Mercury music prize: Another appalling British snub for Irish artists

It’s three years since an Irish act was nominated for the British-centric award

The Mercury Prize is habitually accused of tokenism – a jazz record here, a folk obscurity there – but when it comes to Ireland the judges can't even be bothered with one of their trademarked condescending pats on the head.

The just-announced shortlist for this year's award for best British or Irish album is once more a UK-only affair. Worse yet, it's clogged with filler – from the tragically-earthbound Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds (a project even Noel Gallagher seemed thoroughly bored with and whose album got a one-star review in The Irish Times) to Arctic Monkeys' soulless David Bowie b-sides pastiche Tranquility Base Hotel, essentially Aladdin Sane if Aladdin Sane was a three-star record Bowie had immediately disowned.

But even though this is by widespread consensus one of the sorriest Mercury shortlists in recent memory – giving Lily Allen her first nomination for the wan and uninteresting No Shame is the equivalent of Martin Scorsese winning his Oscar with The Departed – the competition is yet again an Irish shutout.

Róisín Murphy

That means it's three years since an Irish artist received a Mercury nomination. In 2015, Arklow-born but UK-based Róisín Murphy got a nod for Hairless Toys, alongside County Derry's Soak and her LP, Before We Forgot How To Dream (yes, the Aphex Twin, who also made the cut, was born in Limerick – but let's not stretch plausibility to snapping point). Neither was regarded as a frontrunner so can't have been crushed when the gong went to the (immediately forgotten) London troubadour Benjamin Clementine.


What makes the 2018 cold shoulder even more egregious is that, while British music finds itself historically moribund, the Irish pop scene has never been healthier. In contrast to the predictable and over-familiar Mercury picks, March’s Choice Music Prize for best Irish album was an engaging juxtaposition of the weirdly wonderful (Lankum), the cooly sublime (James Vincent McMorrow) and the bravely dreamy (Talos).

Yes, eventual winners Ships were perhaps a tad too obscure to finally make the Choice register with a mainstream audience – for all its other achievements the award has alas failed to chime with the public here as the Mercury does in the UK (pointing this out to anyone in Irish music will causes their eyes to dance wildly and their heads explode). Nonetheless, their synth-pop odyssey Precession was worth the praise – a cool, crisp marriage of form and function.

Did it pop up on the radar of the Mercury judges? Of course not  – that’s assuming the band went to the pointless effort of formally submitting the LP for consideration, which they probably didn’t. For the Mercury, bands must pay to enter an album. It costs £190 + VAT, which is hardly prohibitive.

Just as the slow motion train wreck of Brexit has confirmed the uncharted depths of British ignorance towards Ireland – can’t be a real border if Ireland isn’t a real country – so the ongoing snubbing of Irish pop and rock speaks to the London record industry’s flimsy knowledge (and absence of curiosity towards) music in this country.

Judging panel

One problem, surely, is the makeup of the judging panel. As ever none are Irish and several may well be under the impression that James Vincent McMorrow is a firm of solicitors from Wycombe.

Judges this year include Marcus Mumford, educated at £21,000-a-year Kings College School in Wimbledon and whose group, Mumford and Sons, once tried to flog tickets for an Irish show by having a band member put on a Blimey O'Leprauchan accent in a YouTube video. You're probably not going to bump into him in the Whelan's smoking area or queuing for District 8.

It’s perfectly fine if Marcus Mumford isn’t up to date on west Dublin hip hop scene or Cork electro-pop (we’re sure he knows who James Vincent McMorrow is). He’s a millionaire rock star with more than enough on his gilded plate. The point is that, if it isn’t interested in Irish music, the Mercury shouldn’t presume to pass judgement on it.

Recent events have demonstrated that Britain still has a way to go sloughing off its imperialistic perspectives – especially when it comes to its nearest neighbours.

Nobody would, of course, mistake the Mercury panel for Jacob Rees-Mogg threatening economic war. Yet the Mercury is clearly a British-specific award (or, really, an English one, with Scotland and Wales again overlooked too). Perhaps, as with UK government and Brexit, it's time for the Mercury to remove the figurative colonel's monocle and stare facts in the face.

Mercury Rising: Five Irish albums worth a nod

Seamus Fogarty – The Curious Hand: If Beck was from Mayo he might have made a record such as this – a freewheeling blend of folk, hip-hop and wide-eyed ballads.

Talos – Wild Alee: Gothic dream-pop from a Cork architect who here constructs towering collages of r'n b, blues and rock.

Ships – Precission: His 'n hers electronica from Dublin duo, with textured grooves and imperious melodies.

Rejjie Snow - Dear Annie: The Drumcondra rapper makes good on the hype with a meditative hip-hop tableaux blending humour, angst and dry Dublin wit.

Kojaque - Deli Daydreams: A woozy hip-hop concept record about a week in the life of a deli-counter worker plucks at the heartstrings in surprising ways.