The rise and fall of Celtic Rock


CULTURE SHOCK:IN MAY 1970, in his regular High Pop column in The Irish Times, the playwright Stewart Parker concluded some thoughts on the “stylistic intermarriages going on everywhere in rock” with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the most absurd of possibilities: “I hope no Irish group is contemplating experiments in ceilidh rock”.

Within a year, Horslips, extravagantly coiffed and dressed up like peacocks at a wedding, were tuning up their electric mandolins. Within another year, they were the biggest rock band yet seen in Ireland, topping the charts and filling ballrooms from Bundoran to Ballybunion. If, like me, you were in the full flush of adolescence, it seemed not just that Horslips were the most exciting thing that had happened in Ireland, ever, but that Irish popular music would never be the same again. As Parker noted in February 1973, his “idle jest” about an “outlandish possibility” had materialised into a bona fide phenomenon.

It is hard for anyone who wasn’t around at the time to imagine how important Horslips seemed. It was not just that they were a terrific live rock band at a time when the only big indigenous events were a few visits home every year by Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher. It was also that they had invented for us a way of being both Irish and modern. They tapped into the noise and glamour of rock but also, apparently, into the native tradition.

They gave that tradition an energy and a panache that, in our general ignorance, we thought it not to have. The rush of hormones that greeted the first appearance of Riverdance is the only recent equivalent. What we thought we were getting out of this was a specifically Irish rock music. Rock in Ireland would no longer be second hand. It would not be an imitation of English people imitating American blacks. There would be a new hybrid that would form the mainstream of popular music and that would be recognisable for its conscious use of Irish musical motifs.

This was not an absurd expectation. After all, the typical mode of popular music in most countries is some kind of hybrid. In India or Africa or Latin America or the Arab world, the music you hear on the radio is a fusion of indigenous traditions with electric instruments and Afro-American rhythms.

The overarching cultural assumption of Ireland in the early 1970s was still that we were a distinctive people with our own traditions, as particular and peculiar in their own way as those of any other post-colonial society. Why should we not have our own pop music, our own Bob Marley or Fela Kuti? So the coming thing was Celtic Rock. Horslips didn’t really invent it, which was all the more reason to believe that it was rooted in a deeper cultural transition. The hugely influential Sweeney’s Men may have done so when they replaced Andy Irvine with the electric guitarist Henry McCullough (later of Paul McCartney’s Wings). Terry Woods, also of Sweeney’s Men, was an early member (with his wife Gay) of the pioneering English folk-rock group Steeleye Span. Even Horslips’ identity as a rock band playing traditional music (as opposed to Steeleye Span, which was always a folk band using rock instruments) was not entirely original. Fairport Convention had already invented that genre in England.

And for a while, there was a boom in so-called Celtic Rock, with bands like Mushroom, Spud and the excellent Woods Band moving into the space that Horslips had cleared. (Spud, if I remember rightly, were managed by a fellow called Paul McGuinness, who afterwards drifted into looking after some minor showband and was never heard of again.) The Breton harpist Alan Stivell, who played with a rock band (including the guitar god Dan Ar Bras) could fill big halls in Ireland. Thin Lizzy got in on the act with Whiskey in the Jar. Celtic Rock was the future.

Yet it was soon the past. Already, by 1974, Bill Meek in his folk column in The Irish Timeswas noting that “Celtic Rock has not assumed the proportions which might have been predicted three years ago.” By 1977, Joe Breen was able to declare Horslips “the last survivors of Celtic Rock in Ireland”. And in truth, Horslips themselves were gradually killing off the genre by then. Their connection to Irish traditional music has become ever more tenuous and their use of Irish myth had acquired more than a touch of Spinal Tap’s reflections on Stonehenge. By 1980, with punk in the ascendant, Horslips had laid up their fiddles and curling tongs and Celtic Rock had joined prog rock in the dustbin of musical history.

What happened? Part of the answer was, ironically, that traditional music was too vibrant. Horslips opened, for a whole generation, the Aladdin’s cave of traditional music and song. Not only was it no longer uncool to listen to The Dubliners (who, after all, made most rock bands seem pretty tame) but Planxty was on the rise. The dazzling talents of that original Planxty line-up gave an immediacy and potency, but also a rich sophistication, to acoustic folk music. Donal Lunny’s trajectory from Planxty to the Bothy Band to Moving Hearts was simply a more interesting experiment with the variations of tradition and modernity.

More profoundly, though, it turned out that we weren’t quite as different as we thought we were. For those with a taste for traditional music, there were other, richer options. For those who just wanted to rock, the need for a distinctive Irish sound wasn’t actually all that strong. The Boys Are Back In Townserved just as well as Whiskey in the Jar. If Fergal Sharkey sang classic American pop songs with a Derry accent (who else could rhyme “cabbage” with “University Challenge”?) so much the better, but it didn’t really matter if Bono’s voice was somewhere between Ballymun and Baltimore.

Anglo-American norms were fine for our mass entertainment, and if we wanted tradition we didn’t need it dressed up in platform soles and puffy shirts.

The other irony is that the real legacy of Celtic Rock was in the Irish diaspora. It morphed in London into The Pogues and in Boston into The Dropkick Murphys. Somehow, in the re-inventions of exile, hybrids that withered at home could blossom.