John Buckley McQuaid: ‘Ireland’s silence is a comfort zone’

The expat artist’s new album tackles the omertà over his home country’s recent past

A month to St Patrick’s Day and Ireland’s diaspora around the world are warming themselves up to play the roles handed them by central casting in Dublin.

Welcome: Irish emigrants in Auckland missing Tayto crisps and Barry’s tea on Twitter; also welcome are emigrants’ young children on TikTok, Riverdancing in Reading and Reykjavik.

Less welcome: critical artists like John Buckley McQuaid. His new album, This Is Where I Keep My Dreams, released this week on all digital platforms, is a tough love letter to a place and people he left for Denmark in 1973, but has never escaped.

“Music and culture in Ireland today are careful not to offend anybody so they get radio play, grants and gigs,” he says. “Leaving doesn’t mean artists suddenly became idiots and didn’t know about anything going on in Ireland. Because we are not dependent on the country, we can actually say what we think without sacrificing anything; we have nothing to lose.”

McQuaid’s album is a sombre reflection on Ireland, its political and emotional development in the last 50 years. He recalls himself as a “serious man with many a mysterious plan” who, in Stillorgan Symphony, lives through failed romance amid the Dublin suburb’s gangsters, felons and Stella House dances.

Factory Man is a familiar Irish tale of a distant father, fed on his deathbed by his spoon-bearing son: “With cautious eye and custard pie/ we passed the afternoon.”

While Ireland fights over guilt and responsibility for recent past wrongs, McQuaid's Girls Who Lived in Hell is a spare, artistic assault

From Joni Mitchell to Tom Lehrer, McQuaid's influences and idols are all here. Like Ralph McTell, with whom he once shared billing, McQuaid's songs use easy melody to slip in their emotional punch. And, as with the sardonic lyrics of Leonard Cohen, laugh at one of McQuaid's puns and you've triggered the trap and acknowledged his point.

There is a dark diaspora narrative on this album. Prodigal Kiss strips away the recent varnish of 1916 centenary nostalgia to recall Ireland’s “culture of vultures and dealers in debt”.

‘Constant begrudgery’

Land of the Magdalenes recalls a “kingdom of clerical collars”, where deciding not to emigrate meant accepting a lifelong torture of “constant begrudgery”. Over a mournful melody, he challenges the homesick emigrant trope by recalling his departure amid laughter on the mailboat to Holyhead.

In a deliberate nod to another critical Irish emigrant, James Joyce, McQuaid suggests modern Ireland's Wild Geese around the world still know instinctively, when discussing their homeland to those who remained, to maintain "silence and cunning enshrouded in mystery".

A common theme throughout the song cycle is frozen trauma over a recent past too distressful to acknowledge fully. While Ireland fights over guilt and responsibility for recent past wrongs, McQuaid’s Girls Who Lived in Hell is a spare, artistic assault. It mourns the babies sent abroad on “ships of grief and greed” and embraces the tens of thousands of Irish women forced by their fellow citizens to conceal “the shame/ that wasn’t theirs to hide”.

Personal responsibility now is a very difficult concept because to take responsibility requires a certain amount of self-esteem and self-awareness

For McQuaid, escape was his way of staying Irish and of escaping the indifference he perceives among those who stayed – “trapped... but happy that way”.

This emotional paralysis, he argues, helps explain what he calls the “prevalent atmosphere of passivity and connivance between church, State and the people” in the past. And he thinks this goes some way to explaining today’s struggle to accept that past as ours.

“Personal responsibility now is a very difficult concept because to take responsibility requires a certain amount of self-esteem and self-awareness,” says McQuaid. “And if you have been brought up not to believe in yourself, it is very difficult to take responsibility for yourself – at any time.”

Artistic development

For McQuaid, taking responsibility for himself and his artistic development meant leaving Ireland and settling in Denmark. It has been a comfortable home and base for touring across Europe, playing gigs, festivals, pubs and clubs.

And yet, like generations of writers and artists before him, McQuaid's uneasy relationship with Ireland remains the source of his artistic discomfort – and creativity. In that he shares a link to writers such as Samuel Beckett and Edna O'Brien. But he shares a space, too, with progressive contemporary Ireland-based artists like Alison Lowry. Her striking exhibition of glass dresses and baptism shrouds in Collins Barracks, (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths, is an admonition of Ireland's silence around its awkward past.

McQuaid’s songs attempt the same: challenging the silence around Ireland’s Catholic past that has, once again, settled on the country after the fallout from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report.

As a critical emigrant, McQuaid sees his role as making uncomfortable the majority of Irish comfortable with maintaining silence over their past.

“Ireland’s silence is a comfort zone, it’s a mask that seeps acid and eats into the soul,” he argues. “These songs describe something that needs to be healed. But to heal something you have to be able to see it – want to see it.”