Irish and proud?


IN OCTOBER 1986 I had the fortune to meet The Smiths as they prepared for a concert in the small northern English town of Carlisle. On the surface we had little in common. I was a quiet 15-year-old with a school notebook in my hand; they were the hippest band of the decade, exuding a special confidence after the success of their album The Queen Is Dead. But I felt we had at least one thing in common, for, like Morrissey and Johnny Marr – and many of England’s other major pop figures, including John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners – I had grown up in an Irish family in England.

What my interviews and archival work came to show was that although the musicians pursued very different sounds and styles, from pop to punk, and from soul to folk, they share a sense of the role of Irish ethnicity, as both a creative wellspring and a burden, in their lives and work. Marr, for example, explains that as a second-generation Irish youth he had been steeped in Irish culture. Recalling the weekly musical events in his parents’ house, Marr says, “As the night wore on, invariably the music got sadder, and that time was a really magical time for me, because the music got really interesting”, taking on what he calls an “other-worldly” or “spook-like” quality. He says the melodies from these “sad Irish tunes” and the often morbid mood of this migrant culture “definitely went into [him] and The Smiths”.

When he was writing music for The Smiths Marr would often reflect on his Irish upbringing, sensing that it offered a creative source. “As I started to write more and more music, and then go to Ireland with The Smiths, I was like, ‘Hang on a minute, there’s a thing that I do here, an aspect that is coming from that place that I had as a kid that is pretty powerful and that is a part of what I’m about,’ so I drew from it, and I wanted to acknowledge it,” he says. “There are certain things in The Smiths’ music that nail that emotional place and that evocative time for me. The best example of it is Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, which is very much a case of me missing my home when I was living in London and almost writing this sort of musical letter to my mother.” In the song, which was originally called The Irish Waltz, Marr expresses his homesickness by echoing the sound and mood of his Irish-immigrant childhood.

Morrissey’s lyrics, on the other hand, sought to evoke the marginality he had felt as a second-generation Irish youth in Britain, such as in the opening lines of Never Had No One Ever:“When you walk without ease / On these / streets where you were raised.” “It was the frustration I felt at the age of 20,” he says, “when I still didn’t feel easy walking around the streets on which I’d been born, where all my family had lived. They’re originally from Ireland but had been here since the 1950s. It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt, ‘This is my patch. This is my home. I know these people. I can do what I like, because this is mine.’ It never was. I could never walk easily.”

That calls to mind the comments of other creative Irish-English, such as Brian Keaney, a second-generation Irish writer who grew up in England at the same time as the Smiths frontman. In 1985, the year The Smiths composed Never Had No One Ever, Keaney said his semi-autobiographical short stories sought to address “what it feels like to be growing up slightly at odds with your surroundings”, noting that “as a boy, I felt not entirely at ease with either my Irish parents or my English companions. I think this is something that a lot of children of immigrants feel.”

OTHERS ENGAGED MORE directly with Irish issues. Kevin Rowland used Dexys Midnight Runners’ debut single, Dance Stance, to debunk the myth of the “thick Paddy” in British culture, offering an unadorned litany of Irish authors as a riposte to the Irish jokes of the 1970s. Rowland would go on to draw on Irish sounds and styles on the band’s second album, Too-Rye-Ay(despite being advised against this by his management, who felt it would not prove popular). The band’s upbeat Irishry was an attempt, Rowland says, to show Irish culture to the British, so as to “correct the misunderstanding” about the Irish in the UK. But Rowland was dissatisfied by this slightly anodyne “Celtic soul” project, and he began to visit Belfast and Derry in 1983 to “find out what was going on”. After these trips Rowland went to Irish political demonstrations in England. “I started going on marches in Birmingham, in 1983, ’84. I contacted Troops Out and started going to their meetings, going on marches. There would be other people on these marches; there’d be Sinn Féin . . . there’d be Troops Out. I got to know a few of those people, and one of the Sinn Féin guys contacted me and said, ‘Do you want to come and have a chat?’ and he said, ‘I heard you’re going on marches, but be careful: one extra person on a march isn’t really going to make a massive difference, but your face . . . [could make such a difference].’ ”

Rowland was then invited to Belfast with a view to performing a concert. “The Sinn Féin representative said, ‘The leadership are wondering if you might do a gig for them.’ So me and a mate went over for a weekend, and we met with a guy, Richard McCauley, who was the press guy for Gerry Adams, and also we met with Danny Morrison, who was head of communications at that point.”

Plans were soon hatched for a Dexys concert in west Belfast to raise funds for an Irish- language school. This show didn’t go ahead, because of financial problems on the band’s next tour, but Rowland’s experiences in the North set the tone for Dexys’ final album, Don’t Stand Me Down. The album’s key tracks, Knowledge of Beautyand The Waltz,offered an introspective and often oblique account of second-generation life. “I’ve denied my beautiful heritage, gone away from my roots,” Rowland sings in Knowledge of Beauty(later renamed My National Pride) before stating his desire to “come back home again”.

This assertion of Irishness was not well received by the British press, and Rowland’s claims to Irish ethnicity were routinely challenged, as shown by an exchange that appeared in Melody Maker:

Melody Maker:“Do you go back there [to Ireland] much?”

Rowland: “Yes.”

MM: “Family?”

Rowland: “Yeah.”

MM: “Are you British or Irish?”

Rowland: “I am an Irish citizen. I am an Irish passport holder.”

MM: “But you were born in England.”

Rowland: “Just because you were born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse.”

IF ROWLAND’S WISH to express Irish issues had precipitated problems with the British press, Shane MacGowan’s work with The Pogues, which fused English punk with Irish folk, aroused controversy in Ireland.

After launching The Pogues in London MacGowan had become a figurehead for second-generation Irish in England. Cait O’Riordan, the band’s original bass player, says The Pogues provided a cultural pressure valve for second-generation youth: “Being London-Irish at that time was a kind of a soul-bending experience that could break you if you couldn’t let it out. And that’s why our audiences were so amazing, because it was cathartic.”

In Ireland, where the band were dismissed by some high-profile figures, The Pogues were invited to appear on The BP Fallon Orchestra,on RTÉ radio, in 1985. Journalists, musicians and members of the public were also on the show. A key issue in the debate was the band’s Irishness. They were asked to account for their precise volume of Irish blood, and to ponder if their not being “thoroughbred” – Irish born – should exclude them from making Irish music. The traditional musician Noel Hill pulled no punches: the style on which The Pogues drew, he said, was “a terrible abortion” of Irish music.

O’Riordan says Hill’s attack was down to a misconception in Ireland about second-generation Irish. “We had to think that we weren’t Irish, we were London-Irish, so why should some Irish guy [such as Noel Hill] be any more receptive to us than some English person? It was so far beyond anything he could grasp. It was new. And why would he know what it felt like to be London-Irish?”

Perhaps with such events in mind, the band’s guitarist, Philip Chevron, says The Pogues were reviled in Ireland. “Nowhere in the world do people ‘get’ The Pogues less than they do in Ireland,” he says.

Whether or not this is true, it’s clear that many second-generation Irish have held an in-between status in Ireland and Britain. As Morrissey says, “I had the best of both places [in Dublin and Manchester] and the best of both countries [in Ireland and England]. I’m ‘one of us’ on both sides.”

Similarly, Marr says, “I don’t consider myself either Irish or English. I hate nationalism of any kind. I feel absolutely nothing when I see the Union Jack except repulsion, and I don’t feel Irish either. I’m Mancunian-Irish.”

The second generation are, it would seem, the ultimate in-betweeners.

Irish Blood, English Heart: Second-Generation Irish Musicians in England, by Sean Campbell, is published by Cork University Press, €39

The look - and sound - of the Irish

Musicians of Irish descent have long played a role in British music. Besides Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners, and Shane MacGowan and The Pogues, noteworthy figures include John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Dusty Springfield (Mary O’Brien), Kate Bush, Elvis Costello (Declan MacManus), Boy George (George O’Dowd), and Noel and Liam Gallagher.

Kate BushRaised in Kent by an English father and a mother from Co Waterford, Bush discussed the importance of Irishness to her sense of herself and embraced Irish styles in her music. This is evident on Night of the Swallow(1982), which was arranged by Bill Whelan and featured accompaniments from Liam O’Flynn (uilleann pipes and penny whistle), Seán Keane (fiddle) and Donal Lunny (bouzouki). These musicians also featured heavily on Bush’s 1985 album, Hounds of Love. The Sensual World(1989) made further use of Irish instruments and sounds.

Elvis CostelloDeclan Patrick MacManus was raised in London (and later Merseyside) to an Irish-descended family. His early single Oliver’s Army(1979), which he wrote after a trip to Northern Ireland, referred to Irish Catholics as “white niggers”, and his album Spike(1989) engaged with Irish styles. Despite living in Ireland for much of the 1990s, when he was married to the London-Irish musician Cait O’Riordan (formerly of The Pogues), Costello distanced himself from the kitscher ideas of Irishness associated with the diaspora.

OasisNoel and Liam Gallagher were raised in Manchester by a mother from Co Mayo and a father from Co Meath. Oasis originally included five second-generation-Irish musicians. The group often stressed their Irish difference, but aside from the occasional moment, such as the incongruous accordion solo at the end of (It’s Good) To Be Free(1995), the band’s work made little use of Irish traditional styles.