Fontaines DC: ‘Ireland could really benefit from a socialist government’

The Dubliners on identity, anti-Irish sentiment and ‘the gall of Fine Gael and the fail of Fianna Fáil’

After being starved of live music for two years, it is joyous, hilarious and life-affirming to stand in a room full of Cockney accents roaring: “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic mind”.

Five hundred Fontaines fans are packed into the Dome in Tufnell Park, a tiny venue in a converted Victorian community centre, for an intimate fundraiser for War Child. It's a considerably smaller soirée than their last London show at the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace, and also a sort of homecoming, as the quintet are now Londoners.

Anytime I've been back in Ireland recently, I sense a lot of anger

Since the release of A Hero's Death in the summer of the first lockdown, Fontaines DC have upped sticks to London. Singer Grian Chatten lives with his fiancée in Kentish Town, where Karl Marx and George Orwell once called home. "It is cheaper for me to live in London than [for] any of my mates in Dublin," Chatten says on Zoom from his London flat. "This isn't even a cheap area. It's just way more accessible and affordable."

Large swathes of north London were unofficially known as the 33rd county of Ireland. This was the stomping ground in the 1980s of The Pogues, who are a key influence on Fontaines DC. The displacement and diffusion of Irish identity informs their third album, Skinty Fia, lifting its title from an unusual ancient Irish phrase for "the damnation of the deer".

"There is a metallic nature to Skinty Fia," Chatten says. "It sounds modern and archaic all at once. Tom [Coll, the drummer] suggested it as a track name. Skinty Fia was a phrase his great aunt used as a substitute for a swear word. [The drummer has christened his traditional Irish label Skinty Records. ] I said, "F*** the track, what about the album?' The damnation of the deer expresses about how we felt about our Irishness ebbing away and how we try to hang onto it."

During the pandemic, Chatten found the English metropolis a more relaxed and tolerant environment than Ireland. “Anytime I’ve been back in Ireland recently, I sense a lot of anger,” he says. “A couple of weeks ago we were filming an interview in Dublin. A couple of the lads from the crew were trying to get into a pub with us afterwards. A man at the door made a homophobic remark. Later that evening, we were in a cab and the taxi driver leaned out the window and yelled something racist to a lad on the street. Things like this happen all the time, but it felt different. Shouting at people for not taking the restrictions as seriously as another person and so on. It’s been a very polarising time. I’m not necessarily saying London is better, but people definitely seem happier.”

Skinty Fia opens with In ár gCroíthe go deo (In Our Hearts Forever), which was an epitaph an Irish family in Coventry wished to have inscribed on a tombstone for their mother, Margaret Keane. In 2020, the Church of England at first refused permission for an Irish inscription without an English translation, despite numerous precedents such as "Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" (I told you I was ill) on Spike Milligan's headstone in Sussex.

There is very little discussion about how English people still talk down to the Irish

"We first read about it in the Irish Post," bassist Conor Deegan explains. "We went into the studio and started recording the song. When we came back to finish it the decision had been overturned, quite literally in the middle of recording. We sent the Keane family the song and got an email from them a couple of days ago. They actually played it for their mother at her grave."

The band are completely humbled. “The Keane family are the only people in the world who I care about liking it,” Chatten admits. “All the journalists and fans can come at us all they want for that tune and it wouldn’t matter. It’s truly overwhelming. We’ve been busy in rehearsals and recording alternative versions. We just got that relayed to us by text, thrown into the maelstrom of this busy schedule, so it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

Not every experience of being Irish in London has been a positive one for the band. “I’ve been called Paddy while I’ve been here,” Chatten says. “I went to a comedy night with my fiancée two months ago. The first comedian started a joke about how people from Northern Ireland could relate to trans people. He said that people from the North identify as British in the same way as trans people identify with a different gender and started doing an impersonation of someone from Northern Ireland. Everyone in the room was pissing themselves laughing. Then he said, ‘I know, I know, but can you just put down the petrol bombs please?’ Everyone laughed again. I got up and walked out.”

He thinks there’s more to it than post-Brexit toxicity. “There is very little discussion about how English people still talk down to the Irish,” he maintains. “As an Irish person living in England, I’d love to go to a regular meeting where I learn how to deal with these things in a calm and non-aggressive kind of way. It’s the laughter that hurts. The joke itself isn’t as bad, but what really scares and isolates me is being in this pool of laughter. I feel alone and unwelcome.”

The singer enjoys many aspects of London life. “I love going to exhibitions,” he enthuses. “We never know exactly when we’re going to get a day off, so it will be very last-minute. You can hop on a Tube and go to a large gallery where you don’t have to book in advance. I love how you can get any kind of food and how many different communities and cultures are thriving.”

Born in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria and bred in Skerries, Chatten is a keen observer of the nuanced cultural differences between our islands. "The conversation around class is an entirely different thing over here," he says. "It's something that people learn about from the get-go. Encountering a very posh London person is like spotting a wild animal. I found myself in Chiswick of all places a few months ago. All these young guys walked past me sounding like Boris Johnson. You realise people actually speak like this in real life. It's mental."

The dominant duopoly of Irish politics gets an ear-catching mention on the album's second single, I Love You, which takes a swipe at "the gall of Fine Gael and the fail of Fianna Fáil".

I don't remember the Troubles... but I think what the current government in Ireland is doing is an atrocity in itself

"The difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is almost arbitrary," Deegan says. "When I first went to vote I remember reading their manifestos. One seems slightly more economically conservative and the other appears slightly more socially liberal, but essentially, they are both extreme centrists. These are the two parties that adults fought, killed and died for but they are almost exactly the same thing. No wonder their names are almost identical."

Chatten believes an alternative to the current grand coalition of former Civil War foes is long overdue. “I think Ireland could really benefit from a socialist government,” he says. “There was a tweet a while ago from a guy working in property boasting about Ireland having the highest rents. It was a flex touting exorbitant wealth and a call out to landlords and vulture funds. Young people just don’t see their votes working effectively. Give them a reason to vote. Listen to them.”

Like many young people, Chatten considers Sinn Féin a viable option. "I really like Mary Lou [McDonald]," he says. "I don't remember the Troubles, and I know people who don't want Sinn Féin in government at all, but I think what the current government in Ireland is doing is an atrocity in itself, and we need to be realistic about that."

Politics aside, Chatten adores Lankum and thinks Irish culture is enjoying a purple patch. “This is a very hopeful time for Irish music,” he says. “I know a fair bit about the London scene because my fiancée works for Rough Trade Management. I find a lot of the stuff that’s happening in Ireland very interesting whereas a lot of the stuff in London is marred with irony. There’s a culture here of being embarrassed of taking yourself seriously.”

In 2021, Fontaines DC became one of the precious few Irish artists to be nominated for a Grammy, following in the footsteps of Hozier, U2, Sinéad O'Connor, and The Chieftains. "I was sitting in my gaff in London completely bored out of my tree during lockdown waiting for something to happen," Deegan recalls. "Our manager Trev just texted into our group chat on WhatsApp: 'Lads, you've been nominated for a Grammy'. I rang him to check he wasn't taking the piss. It was a nice buzz in the middle of absolutely nothing."

There was no opportunity to perform live at the ceremony or attend in a physical capacity. “It was a total reflection of the times,” Deegan continues. “We booked a hotel room when there was still a limit on how many people could be in the room at any one time. We went there with our girlfriends and manager, all dressed up and waiting for a Zoom link to the Grammys. We were told The Strokes won, closed the link, and sat there staring at the same people we see every single day.”

Teenage kids come up and say they started playing drums or guitar because they're really into us

Chatten wasn’t particularly enamoured by all the hype and hoopla surrounding the shindig. “I’ve a numbness to that which is to do with my inability to feel something that is overwhelmingly so massive a deal,” he says. “It doesn’t matter as much as the family of Margaret Keane playing our song at her grave.”

Earlier this month, Fontaines DC were crowned Best Band in the World by NME. Whatever about awards and accolades, they are always very touched by feedback from young fans.

"Teenage kids come up and say they started playing drums or guitar because they're really into us," Deegan says. "It reminds me of when I first got into music and all the passion I had back then. Music is such a powerful emotional outlet and a definition of identity. To have someone say something like that and to understand what it means to them is incredibly special."

Skinty Fia is out on Partisan Records on April 22nd

Éamon Sweeney

Éamon Sweeney, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about music and culture