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns
Shane MacGowan, lead singer with the Pogues: for the London-Irish, the Pogues represented a perfect fusion of old and new values. Photograph: Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths: with seven of the group’s parents of Irish extraction, the Smiths might even claim to be more Irish than U2. Photograph: Phil Dent/Redferns
Johnny Rotten, aka John Lydon, of the Sex Pistols: “The creation of Rotten was partly a media hype but also an artistic expression of an uncolonised mentality.” Photograph: Chris Morphet/Redferns
British pop music has been celebrated around the world for decades and rightly so. Rather less attention has been paid to an almost invisible strain of Irishness manifested in the work and characters of several of its leading proponents. A number of these icons, particularly those born of postwar Irish parentage, shared certain characteristics. They were often angry, awkward, polemic personalities whose music or lyrics challenged and subverted. Ironically, many were considered English to the core, but scratch deeper and a different picture emerges. Tracing their stories takes you spiralling through four decades from Merseybeat through psychedelia, punk, Britpop and beyond.
Lennon & McCartney
Back in the early ’60s, Liverpool was the centre of the pop universe. Many of the city’s beat groups boasted members of Irish descent, including the biggest of them all: The Beatles. The Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership was one of the most important of the twentieth century. It’s not too difficult to discern Irish influences in the the lilting melodic tunes of McCartney and the earthy humour and wordplay of Lennon.
Not that this was ever reflected in the themes of their songs. Ireland in the mid-‘60s was a world away from Swinging London with a music scene dominated by showbands. British-based musicians generally looked to America for excitement and cultural reference points.
It wasn’t until after the break-up of The Beatles that Lennon and McCartney both turned to Ireland for source material. The Troubles was the catalyst. McCartney’s new group Wings issued Give Ireland Back To The Irish, a trite if well-meaning song about imperialism. The single was a response to 1972’s Bloody Sunday when British soldiers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholics in Derry. Emotions were running high at the close of the inquest in which the city coroner Major Hubert O’Neill reached the chilling conclusion: “I say without reservation – it was sheer, unadultereted murder.” There were riots in Northern Irland and a crowd burned down the British embassy in Dublin. McCartney’s song, a simple plea for independence, was banned by the BBC and the ex-Beatle was castigated in the British media for daring to have any opinion at all. He responded by composing a follow-up single, the deliberately nursery rhyme-styled Mary Had A Little Lamb.
One month after McCartney’s excursion into political pop, a newly radical John Lennon took on British foreign policy, women’s liberation and the IRA on his album, Some Time In New York City. That one Beatle should denounce Britain’s involvement in Northern Ireland was bad enough. Two was a serious assault. Banning Lennon didn’t much matter as he took to the streets, joining 1,500 marchers in Oxford Street for a Troops Out demo and carrying a banner that read: “For the IRA against British Imperialism”. This from a man who had been christened John Winston in honour of Winston Churchill. In interviews Lennon reclaimed his Irish roots and reminded reporters that Liverpool was the uncrowned capital of Ireland. All his life he had been surrounded by voices from Ireland whether he knew it or not. Commenting on the demo, he spoke less like a pop star than a Sinn Fein member, observing: “The mood of the crowd was a happy one under the circumstances, considering we were there to show our sympathy for the 13 people who were mercilessly shot down by British imperialists.”
Some Time In New York City was coolly received at the time. Decades later, it sounds like a brave and uncompromising work. The Irish-themed songs include Sunday Bloody Sunday, a slight melody saved by wry humour. At his sneering best, Lennon addresses the “Anglo pigs and Scotties” sent to colonise the country, who now wave their “bloody Union Jacks”. He ends with the slogan, “Keep Ireland for the Irish put the English back to sea”. The richly ironic Luck Of The Irish suggests that the stereotype of the ‘lucky’ people would be enough to make you wish you were born English instead. At one point he reaches such a froth of indignation that he cries out “Why the hell are the English there anyway?” after which he collapses with exasperation, accusing the imperialists of blaming the Troubles on the IRA. In a remarkable finale, he goes as far as using the word ‘genocide’ repeatedly. One week after Bloody Sunday, Lennon sang the song at a New York demo and donated the proceeds to the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. No British performer has spoken or written so fiercely or uncompromisingly about the North as Lennon did back in 1972. Ironically, Lennon and his fellow Beatles are still regarded as an English institution. Few remember how closely he identified himself with Ireland. He never returned to the Irish themes in his later work, and neither did McCartney.
Second-generation Irish outsiders later became key figures in the British pop landscape. John Lydon, alias Johnny Rotten, sang of anarchy in the UK, denounced the Queen in her Jubilee Year, suffered police harassment and was attacked by patriotic mobs. He was seen as subversive, degenerate, antisocial, even anti-human. At his peak, he resembled the caricature of the nineteeth-century hooligan, a brutish species invented by the English to foment anti-Irish prejudice. The creation of Rotten was partly a media hype but also an artistic expression of an uncolonised mentality. In some ways, he represents an extreme embodiment of that dislocation of pesonality suffered by immigrant offspring.
Lydon’s father emigrated from Tuam to London in the early fifties and married Cork-born Eileen Barry. Born in 1956, John Joseph Lydon was the eldest of fours sons and was brought up in Finsbury Park, London. Like many Irish families of the period, they endured poor housing conditions, living in a two-roomed tenement, with no bathroom and a rat-infested outside toilet. One of John’s earliest memories was plunging a red-hot poker into a mug of Guinness and sampling the warm concoction. For Lydon, a culture clash seemed ever present. His republican grandfather spoke Irish frequently and openly expressed his distaste for the boy’s Cockney accent. At one point, John wanted to learn Irish, but this was never possible. “Both my parents had decided when they left Ireland that they would never speak Gaelic again. It was some modernistic urge they felt; they might have been ashamed of their roots. I suppose they cut it off so I wouldn’t inherit the grief that they went through when they came to London. But it left me isolated and shallow inside.”
While growing up in London Lydon was often blamed for leading older English boys astray. In one extreme case, he recalls some parents calling him a “dirty Irish bastard”. Already shy, he became increasingly antisocial and would invariably retire to another room when visitors came to the house. “I was very confused about my family, how I felt about them and where I came from,” he concluded. Matters worsened when he contracted spinal meningitis at the age of eight and lost a year at school. He returned with an impaired memory, suffered constant teasing and became more withdrawn than ever. The sense of dislocation was manifested most strongly in a fear of intimacy which dominated his relationships thereafter. During his secondary school years, he played the rebel card, turning successively to football hooliganism, dyed hair and belligerence. He was eventually expelled from school and finally ordered from home. A bright kid, he still managed to secure several O-levels and developed an enduring fondness for Oscar Wilde. Never a great pugilist, Lydon’s most vicious weapon was his tongue.
By summer 1975, Lydon joined the fledgling Sex Pistols and was renamed Johnny Rotten in tribute to his green teeth. Within the next two years, the group became a cause celebre. Their debut single Anarchy In The UK was banned by the BBC, although its lyrics contained nothing obscene or libellous. Commentators failed to notice some key lines mentioning the IRA and the UDA which suggested, if anything, that he was no supporter of sectarian organizations. He had pause to consider that couplet years later after a fracas in Dublin which resulted in a brief stay at Mountjoy Prison. During his incarceration he was hosed down by police, then approached by IRA associates who said “You’re with us”. They swiftly changed their minds after hearing his English accent. He claims UDA sympathisers also offered a hand until learning his name was Lydon. It was rather like a re-run of his Finsbury Park childhood. “I’d lost both ways because of my Irish name and my English accent,” he concluded.
The Sex Pistols were banned from performing in Britain, and continued to outrage public opinion with God Save The Queen, an outright attack on the English media’s most sacred cow. Disputes, violence, arrests and finally the sordid death of Sid Vicious completed the story. Throughout the chaos, Johnny Rotten remained inscrutably anarchic, a classic case of an icon caught between two cultures. Rotten’s Irish/British dichotomy was still evident. In speaking of Northern Ireland, he was astute enough to point out that “it’s only the ignorance of the people living outside of it that keeps it going. There’s a vested interest and a political gain involved... The British government don’t do anything without a reason.” Yet, he was also ill-informed enough to describe the Republic in images more appropriate to the bucolic idylls of de Valera’s era (“It’s a postcard scene. It never moves. It’s a void.”)
The rock media, accustomed to Lydon’s acerbity, felt disappointed when their national scourge of all things artificial elected to relocate to America. But that too was part of his heritage. Considering his history, it made perfect sense as a means to resolve the cultural dilemmas that had dogged his life since childhood.
A sense of dislocation was felt more profoundly in the lives and work of several second-generation musical mavericks, notably Kevin Rowland. Mercurial and quest-seeking, his career took some extraordinary twists, punctuated by enormous commercial successes and dark nights of the soul. As a songwriter, Rowland has always been a beacon to the second-generation Irish in Britain. His roots are in Mayo, where he spent the first few years of his childhood. The Rowlands settled in England, but moved frequently, with stays in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and London.
For Rowland, Irish influences were never far away. “As a kid I remember going to a church social club and hearing Kevin Barry for the first time,” he reflects. “I noticed these very melancholic people. I remember smoke rings everywhere and these sad-looking faces. And I hadn’t really seen that before, en masse. I said, ‘What’s this song, mum?’ and she told me, ‘Well, it’s illegal, you’re not allowed to sing that song in this country?’ I said, ‘Why? Why?’ and was told it was because of what the British did. I thought that was pretty romantic, that it was illegal.”
The 1974 pub bombings had a profound effect on the Irish community in Birmingham, of which Rowland was a part. “I heard many comments being made that I didn’t like. It was horrible. It didn’t feel safe to talk about Ireland or the bombings. I don’t think I did talk about it, unless I was drunk, and then it would come out.”
Rowland later joined his brother in a country ‘n’ Irish group, before forming Dexys Midnight Runners. From the outset, he ensured that his Irish origins were represented. The debut single Dance Stance was a searing attack on Irish racism with Rowland roll-calling a battalion of Irish writers from Oscar Wilde to Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw. Rowland was always passionate and obsessive. At one point he enforced a regime of abstinence on the group worthy of the Christian Brothers. He fused Northern soul and Irish traditional music on The Celtic Soul Brothers, which was followed by the best-selling 1982 album Too-Rye-Ay. The work opened with a refrain of the traditional Irish ballad, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms, a favourite of Rowland’s mother. Its final track, Come On Eileen, evoked the old fifties Ireland of de Valera and went on to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Massive success followed, but it did not bring contentment. “I just found that the success I’d achieved with Dexys quite meaningless. I felt like a workhorse, working for the record company, going around the world. It just felt like it had nothing to do with me anymore. I was a very misplaced person around that time. I started to search for something with a bit more meaning... Irish republicanism – and also socialism too. I’d go on marches and walks.”
After a three-year gap, Don’t Stand Me Down emerged in 1985. Largely unheralded at the time, it was arguably his greatest achievement. The album articulated his troubled feelings about Ireland, past and present. In expressing his own losses, Rowland offered the moving lyrical observation: “For what use is anything if I don’t have the wisdom and warmth of my past generations”.
The album included reflections on the Troubles (One Of Those Things), British imperialism (The Waltz) and a poignant evocation of the cost of emigration (Knowledge Of Beauty). Like Lennon’s interest in Irish republicanism, Rowland’s remarks saw him courted by Sinn Fein. “The hunger strike woke me up to it,” he says. His feelings for Ireland were less sentimental than reverential. During one visit he kissed the ground like the Pope. “I was thinking, ‘This is my home’. I’d struggled to feel at home often. It was a powerful thing for me.”
Paul McCartney & Wings: Give Ireland Back to the Irish
John Lennon: Sunday Bloody Sunday
Sex Pistols: God Save the Queen
Dexys Midnight Runners: Dance Stance
The Pogues: Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six
Kate Bush: Mna na hEireann
Morrissey: This Is Not Your Country
This year Rowland offered further tribute with the album Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul. Violinist Helen O’Hara, a familiar face in the Too-Rye Ay/Don’t Stand Me Down era, returned for the opening Women Of Ireland, based on the words of the eighteenth-century poet, Peadar O Doinin. According to Rowland, they had been planning an album of this type since before the mid-eighties. It was not exclusively a traditional album: as well as standards such as I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Carrickfergus, he included Johnny Cash’s American take on the Emerald Isle (40 Shades Of Green) and Phil Coulter’s bittersweet tribute to Derry, The Town I Loved So Well, all reinvented in Rowland’s inimitable style.
While Dexys Midnight Runners were peaking in 1982, the Smiths arrived to become poster boys for the indie British music press. Inevitably, they were seen as quintessentially English. Morrissey made an art form out of dramatising adolescent angst, maladjustment and the glorification of a mythical Great Britain. Superficially, this could be interpreted as the confusion of a dislocated personality seeking refuge in a national tradition from which he was excluded by education, religion and family background. Conversely, key songs like The Queen Is Dead bemoaned the state of modern England. Morrissey famously attacked the British monarchy, denounced Princess Diana and voiced disappointment that the IRA had failed to kill Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton Bombing.
Commentators on Morrissey and the art of the Smiths invariably concentrated on the language and imagery of his hometown Manchester to explain his origins. However, to understand Morrissey’s psyche requires an empathetic appreciation of the importance of Irish emigration.
Morrissey’s origins take us to Crumlin, Dublin, where his father Peter was brought up, a stone’s throw from the home of the writer Christy Brown and within walking distance of the Behans’ residence. Peter’s girlfriend, Betty Dwyer, lived nearby and they subsequently moved to Manchester and married on the night before St Patrick’s Day, 1957. Their second child, Steven Patrick Morrissey, was born in May 1959.
Although Morrissey has consistently portrayed his childhood as an unhappy one, it was actually very stable. Unlike other Irish immigrant families like those of Johnny Rotten or the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, Morrissey had a fairly relaxed upbringing, with a doting mother, loving sister and a tolerant father who was always in work, didn’t smoke and hardly drank. There was also a battalion of aunts living nearby as added security.
Despite the maternal solicitude, Morrissey grew increasingly isolated as an adolescent. By the time he left his Catholic secondary school, St Mary’s, he was a shy malcontent with few prospects. Although boasting a keen interest in literature and music, he was decidedly unacademic and lacked both discipline and motivation. His paltry qualifications meant that university was out of the question and he could not even master a musical instrument. It was not until guitarist Johnny Maher (later Marr) entered his life that he found a way out of his malaise.
The Irish link in the Smiths’ story was consistently underplayed, yet all four members were aware of a twilight world of half-remembered songs, Celtic musical influences and Catholic dogma which characterised their upbringing. With seven of the group’s parents of Irish extraction, the Smiths might even claim to be more Irish than U2.
Their music, essentially an extension of the British/American rock tradition, nevertheless betrayed the ambivalence of immigrant sons caught between past and present. As journalist John Waters astutely noted: “The Smiths needed no translation in Ireland. Their dark introspection, tragic narcissism, ironic world-view and swirling tunefulness fashioned a profound existential connection with those of us born in the era of the First Programme for Economic Expansion, a connection which it is impossible to explain in other than mystical terms. The Smiths, more than native-grown rock bands, can claim citizenship of that elusive territory so beloved of the President, Mrs Robinson, and Richard Kearney – The Fifth Province.”
Morrissey seldom spoke directly about Ireland during the eighties but his verbal attacks on the British monarchy and unforgiving remarks on the Brighton bombing had a subversive edge. “I feel relatively happy about it,” he said of the atrocity. “I think that for once the IRA were accurate in selecting their targets.” Even his father was taken aback by the severity of his remarks. “I couldn’t believe it,” he told me. “For him to walk out there and not be afraid. I thought, ‘This man is tougher than I thought he was; he’s either brave or daft’.”
While left-wing commentators lauded Morrissey for his incisive commentaries on modern Britain and championing of old-fashioned northern England values, his Irishness remained a lagely alien concept. Few noticed how the melodic thrust of the group’s work hinted at Irish roots or the way in which the almost desperate sense of longing in Morrissey’s lyrics suggested a brutal sense of cultural dislocation. What also went unobserved was the Smiths’ determination to tour Ireland, taking their music beyond the familiar stopping-off points in Dublin, Belfast and Cork to smaller venues in Waterford, Limerick and Letterkenny. When Morrissey appeared in Dublin he told audiences how great it felt “to be home”.
As with Lennon, Morrissey did not address his Irishness in song until late in his career. In 1997, he acknowleged the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association with the piercing broadside, This Is Not Your Country. It was one of his best and unheralded political songs. Its cello backing added a bonechilling ambience to the descriptions of armoured cars, barbed wire and trigger-happy soldiers. The fatal shooting of a child was presented without melodrama with Morrissey providing a deliberately dispassionate vocal.
Often his political songs had fallen into the agitpop category, but this was different. Even the acerbic reference to ‘BBC scum’ was not vicious hyperbole but a telling referencfe to the policies of the broadcaating authority which was responsible for censoring countless television programmes during the Troubles. This Is Your Country would have been a brilliant addition to his set list during his Irish tours, but regrettably it was ignored, for reasons unexplained.
In the spring of 2004, Morrissey released his first new album in seven years, You Are The Quarry, which introduced him to a new generation of listeners. It originally bore the far superior title, Irish Blood, English Heart, which also became the pilot single for the album and the biggest hit of Morrissey’s career, climbing to number 3 in the UK charts, at last outperforming, although not outselling, his 1988 début Suedehead.
Irish Blood, English Heart bemoans the state of the political system, denounces the monarchy and dreams of a republic. Oliver Cromwell, the scourge of the Irish, is predictably castigated for his crimes against humanity, although the suggestion that the royal line still ‘salute him’ makes no historical sense whatsoever. Explaining this anomaly, Morrissey countered: “It’s a comment on the whole British monarchy. Oliver Cromwell was no more than a general, but he behaved like some of them by slaughtering thousands of Irishmen just to get them out of the way.” Questioned by Brian Boyd about the Irish dimension, Morrissey added: “My Irishness was never something I hid or camouflaged. I grew up in a strong Irish community. I was very aware of being Irish and we were told that we were quite separate from the scruffy kids around us – we were different to them. In many ways, though, I think I had the best of both places and the best of both countries.”
One person who always embraced his Irishness was Shane MacGowan, whose lifestyle and attitude bring to mind a cross between Brendan Behan and Johnny Rotten. The crux of his identity lies somewhere in that conflict between English experience and Irish heritage. Born in Kent, he spent his first few years in Tipperary. It was there that he was exposed to traditional music. His mother Therese (née Cahill) was an accomplished singer and weekend sessions at the house, including set dancing, were commonplace. When the family relocated to London he found the transition traumatic. “We moved all the time. I never settled down. In my head it was a complete scramble.” MacGowan’s maladjustment was remarkably similar to the testimonies from Morrissey, John Lydon and Kevin Rowland, who also seemed trapped between two cultures.
Things became weirder when he won a scholarship to Westminster School, one of Britain’s most famous public schools. So, did he once speak like Prince Charles? If not, how did he survive ribbing from teachers and pupils? “My accent changed,” MacGowan admits. “They let in a bit of rough now and then. I’d already had one huge culture shock coming over here, so I was getting used to it. There were huge anti-Irish feelings at the time.” According to MacGowan, he was expelled from Westminter for drugs dalliances. Thereafter, he drifted into various jobs, a lost soul in Soho. Already his life story was a tale of extraordinary extremes – a rural child relocated to the big city; an Irish-raised working-class boy at an esteemed British public school. Trapped between so many conflicting roles it’s doubtful MacGowan knew who he was during adolescence.
By 1976, he had become a minor celebrity on the London punk scene. It now seems incongruous to imagine the republican Shane in a Union Jack suit. In his new role as Shane O’Hooligan he summed up the cultural contradictions of an uprooted Irish sensibility transplanted into a harsh London setting. He might have been forgotten as a footnote in punk history but for his determination to pursue Irish music.
After playing a provocative repertoire of rebel songs in London pubs, Pogue Mahone emerged in 1983. The following year they shortened their name to the Pogues after the BBC realised that their original title was Irish for “kiss my arse”. Initially, the group was greeted with suspicion in Ireland, particularly among the more conservative members of the folk community. For the London-Irish, however, the Pogues represented a perfect fusion of old and new values – the longing for a lost Ireland combined with a punkish celebration of the present.
While the music press regaled their readership with lurid tales of Shane’s excesses, a solid body of work was emerging that remains exemplary. MacGowan translated traditional Irish folk for a new generation and revitalised the form in the process. Some of his most powerful songs have dealt with the plight of the Irish immigrant – the doomed rent boy in The Old Main Drag, the down and out fantasist in Fairytale Of New York and the chilling fate of the legally abused in Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six. Whereas other London-Irish singer-songwriters drew from the well of their Irish heritage, MacGowan used his country’s traditional music as the very lifeblood of his art. He still lives out that strange dislocation.
Like their Mancuian antecedents the Smiths, Oasis were almost always associated with a distinctly English sensibility. They were the chief celebrants at the altar of Britpop, part of an amorphous list that included Suede, Blur, Elastica, Pulp, Supergrass and many more. Their Irish genealogy was hardly mentioned, but it was significant.
The story of the Gallagher brothers is a familiar tale of maladjustment with distinct echoes of Johnny Rotten’s troubled upbringing in London. Their mother Peggy Sweeney was born in Mayo, the fourth of 11 children. In 1961, at a time when the haemorrhage to England was at last slowing down, she emigrated to Manchester. Four years later, she married Meath-born Thomas Gallagher and had three children, Paul (b. 1966), Noel (b. 1967) and Liam (b. 1972). The marriage was not a happy one and would end in separation. Meanwhile, her offspring were running wild. Noel was a nervy teenager, whose leisure pursuits included soft drugs and football. The younger Liam was a latchkey kid and inveterate attention seeker who drove his teachers to such distraction that he was eventually expelled. Prospects seemed poor for the brothers, but they found a lasting salvation in pop music. Away from Manchester, the boys enjoyed the familiar experience of yearly visits to Ireland. During the summer, they would while away the weeks in Mayo, listening to Radio Eireaan and joining in ballad sessions at the family home. Peggy provided them with a soundtrack of country ‘n’ Irish favourites. Unsurprisingly, their main source of pleasure came from contemporary rock, with brother Noel favouring the Sex Pistols, U2 and the Smiths. The Irish angle was even evident in leisure activities with Noel unexpectedly turning to Gaelic football and once playing on a team invited to appear at Dublin’s Croke Park.
While working for British Gas, Noel became road manager with Manchester group, the Inspiral Carpets, then teamed up with brother Liam in Rain, whose name was soon changed to Oasis. The group’s bassist Paul McGuigan was also of Irish descent with an improbable background in traditional music. Eventually, they were signed by entrepreneur Alan McGee to his hip, groundbreaking label, Creation, and thereafter became the pop phenomenon of the nineties, blazing from the pages of the music press into tabloid notoriety.
The brothers’ much-publicised love-hate relationship was the most potent of its kind since the days of the warring Kinks’ siblings, Ray and Dave Davies. Liam was portrayed as an ignoble savage with an unrestrained appetite for rock excess. Noel, the songwriter, was perceived as a more cerebral savage, like some throwback to the Angry Young Man of fifties kitchen sink dramas. The brothers provided good copy for the media hounds with countless displays of boorish behaviour. Beneath the hedonism, however, was Noel’s perennial reminder that his main concern was writing songs. Unlike the punks of the previous era, he paid tribute to rock’s rich tapestry, emulating The Beatles in sound and look, while copping an attitude redolent of the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.
The first two albums Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory were instant rock classics, mixing rockers and ballads in songs such as Supersonic, Live Forever, Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back In Anger and Champagne Supernova. At times, the saga seemed bathed in Union Jack imagery. Noel even took to sporting a Union Jack designed guitar, as if in tribute to the group’s Britpop heritage. For all that, there was something ineffably Irish about the group, which became more evident when they appeared at Dublin’s Point and played to a record-breaking audience at Slane Castle. Noel reminded cultural commentators that the anthemic qualities associated with compositions like Wonderwall owed much to the Celtic tradition of rousing choruses which he had heard in acts as diverse as U2, the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. There was even a mention of his love of the Wolfe Tones.
In England, television audiences were now familiar with the laddish displays of the Gallagher brothers, notably their swearing and rude gestures at the Brit Awards. Such behaviour was in sharp contrast to Noel’s celebrated appearance on The Late Late Show. Instead of the rock ‘n’ roll monster of media myth, Gay Byrne discovered an entertaining, polite and affable young man, happy to chat and joke with older members of the audience. Noel may not have been the first pop star ‘tamed’ by Gaybo, but he was surely the most unexpected. It was as if Noel was determined to show his best side to Irish viewers and transcend the caricatured hooligan so loved by the British tabloid press.
In many ways, Kate Bush is the antithesis of the other songwriters mentioned in this series. Female, middle class, secure in adolescence, with a placid temperament, she was seemingly free from the warring sense of cultural dislocation experienced by many of her second-generation Irish peers. What she does share with fellow travellers like John Lydon, Morrissey, Kevin Rowland and Noel Gallagher is an Irish ancestry and a strong determination to control every aspect of her career. While her male, working-class counterparts spent most of their lives fighting against the odds to break free from tough environments and suffered legendary run-ins with record companies or music journalists, Bush’s CV was free from controversy.
Like Lydon, Morrissey and Gallagher she had Englishness thrust upon her. The media regarded her as an exotic example of polite English suburbia transposed to the pop world, Bush’s life and music actually offered a far more cosmopolitan outlook.
Her Irish roots emanated from her mother Hannah Patricia Daly, a farmer’s daughter, staff nurse and prize-winning dancer from Dungarvan, Co Waterford. In 1943, she had married Robert John Bush, an English doctor. They had two sons, John Carder and Patrick, before Catherine (‘Kate’) was born in 1959. All the Bush family were artistically creative and Kate’s musical interests originally drew from her Irish heritage. Kate’s brothers encouraged her interests in roots music and poetry. Precocious and secure in her own company, she was composing from a young age. One of her early hits, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, was written when she was only 12.
Her break came two years later when a friend of the family passed on her roughly recorded demos to Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, who duly informed EMI Records of this new talent. Instead of exploiting her ingenue potential, the company wisely invested in her future, providing a modest income during which she completed her schooling, played some low-key pub gigs, studied dance and mime and continued writing.
It was another second-generation Irish writer, Emily Bronte, who inspired Bush’s 1978 debut single Wuthering Heights. When it reached number 1, the 19-year-old singer was thrust into the limelight as one of the most exciting young talents of her era. Bush increasingly sought control over the way her work and image were presented. She famously championed the release of Wuthering Heights in the face of record company scepticism and, having won that battle, never looked back.
Over the years, she would successively secure control of the means of production, licensing her material to EMI, overseeing sleeve artwork, managing herself, producing her own albums and determining release dates at her leisure. Meanwhile, her private life was a closed book. On a rare visit to Ireland, in 1978, she appeared on The Late Late Show, but remained impervious to Gaybo’s inquisitive charm. He could not even persuade her to reveal her mother’s maiden name, even though it was a matter of record on public registers. While her contemporaries cavorted in public, she remained a model of decorum, studiously avoiding superstar gatherings and concentrating on her work.
Musically, Bush’s series of albums resembled a travelogue, taking in a variety of musical forms from English folk (Lionheart) through Australian traditional music (The Dreaming) and a mixture of Irish and Bulgarian influences on Hounds Of Love and The Sensual World. There was a similar eclectic musical range on the later albums, The Red Shoes and Aerial. Like her male contemporaries of Irish extraction, she seemed both connected to and dislocated from her ancestry.
“I’ve always felt pulled to Ireland because my mother was Irish,” she said, “but whenever I’ve gone, I’ve never felt very at home.”
Nevertheless, she found a home for Irish music in her work. The Dreaming incorporated Irish traditional instruments on Night Of The Swallow, which featured Bill Whelan (pipe/strings), Liam O’Flynn (Uillean pipes and penny whistle), Sean Keane (fiddle) and Donal Lunny (bouzouki). That experiment was continued on the extraordinary Jig Of Life from Hounds Of Love. Released at a time when her record sales had hit an unexpected dip, the album established her standing as the most adventurous female singer-songwriter of her era. Thereafter, she was given auteur status by a once sceptical rock media.
Her Irish leanings reached their apogee on The Sensual World. The evocative title track was inspired by Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bush had been playing around with some words which reminded her of the speech and after reading the passage was amazed to discover that the lines scanned perfectly with her music. “It was extraordinary,” she said. What was a highly accomplished literary adaptation was initially blocked by Joyce’s literary executors. Undefeated, she elected to retain the rhythm of the speech and adapt the theme to express the idea of Molly Bloom emerging from the pages of the book to discover the ‘real’ sensual world. “To reapproach it was quite painful,” she admitted at the time. Fortunately, there was a happy ending. While compiling The Director’s Cut, years later, she received belated permission from Joyce’s estate and re-recorded the song, complete with words from Molly’s soliloquy and retitled the composition, Flower Of The Mountain. She told the press that she was “incredibly proud of being half-Irish”. This was further demonstated in her contribution to Common Ground:Voices Of Irish Music, on which she sang Mna Na h-Eireann (Women Of Ireland) in Irish. Not even Kevin Rowland or Shane MacGowan would attempt singing that song in Irish. Bush claimed her rendition was inspired and dedicated to her mother, who died of cancer in 1992. The dynasty continued with the birth of Kate’s son, Albert Jack (Bertie), who would be immortalised in song on her 2005 album, Aerial. Tellingly, his existence was not revealed in print until 18 months after his birth and then only inadvertently. Neither his precise birthdate or place of birth have appeared in the press and, suprisingly, even a recent detailed biography failed to unearth the information. Then again, Kate Bush’s private life and career plans have always foxed commentators. Who would have predicted that in 2014, she would return for a concert tour for the first and only time since 1979?
Johnny Rogan is an author of Irish descent best known for his books about music and popular culture. He has written influential biographies of The Byrds, Neil Young, The Smiths, Van Morrison and Ray Davies
This article was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund