Irish blood pumps new heart into English music

Irish Blood, English Heart

You’d have heard the tales of ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, jokes about thick Paddies were common, and publications from the Daily Mail to The Face wrote negatively about Irishness. The IRA’s murderous bombing campaigns also complicated any sense of pride you had in your ethnic background, and made you a target for suspicion and hostility.

To make matters worse, you also weren’t quite accepted on the other side of the Irish Sea. Even those who literally wrapped themselves in the green flag would have heard snide ‘plastic Paddy’ murmurs on the terraces at Irish soccer matches.

One area that did provide a refuge for many second generation Irish was the world of popular music. In fact, as Sean Campbell’s account shows, the British music scene has had an incredibly strong Irish representation, particularly in the 1980s.

Campbell focuses on three very different acts — Kevin Rowland and Dexys Midnight Runners; Shane MacGowan and the Pogues; and Johnny Marr and Morrissey of the Smiths. Along the way, he also mentions other prominent figures with green blood in their veins, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, and he could have written several more tomes on the likes of Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and Boy George.

As much an academic study as a rock history, Irish Blood English Heart won’t appeal to everyone, and leans more towards sociological analysis than interesting anecdote, but it is a solid and at times fascinating work. The author has also undertaken the hugely important task of documenting some of the Irish influence in British music, an area that has long been underplayed and neglected.

Of course, the first musician many people think of in terms of a dual nationality is Shane MacGowan. So, as he slips into semi-retirement as a sort of Irish equivalent of a gin-soaked queen-mother, this book is a timely reminder of what an significant figure he once was.

Born in Kent on Christmas Day in 1957, he spent his childhood between Tipperary and England. Later, he would be instrumental in giving the first public expression of a London-Irish identity that so many of his peers could relate to.

It’s also worth noting that MacGowan came from the punk scene. This anti-establishment youth culture emerged in the late 1970s at a time when many of the sons and daughters of Irish emigrants would have been coming of age. With a sense of alienation and anger at the heart of the movement, punk was tailor-made for many of them.

One of MacGowan’s early heroes was John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols, another figure who expressed strong Irish affiliations. In true Irish fashion, however, there was soon to be a split in the movement, with both sniping at each other in the press. Lydon irritated the Pogues frontman by telling of how he remembered him wearing a Union Jack t-shirt to gigs. MacGowan spoke of John Lydon’s brother Jimmy being “the actual obnoxious London-Irish c**t that Johnny was posing as”. Ouch.

MacGowan took his punk attitude and imbued it with a sense of Irishness at a time when the nationality would have been anything but cool. He later turned his back on England somewhat, but there was a lot of acknowledgement in those early days that he was a product of both countries. He spoke highly of English people, was unhappy with the Glasgow Celtic paraphenalia that became popular at Pogues’ gigs, and was comfortable singing about the Birmingham Six while still being opposed to IRA violence.

Of course, before we get carried away with MacGowan the renaissance figure, there’s no denying that he also became a personification of the drunken Irish stereotype. The band’s first concert tour was aptly called ‘Lock up your drinks cabinets’.

By way of contrast, Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners had veered towards a strange sort of Catholic ascetism, eschewing drink and drugs, and encouraging group exercise sessions. The band’s rider for their backstage requirements would even include a demand for large quantities of tea.

This outlook somwhat ironic given that Dexys were actually named after a type of amphetamine. Rowland — born in Wolverhampton to parents from Crossmolina, Co Mayo — is credited here with being the first second generation musician to deploy overtly Irish themes and styles.

Campbell’s book is probably most interesting for its treatment of The Smiths. Formed in 1982, this Manchester four piece were among the most influential groups of their era in Britain. As a band who operated under the ultimate English surname, and who are often referenced as the quintessential British guitar band, their Irish credentials are often overlooked. Perhaps more commentators should have tripped over the most obvious clue — the family names of their members: Maher (later changed to Marr), Morrissey, Joyce and Rourke.

Okay, so they appear Irish enough to come into the parlour, but surely their angst-filled indie rock is a long way from the Pogues? Yes and no. Campbell shows how, in terms of life experience and musical output, The Smiths’ fabric is obviously made up of quite a few green threads.

Marr describes how his Arklow-born parents were prominent in Manchester’s Irish music scene and his house often rang with the sound of traditional singalongs.

When it came to breaking away from his parents’ tastes, he even turned to another Irish figure, Rory Gallagher. “I picked up a guitar because of him,” says Marr.

Melancholy is the emotion most obviously associated with the Smiths, and while Morrissey’s lyrics and maudlin vocals are the most recognised pillars of this plaintiveness, Marr’s playing is the brilliantly complementary sound that transformed it into great music. Again, the guitarist traces this mood back to those late night sessions at his childhood home.

“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,” he recalls.

Combine all this with the love for Oscar Wilde that Morrissey’s Irish librarian mother fostered in him, and the Smiths’ subliminal shamrock suddenly comes shining through.

As to the difficult question of why there have been so many prominent Paddies in the British music scene, there are probably several reasons. The most obvious is that there were such a huge Irish population in England, and those who were there often bred with Catholic abandon.

But then again, there is no denying the importance of music within Irish culture. A quote here from journalist Miranda Sawyer probably isn’t too wide of the mark: “There’s something about the romance and musicality of an Irish background, not to mention being made to sing at family events, that combines with a first generation English work ethic to make a brilliant pop star.” Irish blood, English heart, and both cultures enriched in the process.

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