Think of land mark bands in contemporary British music culture. Those who come to mind may be the likes of Oasis, The Smiths, The Beatles, Sex Pistols etc. What if you were told that most of them are, at least, descended from Irish relatives.
In the last 50+ years, British pop music culture has been at the pinnacle of artistic expression and is respected worldwide. Rightly so too, for bands such as The Beatles, The Pogues, Sex Pistols, The Smiths and Oasis have defined entire generations. However, it seems that less attention has been paid to the who these people are and the influence that their Irish connection has left on their work. Many of these ‘British’ icons, especially those born to Irish parents in post-war Britain, share very particular traits, personalities, or lyrical themes. A lot of them were angry, awkward, polemic personalities whose music or lyrics challenged and subverted the established pop music norms. Tracing these icons and who they are brings on a tour of British pop culture from Merseybeat and skiffle through to Britpop and beyond.
To begin with the birth of British pop music culture, we must set off from the best-selling band of all time: The Beatles. In the early 1960’s, Liverpool was the beating heart of pop music. Among the countless groups and bands struggling their way to the top, the was The Beatles. Now celebrated worldwide, the forgotten Irish heritage of pop’s greatest writing duo, Lennon and McCartney, has had immeasurable influence throughout every song writer on the planet.
McCartney’s success is familiar to all. His Irish roots, on the other hand, are not so well-known. The Beatle was born James Paul McCartney on June 18, 1942 in Liverpool, England to Jim and Mary Patricia (Mahon) McCartney, both born to Irish parents. Lennon was also of Irish extraction on his Father’s side. However, as John was estranged from his Father from the age of 5 and raised by his Mother’s family of Welsh extraction, not much is known about his Irish heritage, except that the family originate from Omagh, Co. Tyrone.
However, It wasn’t until after the break-up of The Beatles that Lennon and McCartney both turned to Ireland for source material. The Troubles was the catalyst. McCartney’s new group Wings issued Give Ireland Back To The Irish, a trite if well-meaning song about imperialism. The single was a response to 1972’s Bloody Sunday when British soldiers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholics in Derry. Emotions were running high at the close of the inquest in which the city coroner Major Hubert O’Neill reached the chilling conclusion: “I say without reservation – it was sheer, unadulterated murder.” There were riots in Northern Ireland and a crowd burned down the British embassy in Dublin. McCartney’s song, a simple plea for independence, was banned by the BBC and the ex-Beatle was
castigated in the British media for daring to have any opinion at all. He responded by composing a follow-up single, the deliberately nursery rhyme-styled Mary Had A Little Lamb.
John Lennon also wrote about the Bloody Sunday massacre in his album Sometime Time in New York City. He protested against British foreign policy in Northern Ireland at a demonstration in 1972 along with 1,500 other people. Lennon was seen holding a sign which read “For the IRA against British Imperialism”. Lennon’s album makes several remarks to the Troubles and civil rights movement in Northern Ireland such as “Anglo pigs and Scotties” with their “bloody Union Jacks” and “Keep Ireland for the Irish put the English back to sea”. As McCartney’s controversial track was banned by the BBC, so was Lennon’s album.
Following this period, neither of the Beatles ever returned to the Irish subject.
Second generation Irish began to emerge in the music scene later on in the 1970’s with one of the most prominent characters being John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Reflecting on the social and economic climate of Britain in 1977, Lydon wrote lyrics of Anarchy in the U.K. and satirically jabbing at the British Royal family in the year of the Queen’s jubilee year. He was seen as subversive, brutish, degenerate and even sub-human and savage. He experienced police harassment and attacks from patriotic mobs. Lydon’s Irish roots set him as a target for the press as IRA terrorist attacks were prominent in Britain at the time and his anti-establishment ideals seemed to place him on the side of Irish Nationalists in many British people’s eyes.
Lydon’s Father, John Sr., emigrated to London from Tuam, Co. Galway in the late 1950’s and soon married Eileen Barry, a native Cork woman. The couple had their first son, John, soon after marrying and moved into a small tenement in Finsbury Park. John remembers growing up in the cramped family home with no indoor bathroom and a rat infested outhouse. His Grandfather, a hardline Republican, frequently spoke Irish and was open about his distaste for John Jr.’s cockney accent.
Lydon wanted to learn Irish when he was a child in hope to achieve acceptance from his Irish elders, however, both his Mother and Father had abandoned the language on leaving their homeland.
He was quite the delinquent as a child and remembers being called a “little Irish bastard” as a child. Without acceptance from his Irish family and alienation from native English around him, Lydon became increasingly shy. “I was very confused about my family, how I felt about them and where I came from,” he said. Matters worsened when he contracted spinal meningitis at the age of eight and lost a year at school. He returned with an impaired memory, suffered constant teasing and became more withdrawn than ever. The sense of dislocation was manifested most strongly in a fear of intimacy which dominated his relationships thereafter. During his secondary school years, he played the rebel card, turning successively to football hooliganism, dyed hair and belligerence. He was eventually expelled from school and finally ordered from home. A bright kid, he still managed to secure several O-levels and developed an enduring fondness for Oscar Wilde. Never a great pugilist, Lydon’s most vicious weapon was his tongue.
In 1975, Lydon joined a noisy, fledging and frankly, not great, band calling themselves the Sex Pistols. Lydon was renamed ‘Johnny Rotten’ after his green teeth. He has said before, “I had never really sung before. I’d definitely never written any songs before either!” Within two years the band had released their debut single ‘Anarchy for the UK’ which was banned by the BBC, and followed up with ‘God Save the Queen’, which was also banned by the BBC. Lydon’s lyrics reflected a time in which Britain was consumed by recession, unemployment, strikes and violent clashes.
Throughout the chaos, Johnny Rotten remained inscrutably anarchic, a classic case of an icon caught between two cultures. Rotten’s Irish/British dichotomy was still evident. In speaking of Northern Ireland, he was astute enough to point out that “it’s only the ignorance of the people living outside of it that keeps it going. There’s a vested interest and a political gain involved… The British government don’t do anything without a reason.” However, he was no more sympathetic toward the Republic. He saw Ireland as a place that was stuck in it’s ways, a partially right and partially wrong view, as he once said “It’s a postcard scene. It never moves. It’s a void.”
No more quintessentially British could there be a band than The Smiths. Hailing from 1980’s Manchester, the group soon became the arrow head of the indie movement from 1982 to 1987. Lead singer and frontman, Steven Morrissey, often expressed themes of maladjustment, shyness, lost sense of belonging and struggling with identity in his lyrics. Key songs like The Queen Is Dead bemoaned the state of modern England. Morrissey famously attacked the British monarchy, denounced Princess Diana and voiced disappointment that the IRA had failed to kill Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton Bombing.
Along with other members of The Smiths, Morrissey is second generation Irish. Although Morrissey has consistently portrayed his childhood as an unhappy one, it was actually very stable. Unlike other Irish immigrant families like those of Johnny Rotten or the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, Morrissey had a fairly relaxed upbringing, with a doting mother, loving sister and a tolerant father who was always in work, didn’t smoke and hardly drank. There was also a battalion of aunts living nearby as added security.
However, by the time that Morrissey leaves St. Mary’s Catholic school, infamous for it’s relaxed views on corporal punishment, he has become increasingly isolated and malcontented young man who has very little prospects of furthering his education, despite a keen interest in music and literature. He also lacks the self motivation and discipline to master any instruments, and so it’s not until a young Johnny Marr (then Maher) arrives on his doorstep and asks Morrissey to form a group with him, that he finds a direction in himself.
The Smiths quickly rise to become one of the most prominent and influential British bands in history, however, the fact seven of the four piece’s parents follow Irish extraction make The Smiths’ blood more Irish than Bob Geldof and U2.
As journalist John Waters astutely noted: “The Smiths needed no translation in Ireland. Their dark introspection, tragic narcissism, ironic world-view and swirling tunefulness fashioned a profound existential connection with those of us born in the era of the First Programme for Economic Expansion, a connection which it is impossible to explain in other than mystical terms. The Smiths, more than native-grown rock bands, can claim citizenship of that elusive territory so beloved of the President, Mrs Robinson, and Richard Kearney – The Fifth Province.”
Few noticed how the melodic thrust of the group’s work hinted at Irish roots or the way in which the almost desperate sense of longing in Morrissey’s lyrics suggested a brutal sense of cultural dislocation. As with Lennon, Morrissey did not address his Irishness in song until late in his career. In 1997, he acknowledged the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association with the piercing broadside, This Is Not Your Country. It was one of his best and unheralded political songs. Its cello backing added a bonechilling ambience to the descriptions of armoured cars, barbed wire and trigger-happy soldiers. The fatal shooting of a child was presented without melodrama with Morrissey providing a deliberately dispassionate vocal.
In the spring of 2004, Morrissey released his first new album in seven years, You Are The Quarry, which introduced him to a new generation of listeners. It originally bore the far superior title, Irish Blood, English Heart, which also became the pilot single for the album and the biggest hit of Morrissey’s career, climbing to number 3 in the UK charts, at last outperforming, although not outselling, his 1988 début Suedehead.
Irish Blood, English Heart bemoans the state of the political system, denounces the monarchy and dreams of a republic. Oliver Cromwell, the scourge of the Irish, is predictably castigated for his crimes against humanity, although the suggestion that the royal line still ‘salute him’ makes no historical sense whatsoever. Explaining this anomaly, Morrissey countered: “It’s a comment on the whole British monarchy. Oliver Cromwell was no more than a general, but he behaved like some of them by slaughtering thousands of Irishmen just to get them out of the way.” Questioned by Brian Boyd about the Irish dimension, Morrissey added: “My Irishness was never something I hid or camouflaged. I grew up in a strong Irish community. I was very aware of being Irish and we were told that we were quite separate from the scruffy kids around us – we were different to them. In many ways, though, I think I had the best of both places and the best of both countries.”
Although there are many more such as Shane McGowan, Kevin Rowland, all five members of Oasis, Kate Bush and many more, the unsung Irishness that has shaped British music culture for over half a century will always be there. Similar in their disenfranchised feelings, caught in a void between the old country and new, they each have carved out their own patch of Britain to call the 5th province of Ireland.