Alternative Ulster: how punk took on the Troubles

Punk music culture in 1970s Northern Ireland created a non-sectarian common ground for young people and articulated a rejection of violence and repression

Last year I was 21
I didn't have a lot of fun
And now I'm gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo-hoo

Iggy Pop for the Stooges: 1969 (1969)

Is this the UDA or
Is this the IRA
I thought it was the UK

John Lydon for the Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK (1976)

In 1976, punk took the United Kingdom by surprise and for one brief moment challenged many of the cultural and social assumptions of British society, shocking public opinion and causing an outbreak of moral panic in its wake. In Northern Ireland people were preoccupied with other problems. 1976 was the year when internees of the Maze prison started a blanket protest after losing their status as political prisoners; the Shankill Butchers prowled the streets of Belfast in search of Catholic victims; a mother decided to establish the Peace People organisation after witnessing the deaths of three children, run over by a fugitive IRA member. In 1976, a total of 297 people lost their lives because of the conflict. All the news reports about Northern Ireland that year seemed to indicate that it truly was Anarchy in the UK. As Henry McDonald writes in his memoirs:

“For three and a half decades, the world’s media has trained its attention on the terrorist ‘war’ raging in Ireland’s north-east six counties. Behind a screen of gunsmoke and fire, beyond the macho men in the woollen masks toting their rifles and laying their bombs, stands another narrative, a hidden Ireland.”


It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

Simon Frith has pointed out that while academics have been paying increasing attention to cinema, television, newspapers and even advertising, comparatively little has been written about music, although “patterns of music use provide a better map of social life than viewing or reading habits”. This is true in the context of Irish studies despite the island’s long association with music, from the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore to the mainstream success of traditional Irish music or rock bands, although in recent years several academics have sought to rectify that imbalance. As Gerry Smyth has said, “in an historical formation in which it figures so prominently as an index of identity, it becomes imperative to understand music’s role in the formation of discourses of power and subversion”.

Music from Ireland is generally associated with Irish traditional music or bands which make use of common Celtic tropes, but punk rock, a genre little associated with Irishness – save for the gimmicky sound of late 20th century Celtic punk bands of the diaspora – played a significant role in the everyday lives of a section of the youth of Northern Ireland, loosening the hold of seemingly immutable identities forged over centuries and negating the discourses of unionist exceptionalism and republican idealism.

The phase of the complex social and political Northern Ireland conflict often referred to as the Troubles began in 1969 and lasted until the 1990s, claiming over 3,500 lives and bitterly dividing the Catholic and Protestant communities. With political and religious roots which reached far back in time, it involved paramilitaries, politicians, members of the British security forces and ordinary citizens. Society was divided into two opposing hegemonic blocs, seemingly trapped in a deadlock because of their irreconcilable aspirations.

The unionists-loyalists, most of whom identified as Protestant, wanted the region to remain a part of the United Kingdom, were attached to the British Crown and to a sense of Britishness, and had developed a siege mentality after centuries of living on the island as a privileged minority. The nationalists-republicans, most of whom identified as Catholic, wanted to put an end to the institutionalised discrimination they faced and wished for the establishment of an island-wide Irish republic.

By the 1970s the escalation of violence made the conflict seem intractable, and yet before the conflict began, the region had enjoyed two decades of relative political stability. Despite an IRA border campaign in the late 1950s, which was short-lived and drew limited support from northern nationalists, divisions generally manifested themselves in the form of a “cold war” rather than outright violence. The unionist government continued to concentrate power in the hands of Protestants, but in 1960s the premiership of Terence O’Neill signalled the adoption of a moderate and conciliatory tone, more in tune with the British rhetoric of the times and the myth of the “consensual society”.

Although O’Neill’s symbolic overtures to the nationalist community were not matched with the structural reforms that they had come to expect, until the end of the decade society remained relatively peaceful and the underlying tensions between Catholics and Protestants only occasionally erupted into episodes of violence.

Postwar welfare policies which were implemented in all parts of the United Kingdom did not put an end to economic inequalities or to discriminations against Catholics, and they could not curb the high rate of unemployment linked to the irremediable decline of the shipping and linen industries, but both communities alike benefited from these provisions. As a result of political stability and of improving living conditions, Northern Ireland’s slow but steady transformation into a modern consumer society continued unimpeded, although at a slower rate than in Britain.

In the 1950s the main forms of leisure, because of their relative affordability, were listening to the radio, going to the cinema or dancing – all forms of entertainment in which music played an important role. By the middle of the decade, the taste of young people for American-influenced popular music worried Northern Ireland’s moral guardians, whether Catholic or Protestant, who associated teenage culture with moral dissolution.

Some town councils went so far as to prohibit American-influenced dancing or to censor films which were associated with teenage culture. But the tide could not be turned. A jazz scene, bolstered by the arrival of US forces stationed in Belfast during World War Two, flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s, and featured local musicians such as Delta 4, Ottilie Patterson or Gay McIntyre.

However, the most important development of the era was the rise of the typically Irish phenomenon of the showband. Half way between variety entertainers and modern pop groups, showbands were groups of musicians who toured the island’s dance halls and played covers of international pop hits in such a way that they were not perceived as transgressing traditional values. Although their popularity would endure well into the 1970s, the energy and performance styles of bands like the Beatles, playing in Dublin’s Adelphi and in Belfast’s Ritz in 1963, and the Rolling Stones – whose 1964 concert at the Ulster Hall in Belfast was called off after ten minutes because of the scenes of hysteria the band elicited – made the professional and family-friendly showbands seem tame in comparison.

As a consequence, in the mid-1960s, a number of local musicians forsook the safety of the showbands and started rhythm and blues and beat groups. The early success of Van Morrison’s band Them, who produced several UK top ten hits in the mid-1960s, gave momentum to a scene which was centred around the Maritime Hotel in Belfast, and which featured the Wheels, the Aztecs, the Alleycatz and other bands.

In 1961, a group of students at Queen’s University started the Belfast Festival, which ran for the whole decade. It featured drama, screening of films and readings from established literary figures such as Anthony Burgess and Patrick Kavanagh as well as from up-and-coming local poets Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, who saw some of their material published for the very first time in the festival’s pamphlets. The Festival initially put on mostly local jazz, folk and rock acts, but soon the organisers had the necessary resources and the reputation to attract a wide range of international musicians, including Tubby Hayes, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, John Lee Hooker, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix, who would go on to produce and feature in Belfast rock band Eire Apparent’s only record in 1969.

In 1966, during the height of his career, Bob Dylan played the ABC Cinema in Belfast. Thus during the 1960s young people from both the Catholic and Protestant communities were able to take part in vibrant local scenes as well as attend concerts by international groups.

However, the outbreak of the conflict in 1968 hit Northern Ireland’s two cultural hubs, Belfast and Derry, disproportionately, and urban cultural life came to a standstill almost overnight. International bands no longer included the North in their music tours – until 1977 Rory Gallagher and Horslips were the only bands from outside the region to consistently include Belfast in their annual tours of Ireland – and local scenes also suffered because of the escalation of the conflict.

Neighbourhoods became increasingly segregated as Catholics and Protestants, who had co-existed peacefully in the years before the conflict began, chose to or were forced to move and live among their co-religionists. The construction of “peace lines” materialised the division between the communities. People seldom left their neighbourhoods at night, fearing for their safety, and in Belfast, the few people willing to venture into the city were met with iron fences which were raised around the centre and locked at six o’clock. With a lot of pubs and cinemas now inaccessible, nightlife was mostly restricted to the balls and cabarets which were held in hotels outside of the city.

Bus services stopped early, so these venues were out of bounds for people with no car at their disposal, and the type of entertainment that they provided was not geared towards young audiences hungry to experience the latest developments in pop music and for whom traditional or country music held little appeal.

Thus teenagers were not only faced with the boredom and joblessness that they shared with their peers overseas, they also had to deal with sectarianism, violence, lack of opportunities, and one of its consequences: a severely underdeveloped cultural infrastructure. By the middle of the decade, the situation had worsened. In 1975 three members of the popular Miami Showband were gunned down by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force on their way back to Dublin. The incident shocked opinion north and south of the border. For the first time, a pop band from outside of Northern Ireland had been deliberately targeted.

The killings not only further discouraged international acts from venturing into the north but also had an impact on local musicians. On December 3rd, 1976, the Belfast Telegraph reported that as a long-term consequence of the incident, some musicians had difficulties surviving financially because they were no longer prepared to take the risk of travelling long distances, while others began to cater only to their own communities. Coupled with the fact that few if any local pop bands produced original material, this meant that the region had become a musical wilderness.

However, this situation would soon change: the months stretching from August 1971 to December 1976 would prove to be the most violent phase of the conflict in terms of deaths. Thereafter the region would never attain the level of violence of the early 1970s, and although killings would continue well into the 1990s, from 1977 onwards the streets of Northern Ireland were relatively safer. This allowed the development of a local version of a new youth subculture which was creating a stir overseas: soon the region would be producing some of the most exciting punk music and breaking down sectarian barriers while doing so.

Nothin' for us in Belfast
The Pound's so old it's a pity
OK, there's the Trident in Bangor
Then walk back to the city
We ain't got nothin' but they don't really care

Jake Burns for Stiff Little Fingers: Alternative Ulster (1978)

Musically speaking, punk was an aggressive, fast and minimalist subgenre of rock which appeared in the bars of Manhattan in the 1970s. Greatly indebted to 1960s American garage rock and early 1970s bands such as the Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls, punk was also influenced by British beat music and pub rock. But it was more than a music genre: it was a cultural phenomenon which spanned several media – fashion, the visual arts, even literature – and, in the United Kingdom at least, emerged as the most visible youth subculture of the era.

In London punk acquired a more working-class image than its American counterpart and the new subculture quickly spread to other regions of the country, often following local performances by the Sex Pistols and other early punk acts. However, the band did not play in Northern Ireland, and because of the region’s peripheral position, it was not until two years later that a scene emerged there.

Some of the earliest reports about punk came from siblings or friends who came back from London with descriptions of what they had seen on King’s Road, the epicentre of England’s punk subculture. But the main source for information about punk was the media. In 1976 Northern Ireland’s main pan-regional newspapers paid little or no attention to the new phenomenon. The exploits of the Sex Pistols and the bands that followed in their wake were not newsworthy at a time when sectarian attacks and bombs scares were being reported on a daily basis.

However, the British tabloids, whose sensationalist coverage of punk created a moral panic which was short-lived but had a lasting impact on the perception of the subculture, were available in Northern Ireland. Reports on national television further exaggerated the excesses of the subculture, and it was from this grotesque representation that young punks drew inspiration for the way they talked, dressed and behaved.

These practises – argot, dress and ritual – are three of the four modes of symbolic construction through which style is generated in a subculture, according to Phil Cohen. The fourth is music, which arguably played a bigger part in punk than in any of the other contemporary working-class subcultures, such as the mods, the skinheads or even the teddy boys. Music was listened to as well as actively produced by amateur groups, and thus punks avidly looked for new bands from which to draw inspiration. To do so, they relied on word of mouth or turned to television programmes (Top of the Pops, the Old Grey Whistle Test), music magazines (NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, which would all go on to review bands and concerts from the Northern Ireland scene) and the radio, notably John Peel’s late evening show on BBC One.

Later, young punks found in the many fanzines that were created in the region a precious source of information on national releases and on the local scene. However, punk rock records were initially hard to come by, and punks had to turn to the only two shops that sold them, Caroline Music and Good Vibrations, both located in Belfast. Good Vibrations also became the region’s most influential punk label, its owner Terri Hooley, “the godfather of Belfast punk”, helping many bands to record their first single, among them the Undertones, Rudi and the Outcasts. But both shops helped promote local bands and provided material aid to aspiring musicians and so, unsurprisingly, became the earliest focal points of the punk scene, along with the bars in which the teenagers would gather to attend concerts.

The Pound, a seedy pub but one of the few venues close to the city centre that stayed open at night, allowed punk bands to play from 1977 onwards. The Harp, a similarly disreputable bar, soon followed suit, as did a number of venues in Belfast and around the region: the Trident in Bangor, the Rock Club, the Casbah and the Orchard art gallery in Derry. They became spaces where young people could meet and socialise without having to worry about their religion, class, age, and to a certain extent, gender.

One punk remembers the Harp as a relatively accessible, quasi-neutral, punk friendly venue [that] encourage[d] young people to venture outside their own enclaves. [...] Punks flocked to the venue from all over the city and farther afield. Punk kids from both sides of the religious divide, working class, middle class, and even the rich kids from the Malone Road [an affluent area of Belfast], mixed freely in the Harp without fear or intimidation.

The significance of sharing space and time in a context where music is played should not be underestimated. According to Ian Cross, “music, as a generic human capacity, can be best interpreted as a communicative medium that is optimal for the management of situations of social uncertainty”, which can convey the “impression that each participant is somehow sharing each other’s time and laying the ground for the emergence of a sense of mutual affiliation”. Participants experience the music as natural and immediate. For punks in Northern Ireland, the feeling of immediacy was buttressed by the cramped settings of the concerts or disco nights, by the practise of the pogo, the dance associated with the subculture, which consists of jumping up and down on the same spot in close proximity to the other dancers, and by the scene’s stress on proximity with the audience, which often resulted in the blurring of the boundaries between performers and members of the audience, symbolised by acts such as stage diving or stage invasions. While feelings of immediacy and mutual affiliation may give the illusion that each individual interprets a musical experience in the same way, in reality participants tend to “hold to their own interpretations of the meaning of the collective musical act without ever having to make those interpretations explicit for each other”.

This is less true in a highly polarised society like Northern Ireland where interpretations are determined along sectarian lines. Only a limited range of meanings can be readily ascribed to the sound of the Lambeg drum and the fife or the bodhrán and tin whistle: the former are routinely played during loyalist parades and are thus associated with the Protestant-unionist community, while the latter are perceived as signalling affiliation with the Catholic-nationalist community, especially since the 1960s revival of Irish traditional music.

Punk rock by contrast relied on the guitar, the bass guitar and a drum set, instruments associated with the commercial popular music which was enjoyed by both communities in Northern Ireland, and, moreover, it was a subculture whose contradictions resisted any easy interpretation. As such, Catholics and Protestants alike could put their political differences aside and rub shoulders in the Pound or the Harp and enjoy the music alongside one another.

This newfound harmony in the midst of sectarian conflict did not escape the attention of the international punk subculture. Because of the vibrancy of the local scene and the perception of the region as a warzone in the middle of Western Europe, Belfast, and the Harp in particular became a Mecca for national and international bands hoping to bolster their punk image. For instance the Clash visited Belfast in 1978 and after the last-minute cancellation of their concert at the Ulster Hall, they got promotional pictures of themselves taken in front of armoured vehicles, “peace lines” and the entrance of the Harp.

While live music was the cornerstone of the punk subculture, cross-community interaction was not limited to concerts, which usually took place at night. During the day, in addition to meeting in the record shops, young punks would congregate in specific spots in their towns, such as the Corn Market in Belfast, and would drink cider in the city’s subways, sniff glue in their towns’ back alleys or parks, or stage parties in hideouts such as the World War Two air raid shelters in Ballyholme or an old sewage works in Antrim. These temporarily requisitioned spaces can be assimilated to heterotopia, defined by Michel Foucault as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted”. It was not only within these “counter-sites” that the sectarian divide that cut through society was being contested and inverted. Band practises or after-parties in individuals’ homes would lead young people to venture into neighbourhoods marked out as belonging to the “other side”.

One ex-punk from the Shankill, a staunchly loyalist area, remembers how children from the neighbourhood had a close look at his friend from the nationalist Falls Road to see whether his eyes were set close together and checked his hair for horns, as they had been taught that Catholics displayed such unusual features. However, the degree of harmony among punks must not be exaggerated. The participants themselves admit that not all punks were non-sectarian, and several incidents revealed how fragile cross-sectarian unity could be. When Joe Strummer of the Clash started sporting an H-Block t-shirt in support of the republican hunger strikers in the Maze prison, he alienated a large part of his Protestant fans.

In the early 1980s, changing trends in music, the break-up of many of the original bands, the rise of sectarian skinheads and the climate of increased sectarianism following the republican hunger strikes all contributed to the demise of the first wave of Northern Ireland punk. But until then non-sectarianism within the subculture was the norm, not the exception, at a time when amicable cross-community interaction, especially between young people coming from working-class neighbourhoods, was a rarity.

In 1971 the situation was such that a Catholic community worker could say that “two communities have lived side by side in Northern Ireland without really knowing each other, or without making any real honest, sincere effort to bridge the communications gap”. Six years later, the state of community relations was no better. In the 1970s, the number of “mixed marriages” stagnated at the rate of 5 per cent and from 1972 onwards, housing segregation actually increased. Areas like Belfast city centre were neutral but not non-sectarian zones that members of both communities shared momentarily before returning to their respective segregated neighbourhoods, all the while keeping social interaction to a minimum, a practise known as “bubbling”.

Together with boxing, greyhound racing and the Belfast gay scene, punk was one of the few cultural phenomena which fostered amicable cross-community relationships. In the 1970s there were some ecumenical initiatives which aimed to encourage intercultural dialogue but they mostly concerned clergy or laymen from educated and middle-class backgrounds. Organisations such as the Corrymeela Community worked with young people from underprivileged areas by bringing them to their premises on the north coast but it was not until the 1980s that religious organisations would establish themselves in interface areas in Belfast with the aim of bringing Catholics and Protestants together.

The Peace People, for a while, succeeded in getting people from both communities to march for peace alongside one another, until the organisation lost credibility in nationalist areas because of its perceived lack of criticism of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army, and then among the general population because of internal fighting among the leadership.

Even projects which hoped to create ‘trans-sectarian harmony’ by taking children from both sides of the divides on holidays abroad only had limited success. Contrary to these initiatives, punk was not a coherent social movement but a youth subculture, with no set agenda and no strategy for addressing sectarianism in the wider society. The type of interaction brought on by participation in the punk scene was spontaneous and, crucially, was started at the initiative of the young people themselves. Initially there was no conscious decision to cross the sectarian divide, but it happened because of a shared passion for punk rock and the feeling of being despised or rejected by the rest of the community because of participation in the subculture. More significantly, the punk subculture had characteristics which enabled its members to negate some of the codes of Northern Irish society.

‘No More Of That’: deconstructing sectarian boundaries

You're afraid to change or rearrange
Just keep your permanent vote
Your voting's done by colours
Black and white
Green and orange
Left and right

The Ex-Producers: The System is Here (1979)

Oh, we want no more of that
You can't push us under the mat

Jake Burns for Stiff Little Fingers: No More of That (1978)

Punk was perceived as being anti-establishment but contrary to the hippie subculture from which it inherited some traits, it had no set political agenda and prided itself in its cynicism. In the early 1980s punk would become politicized following its splintering into micro-cultures, with on one side left-leaning anarcho-punk and hardcore scenes and on the other white power bands and the racist skinhead scene, which in Northern Ireland had links with the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters.

However, for most of the 1970s punk claimed allegiance to no political ideology. Bands initially preferred to voice their discontent in general terms, the Clash being the earliest and most notable exception. Sometimes accused of nihilism, the early punks’ attitude has been more accurately described as negationist. While “nihilism means to close the world around its own self-consuming impulse, negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems”.

In Northern Ireland what punks negated was the taboo placed on cross-community interaction as well as the obligation of taking part in the process of cultural reproduction of the communities they belonged to. Rather than joining a Gaelic Athletic Association club or a loyalist flute band, or signing up with the youth wings of the IRA or the UDA, young punks from both sides tried to make sense of their lives by focussing on the music and the youth subculture to which they belonged. This led them to question many of the assumptions they had been taught to believe because more than any subculture until then, punk negated the quasi-sacred nature of signs.

Punks de-articulated and re-accented signs and symbols in novel and ambiguous ways and inserted them into new contexts. The most famous example is the safety pin, but the early punks also flirted with totalitarian symbols, such as the swastika, while detaching them from the ideologies they were originally associated with. Because of this ambiguity, the media and the public had difficulties pinning punk down. In Northern Ireland this was further complicated by the ubiquitous display of signs as markers of identity: murals, flags, painted street kerbs, graffiti were used to signal the physical and mental boundaries of the group. Indeed, everyday life was characterised by the deciphering of symbols which may have seemed commonplace elsewhere but which, there, were loaded with meaning: a colour, a slogan, an address, a football kit, a name, even the pronunciation of a consonant were enough to indicate to which side you belonged.

But punk’s playful deconstruction interrupted the process of decoding and blurred the boundaries between the two blocs, which meant that the two could easily perceive the punk subculture as belonging to the “other side”. For example, in 1977, the Sex Pistols’ song God Save the Queen, Jamie Reid’s cover art and the Pistols’ Thames boat trip during the Queen’s Jubilee shocked Britain but horrified loyalists in Northern Ireland, who then considered punk as part of the republican movement. Ironically, a lot of republicans believed that the song was a celebration of monarchy.

Because of the subculture’s ambiguity and its potential to disrupt the process of cultural reproduction of both communities, it was seen by republicans and loyalists as a threat, and punks often incurred their wrath. On several occasions death threats were issued to bands by the IRA or the UDA, concerts were interrupted by paramilitaries bursting into venues and asking for collections or threatening the band with guns, and punks were regularly beaten up by young people from their respective communities. But the punks were undeterred, for a “new space – mental as well as physical, musical as well as social, economic as well as political – [had] been opened up in an otherwise claustrophobic world, and continued participation in a subculture which highlighted the arbitrary and contingent nature of signs helped loosen the hold of sectarian ideologies over them, and provided them with a set of tools that would help them construct their everyday life in novel ways.

The ‘DIY ethic’: tactics for the powerless

An Alternative Ulster
Grab it and change it, it's yours
Get an Alternative Ulster
Ignore the bores and their laws

Jake Burns for Stiff Little Fingers: Alternative Ulster (1978)

Punk was often associated with disillusionment and cynicism, and we have mentioned its tendency towards negationism, but it also constantly stressed the importance of autonomy and creativity. Punk rock was a reaction against contemporary popular music which was perceived as being too commercial, pretentious and removed from the fans, as exemplified by Led Zeppelin’s arena concerts or the excesses of progressive rock bands. Punk hoped to steal the fire from the gods of rock and give it back to Everyman. It laid emphasis not on virtuosity but on energy, dynamism, and authenticity. With rudimentary equipment and three chords, anyone was supposed to be able to make a place for themselves on stage, and the stage itself was no longer a barrier between the performer and the audience but a stile which allowed a certain fluidity. The do it yourself ethic, as it became known, was the closest thing punk had to a credo.

This was the real DIY punk ethic put into practise and was much more important than the haircuts and the funny clothes [...]. And it didn’t just apply to musicians either. The [Northern Irish punk scene] provided both focus and catalyst for an emerging network of writers, DJs, artists and activists, unleashing a wave of creativity in all sorts of unlikely areas.

The DIY ethic encouraged young people to set up their own music labels, design their own clothes and create an alternative press. In Northern Ireland, dozens of fanzines were launched, notably Alternative Ulster and No Fun in Belfast, If and When in Derry, and Positive Reaction in Omagh. The DIY ethic provided punks with the impetus and means to deploy tactics which enabled them to clear a space in a society where they had no place of their own. The punk subculture had no proper to use Michel de Certeau’s term, “no base where it [could] capitalise on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances”. For de Certeau, a proper is the prerogative of the groups that make up the ruling bloc. Subaltern groups, having no place at their disposal, can only resort to tactics in spaces which, being “organized by the law of a foreign power”, do not belong to them. Tactics are a science of war for the powerless, and constitute innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other’s game, that is, the space instituted by others, [which] characterise the subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations.

All social groups resort to tactics to construct their everyday life, but the young punks were particularly adept at deploying them, partly because of the influence of the DIY ethic. Before the first bars accepted to open up to them, punks would book hotel function rooms under false pretences and host concerts or parties. Creators of fanzines would secretly use photocopiers at school or at the workplace. A local band once got into Polydor’s studios in London under a false name to record singles for free. Young punks around the country converted World War Two air raid shelters and old sewage works into spaces where they could gather and host parties. Individually these “tactics” do not seem to amount to much, but taken together they enabled young people to create, in the textual or physical spaces they temporarily occupied, “a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory” to quote Foucault. In a society where power was contested and shared by competing hegemonic groups, punks had the potential to foil the plans of both sides by refusing to play their game, and in so doing, construct an “Alternative Ulster”. The alternative to the republican struggle or to loyalist intransigence was not more politics, but less – and in that context, what could be less politically loaded than teenage pop culture?

‘Teenage Kicks’: the myth of the teenager

Good god, another teenage love song
It'll turn out wrong you know
God good another scrappy rock song
It won't last long you know
Why play another, just any other teenage love song?

Dave Huntley for P45: Teenage Love Song (1979)

I wanna see my face on the TV screen [...]
I wanna be a teenage dream [...]
I wanna see my picture on your sister's wall
I wanna hear the boys scream
I wanna see the girls crawl

Brian Young for Rudi: Number One (1978)

In the 1970s punks from both communities had not made a conscious decision to cross the sectarian divide but once they realised that participation in the subculture brought them together, they made efforts to maintain the degree of harmony they had achieved. Although they still sought to determine to what side everyone belonged – habits die hard, even among punks – they usually avoided discussing the politics of the region.

For instance Rat Scabies, the drummer of English band the Damned, remembers how during a concert in Belfast a band member made the mistake of asking the audience what football team they supported, which in Northern Ireland is an indicator of communal identity. The whole room fell silent rather than answer the question. This avoidance of discussing the conflict was reflected in the lyrics and themes of the songs of most local punk bands in the 1970s, with the notable exception of Ruefrex and Stiff Little Fingers.

Stiff Little Fingers’ brand of aggressive music and social realist lyrics, epitomised by songs like Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster, corresponded to the image the outside world had of Northern Ireland, but they were accused of using the conflict to achieve commercial success. Ruefrex was a left-leaning, socially conscious band from the Shankill. Due to media reporting, they were unfairly labelled as “Orange punks” although they adopted a strong stance against paramilitarism and sectarianism of every stripe.

The lyrical content often focussed on the same themes as songs by punks in Britain: antisocial and violent behaviour, international (rather than local) politics, and life within the punk subculture. But, perhaps surprisingly, a large number of songs dealt with love, desire, rejection, and break-ups – adolescent themes which were combined with a melodic sound later known as pop punk.

The most famous example is that of the Undertones, from Derry, whose song Teenage Kicks became one of the most recognisable singles to come out of Northern Ireland in the late 1970s. These adolescent themes and even the word teenager itself appears in the lyrics of a large number of songs from bands which are little known today but which played a more important role in the local scene than bands like the Undertones or Stiff Little Fingers, who only seldom toured Northern Ireland once they had reached mainstream success: Teenager in Love by the Idiots ; Teenage Love Song by P45; Teenage Rebel by Strike, Teenagers by the Sect, The Teen Age by Victim, etc.

Adolescent fantasies are not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of punk rock or the Northern Ireland conflict, and are more readily associated with blatantly commercial pop music. This obsession with teenage culture can partly be explained by the fact that many of the punks were themselves school-age adolescents, but that alone does not account for the absence in so many songs of any reference to the conflict, the consequences of which pervaded every aspect of daily life.

Gerry Smyth is right in associating the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks with 1950s American rock’n’roll, but rather than seeing the song as “a rejection of the dominant discourses of contemporary British punk”, I would argue that British punk itself bears a more ambiguous relationship to pop music than is often assumed – as Bill Osgerby has argued for American punk. While punk is not often associated with love songs, Osgerby demonstrates that there was in fact a strain of pop-inflected music running through the genre right from the start. American bands like the Ramones and Blondie, and, arguably, English bands like the Damned, Generation X or the Buzzcocks were influenced by bubblegum pop and the related myth of the American teenager:

A mythologised version of American adolescent life, “the teenager” encapsulated the consumer society’s hedonistic fantasies of unbridled leisure, pleasure and carefree fun — a set of images and stereotypes that 70s punk both relished and lampooned.

Perhaps Northern Irish punk bands were particularly likely to pick up on this influence because the limited availability of punk records meant that top-charting pop music was the most readily accessible form of popular music, and because the showbands, with their covers of chart hits and pop songs, continued to carry importance.

By using teenage tropes, punks gave them new meanings. As Smyth has stated, “Teenage Kicks reiterates the teenage lust/love scenario from early rock’n’roll, and re-interprets it in the light of new technological and ideological developments”. By giving love songs a punk treatment, whether by covering pop standards or by parodying and performing them in a context which contrasted so sharply with the quasi-mythical suburban America which had inspired them, Northern Irish punks created a dissonance.

The irony of punks singing love songs in a conflict-ridden society betrays the fact that despite their affiliation with a subculture which was reputed for its suspicion of romantic love and of commercial culture, many of these young people actually aspired for a life of “unbridled leisure, pleasure and carefree fun”, or at least for a “normal” adolescent life. They knew that this was something out of their reach, so in their songs they imagined a world where they could concentrate on being teenagers and deal with adolescent problems, such as crushes, sex and growing up.

Feargal Sharkey of the Undertones said: “People used to ask early on why we didn’t write songs about the Troubles: we were doing our best to escape from it”. More than simply celebrating pleasure and leisure in song, punk had the added value of acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Northern Ireland in the 1970s was hardly a permissive society, and has been described as “probably the most Christian society in the western world except for the Republic of Ireland”. Even among young people social attitudes tended to be conservative: in 1978 Northern Irish male teenagers were much more likely to frown on pre-marital sex than their English peers, for instance.

Punk by contrast facilitated the creation of spaces where young people could escape the moral conservatism and sectarian politics of their communities and have a good time, whether by enjoying concerts in cross-community settings, consuming alcohol and drugs, or engaging in sex. But this was more than mere escapism – or rather escapism itself does not preclude a critique of the status quo.

Simon Frith has argued that “rock has been used simultaneously as a form of self-indulgence and individual escape and as a source of solidarity and active dissatisfaction” and that punk rock in particular derived its “cultural significance [...]not from its articulation of unemployment but from its exploration of the aesthetics of proletarian play”.

Punks in Northern Ireland, through their adoption of the aesthetics of American teenage pop culture and its focus on pleasure, celebrated leisure even more so than their contemporaries elsewhere. If we agree with Frith that punk articulated a leisure critique of the work ethic, in the context of the Troubles punk can be seen as having provided a leisure critique of the status quo.

Singing about girls, love and the woes of adolescence rather than about the conflict, and doing so in spaces shared by young Catholics and Protestants alike, can be seen as a way of resisting or at least of delegitimising the process of cultural reproduction of both communities. In a deeply divided society, where affiliation with one of the two rival blocs was a prerequisite for social integration, where sectarian partisanship and social conformity were the modus operandi of society, non-alignment was itself a subversive act. Of course, punks did not find a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict: they could not.

But in the late 1970s, for a short while, the young punks were able to construct an Alternative Ulster, and liberate a space in which cross-community coexistence, co-operation and camaraderie was possible. In the early 1980s, the punk subculture declined because of several factors. First, punk fell prey to the climate of increased sectarianism which surrounded the republican hunger strikes and the rise of loyalist skinheads linked to the British National Front and to the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Secondly, by the early 1980s a lot of the bands which had been active in the original punk scene had split up because of the pressures of the music industry, because of lack of industry support or simply because their members had moved on. Linked to this was the emergence of new, more fashionable trends and music genres, and the prosaic fact that teenagers grow up.

Finally, the transience of the spaces that the punks used – bar and pub owners could decide to no longer book certain bands or to put an end to punk disco nights at a whim – meant that, even discounting changes in musical taste, punk could never have sustained its momentum.

For a while, a mod revival subculture, based on soul music and fashion, would prolong many of the features of 1970s punk, but on a smaller scale. A second wave of punk emerged in Belfast in the early 1980s with bands such as Stalag 17 and FUAL, which adopted the militant tone of English anarcho-punk band Crass. The scene, which centred on venues such as the short-lived Belfast Anarchy Centre and Giro’s, a café operated by the Warzone collective, was notable for its explicit anti-sectarianism and the engagement of many of its members in radical politics at a time of increased polarisation.

However, the second wave of punk did not enjoy the same level of popularity as 1970s punk and it was not until the advent of house music at the end of the decade, with its ecstasy-fuelled illegal house parties, that punk’s “spirit of DIY defiance and indifference to sectarian labels” would, for a short while, be revived on a wider scale.

The legacy of 1970s punk endures in the minds of those who lived through it, and has lately been brought to wider public attention thanks to a revival of interest which surrounded the film Good Vibrations, written by by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson and based on the life of Terri Hooley. Its release and promotion in 2012 became a catalyst for the rekindling of old friendships and the reformation of several 1970s bands, and a quarterly Belfast Punk and New Wave Club night was launched in 2014.

In February 2015 Aoife McArdle’s short film Every Breaking Wave, released as a music video for the U2 song of the same name, imagines two youths, a Catholic and a Protestant, falling in love at a punk concert in Belfast in the early 1980s, against a backdrop of sectarianism, army intimidation and paramilitary violence. The distinctive punk subculture that emerged in Northern Ireland in the 1970s cannot be recreated but Good Vibrations and Every Breaking Wave demonstrate its continuing appeal, however mythologised.

At a time when the fragility of the Belfast agreement and the power-sharing government is all too apparent, when loyalist demonstrations have descended into violence, and when there has been a resurgence of bomb scares from dissident republican groups, it is a strong testament to the potential of popular culture to inspire people to seek alternative ways of constructing their everyday life, and a strong reminder that, given the right circumstances, a pop phenomenon can help foster unity despite deep-seated political and cultural differences.

‘Alternative Ulster’: Punk and the Construction of Everyday Life in 1970s Northern Ireland by Timothy Heron, Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne was first published in Popular Culture Today. Imaginaires n° 19. Presses universitaires de Reims, 2015