This essay is an edited version of a lecture, “On Irish Political Music, 1970-2020”, which was to have been delivered at Maynooth University in March this year but which had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis. The lecture was dedicated to the memory of Emre Işik (1969-2016) and Luke Kelly (1940-1980).
In 1970 The Dubliners released Revolution, their tenth album. The explicitly political title stands out. Founded in 1962, The Dubliners had produced a steady output of records during the 1960s. Earlier albums such as The Dubliners Live, Finnegan Wakes, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, More of the Hard Stuff, Drinkin and Courtin, had established the image of a hard-drinking, rakish folk-ballad group that sometimes sang rebel or republican songs but which didn’t have a particularly hard or distinctively political image. Revolution, moreover, was produced by Derry-born Phil Coulter, the son of a Catholic RUC policeman, and a songwriter more widely associated at the time with successful Eurovision Contest songs than with summonses to the barricades.
Revolution began with “Alabama ’58”, a comic protest song written by Ewan McColl that satirised liberal conceptions of history as a cheery narrative of progress and emancipation stretching all the way from Moses’s exodus from Egypt to the American Civil Rights movement. The album’s A-side also included “The Captains and the Kings”, a satirical number written by Brendan Behan that mocked end-of-empire nostalgia, and “School Days Over”, a plaintive song about a boy leaving school behind for a lifetime in the coalmines. These were followed by “Sé Fáth Mó Bhuartha” (“The Reason I’m Troubled”), a traditional air recited in Irish by Ciarán Bourke and then in English by Ronnie Drew, and “Scorn Not His Simplicity”, a new song penned by Coulter and sung by Luke Kelly about Coulter’s child, born a year previously with Down Syndrome. Next was Kelly’s own composition “For What Died The Sons of Róisín?”, a bitter spoken-complaint about the selling out of Ireland to French, Dutch, German, and American capital (“To whom do we owe allegiance today?”). The A-side rounded off with the ballad “Joe Hill”, a well-known tribute to the Swedish-American Wobblies activist executed in 1915, the chorus issuing a rousing call for working men everywhere not to mourn but to organise.
Revolution’s B-side started with “Ojos Negros” (“Black Eyes”), a Spanish-language song sung by Ronnie Drew. “The Button Pusher”, another comic number, this time about the man in charge of the atom bomb, segued into a set of plaintive melodies, “The Bonny Boy” and “The Battle of the Somme”. These were followed by “Freedom, Come-All-Ye”, a magnificently abrasive Hamish Henderson-written anti-imperialist song sung in Lowlands Scots dialect by Kelly ‑ “Broken faimlies in lands we’ve harriet / Will curse Scotland the Brave ne mair, ne mair / Black and white ane til ither mairriet / Mak the vile barracks o’ their Maisters bare.” “Biddy Mulligan”, a music hall standard written in the 1930s, came next. Like the A-side, the B-side ended by looking beyond Ireland to other struggles: “The Peat-Bog Soldiers” is a marching song written by socialist and communist internees in Nazi labour camps in Germany in 1933 that became a Republican anthem in the Spanish Civil War when sung by German volunteers in the International Brigades.
Viewed with a sceptical eye, Revolution might be dismissed as an opportunistic attempt to seize the moment. In 1967 The Dubliners had created a small furore in Ireland when their “Seven Drunken Nights” was banned from the airwaves for lewdness by RTÉ yet achieved chart success in the United Kingdom, this leading to an appearance on Top of the Pops. (The Dubliners had actually learned “Seven Drunken Nights” from Joe Heaney, who had been singing it in Irish for years without offence.) One might speculate that after the launch of the civil rights campaign, the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the declaration by the Labour Party in the Republic in 1969 that “the seventies will be socialist” the public mood in Ireland had become more sombre and that by 1970 The Dubliners felt the need for a sharper political image.
Canny commercialism in the music industry should seldom be discounted, but to dismiss Revolution in such terms would be reductive. Luke Kelly, The Dubliners’ most charismatic figure, was no stranger to political involvement. Born in Sheriff Street in Dublin in November 1940, his family forced by a house fire to move to Whitehall in 1953, Kelly left school at thirteen and migrated to England in 1958. There he came into contact with the English folk music scene in Newcastle and lived for a period in Birmingham with Sean Mulready, a schoolteacher forced to emigrate from Dublin in the late 1950s when denounced in The Catholic Standard as a dangerous radical. Mulready’s sister Mollie introduced Kelly to her sister-in-law Kathleen Moynihan, founder of the first Colmhaltas Ceolteorí Éireann branch in Mullingar, and her brother Ned Stapleton, a traditional flute-player. While in England, Kelly joined the Young Communist League and the Connolly Association; it was through his acquaintance with communist and left-republican Irish emigrants and socialist activist singers and songwriters that he began to weave together Dublin street ballads, Irish rebel songs, and the occasional traditional song into repertoires that also included British and American folksongs. When Eamonn McCann organized the “Free Derry Fleadh” or “Liberation Fleadh” to support the civil rights movement in that city in 1969 the Dubliners were just some of southern Irish musicians who had travelled north for the event.
Considered in terms of the wider backdrop of the left-wing American folk revival of the 1960s and the English and Scottish folk revivals of the same period, Revolution might lay claim to be considered not an opportunistic seizing of the moment but perhaps the finest political album to emerge from the contemporaneous folk revival in Ireland. Looked back upon now from a fifty year retrospect, it is hard to think of an album by any leading Irish group over the last half-century that could match it for its deft combination of musical styles and political song traditions. The album combines songs in Connemara Irish and Dublinese, Lowlands Scots and Spanish, with materials redolent of the ongoing American civil rights campaign and CND protests, and recalling Popular Front and Wobblies radicalism. It sidestepped the more popular militant republican song numbers of the day, though songs of that kind had appeared previously on The Dubliners’ albums and would do so again. Nevertheless, Revolution was clearly militantly radical and republican socialist rather than pacifist in impetus; the song selection was anti-colonialist, racially pluralist, and upbeat and combatively internationalist in tenor.
As Daniel Gomes has pointed out in his wonderful study “Songs of the People: Ballads, Media, and the Irish Left, 1922-1972”, the political ballad has a long and contentious history in Ireland. For over two centuries, unionists, loyalists, nationalists, republicans, socialists and others have appropriated or reworked the form to support their various causes. On the nationalist side, Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders had looked in the 1840s to the ballad mode to overcome sectarianism and rouse nationalist separatists from despondency after the failure of O’Connell’s Repeal Campaign. In the 1890s, William Butler Yeats, invoking Davis, Mangan and Ferguson in “To Ireland in the Coming Times”, had staked a claim to rework the ballad to his own purposes. He went on to write several remarkable political poems, including “September 1913” and “Easter 1916,” that borrowed from the ballad form. In 1907, James Connolly edited and introduced a collection of revolutionary lyrics, Songs of Freedom by Irish Authors. In his introduction to that volume he declared that “Until the [socialist] movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of the few and not the faith of the multitude.” For Connolly, for socialism to enter the bloodstream of a society it needed to find popular expression in song and other popular forms. Party manifestoes alone could never accomplish that work.
James Joyce also wove republican ballads, most notably “The Croppy Boy” and “The Boys of Wexford”, into Ulysses and Finnegans Wake took its name from a comic Irish-American ballad published in New York in 1864. In the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the Popular Front, the ballad, as Gomes documents, continued to be a site of contention between Irish nationalists of various persuasion. In this period, left-wing Irish and English republicans and communists such as Leslie Deakin or Desmond Greaves were also interested in ballad collection and popular song. Viewed against this longer history, the American, British and Irish folk revivals and “ballad booms” of the 1960s were, as Gomes points out, a relay in a long succession of attempts to convert national-popular or populist song forms to political purpose. What was different about the 1960s, of course, was that the technologies of musical transmission were rapidly changing as new media and technologies created new kinds of publics (or public spheres) and new audiences. In the white heat of the Troubles in the 1970s, Irish republicans of various factions, nationalists, unionists and others continued to write new ballads or rework old ones to support their causes. But by then new broadcasting and musical technologies were overhauling the whole ecology of Irish musical production, thus ushering in a very different kind of “revolution” to that invoked by the Dubliners’ Revolution.
The 1970s were not of course socialist. Indeed it is now conventional to trace the origins of contemporary neoliberalism to the start of that decade. The Dubliners continued to produce albums across the seventies, but by 1970 the folk revival was already being overtaken on one flank by the appearance of more technically accomplished or more modernising “traditional” groups and on the other flank by folk rock bands with a quite different sound. On the traditional side, The Chieftains had been, like The Dubliners, on the go since 1962; Planxty was formed in 1972, the Bothy Band in 1975; on the folk rock side, Thin Lizzy was formed in 1969, Horslips in 1970, Moving Hearts in 1981, The Pogues in 1982. Moreover, the British introduction of interment in Northern Ireland in 1971 and the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 would make the whole issue of political music far more bitterly contentious for decades to come than it had been in the 1960s.
Against this backdrop, Irish and British broadcasting of so-called “rebel music” became more circumspect but within the world of Irish music too the Northern conflict provoked divisions. The traditional music collector and broadcaster Ciarán MacMathúna, for instance, argued that traditional music had been “held up to a middle-class, urban-based ridicule during the 1950s and 60s [but] having weathered that storm, there was a danger of it being subjected to political pressure in the 1970s, subsumed as an adjunct for Republicanism”. Daniel Gomes has shown how British and Irish left-wing organisations also splintered on political and musical issues. Pro- and anti-partitionist sectors of the communist movement, the CPNI and Irish Workers League, and the Provisional and Official wings of the IRA all invested in different ways in popular song and ballads, each faction having its own ideas about who constituted “the people” to which popular songs ought to appeal. In Luke Kelly: A Memoir (1994), still unfortunately one of the few extended studies on Kelly, Des Geraghty writes rather nostalgically of the pre-1970s as a moment when “The Dubliners could bring huge audiences of Catholics, Protestants and dissenters together in King’s Hall Belfast to join in choruses of Orange and green songs.” But the Troubles, Geraghty writes, divided musicians and audiences, some musicians espousing militant republicanism in their repertoires, some repudiating paramilitarism, some turning their backs on Irish folk music altogether. Geraghty’s memoir reflects his own anti-sectarian politics, but his sense of an Irish music world splintering and separating off into different venues and political affiliations seems accurate enough.
Where Irish music was concerned though, the real “revolution” for many people came only a few years later in the middle of the 1970s with the appearance of an indigenous Irish rock music. The Undertones were formed in 1974, the Boomtown Rats in 1975, U2 in 1976, Stiff Little Fingers and The Virgin Prunes in 1977. A second wave of rock-related acts and artists followed in the 1980s: Moving Hearts in 1981, The Pogues in 1982, The Waterboys in 1983, The Hothouse Flowers in 1985, Sinéad O’Connor in 1986, The Cranberries in 1989. With this new music came the forging of a new infrastructure: new performance venues, new studios (Windmill Lane in 1978), Hot Press was launched in 1977, RTÉ 2FM in 1979. And these developments supported the appearance of what we might call Irish rock’s own “organic intellectuals”: many of these ‑ BP Fallon, Niall Stokes, Bill Graham, Dave Fanning, Mark Prendergast, Vincent Hanley, John Waters ‑ were born in the late 1940s or 1950s and several came from well-to-do middle to upper-middle class backgrounds and possessed UCD and TCD university degrees. (Waters and Hanley were the exceptions in terms of university education.) As music journalists, radio broadcasters, reviewers and authors, these were the people who would soon shape the first-draft journalistic metanarratives of Irish rock, figuring its emergence as an heroic narrative, part of a larger heroic narrative of Irish modernisation and liberalisation centred on Dublin.
Cast in heroic mode, the story of Irish rock certainly has a catchy flair. Before the 1970s, so the story goes, Ireland was dominated by an all-powerful Catholic church in the south and puritan Protestantism in the north. Admittedly, in Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, and Phil Lynott the island had produced rock stars before the 1970s, but these were “rock exiles” due to the lack of local infrastructure, censorship, and hostility to international musics. So, it was only in the 1970s with the arrival of The Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, U2 and others that Irish rock culture could finally become mainstream at home. Soon afterwards, it went onto a succession of international conquests that would see Irish bands, most obviously U2, achieve fame in the United Kingdom and the United States. Like rock music everywhere, Irish rock, so the narrative goes, was initially deeply masculinist, but with the emergence of Sinéad O’Connor, Dolores O’Riordan, Leslie Dowdall, Flo McSweeney and the androgynous Virgin Prunes, that formative masculinist rock culture was quickly contested. In this narrative, Dublin, once a nowhere on the rock map, becomes with the triumph of U2 and with the development of a more indigenous Irish rock for a time at least ‑ like Liverpool or Detroit ‑ a significant centre of modern popular music production. As in some accounts of Irish writers in the 1950s or 1960s, in this heroic narrative Irish musicians are characterised as liberators of the repressed id of the Irish nation, unshackling from the control of church and state the thwarted energies of a generation, seeding a new social and sexual liberalism that would eventually flower in the Celtic Tiger era.
More recently, a small tranche of critical rock histories has appeared. Representative works include Gerry Smyth’s Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music (2005), Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone’s Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2 (2012), or Smyth’s Music and Irish Identity (2017). These later works are more scholarly and critically circumspect than the earlier “heroic” narratives, more cultural studies in orientation, more left-liberal or postcolonialist in idiom. Though unavoidably indebted to the earlier “heroic” narratives of Irish rock, they are much less dismissive of other modes of music such as folk, traditional, or showband, and are focused, as is much of Irish Studies scholarship generally, on the ways in which various artistic forms rearticulate “Irish identity” as they hybridise indigenous and international influences. In these studies, or in longer-range or more transatlantic studies such as Lauren Onkey’s Blackness and Transatlantic Irish Identity: Celtic Soul Brothers (2010) or Richard Parfitt’s Musical Culture and the Spirit of Irish Nationalism, 1848-1972 (2020) the foundations for a serious appreciation of contemporary Irish popular music at home and overseas are finally being established.
While they collectively represent an important contribution to the understanding of modern Irish popular culture, these second-tranche musical histories ‑ especially those by Smyth and McLaughlin and McLoone ‑ replay, though in more minor or subdued key, elements of the earlier and more overtly “heroic” rock histories. In other words, these works are rightly appreciative of the achievements of Irish rock, but there are some aspects at least of that narrative that I want to subject here to more sceptical scrutiny. If recent Irish studies of rock music share a common weakness it is that they often take the music’s own critical idioms and self-conceptions too much for granted. They are, in other words, too quick to import into the study of Irish rock international rock’s own inbuilt criteria of evaluation just as literary scholars once tended (and perhaps still do) to assess Irish modernism by international modernism’s own criteria. There is, in sum, a certain element of critical loop-the-loop soldered into this way of thinking about Irish musical culture, one in which rock music’s radicalism, however qualified, tends to be always already assured.
However, Keir Keightley, in one of the boldest reconstructions of rock music’s history and self-understandings, has argued that international rock’s most defining feature is its commitment not to political challenge or dissent as such but to “seriousness” and to making distinctions within mass culture. In other words, while rock itself is obviously a creature of mass culture, and has (unlike, say, literary modernism or visual art or musical modernisms) never had some earlier pre-history outside of it, the very concept of “rock” requires a rejection of those aspects of mass-distributed music asserted to be soft, safe or trivial, easy-listening entertainment or commercially compromised. In rock valuations, musics characterised in any or all of these ways may be dismissed as worthless “pop” in contradistinction to rock, which sees itself as the antithesis of “pop”. Rock music, in short, is a child of mass culture but a music that thinks itself a scourge to mass cultural mediocrity. Hence, what differentiates rock music from earlier critiques of mass culture ‑ whether those of the early twentieth century mandarin literary modernists, or the classical music avant-gardes of the Viennese School, or of Frankfurt School critical theory, or Leavisite or American new criticism ‑ is that rock, in Keightley’s words, “involves the making of distinctions within mass culture, rather than the older problems of distinguishing mass from elite or vernacular cultures”. From its inception, rock music “proceeds to sort out the music of value from the music that lacks value”, this not simply on the basis of taste ‑ likes or dislikes ‑ but with a claim to making considered judgements on popular music based on that music’s inherent qualities and social consequences.
For Keightley, there is a history to this that stretches back to World Wars I and II. Before World War I, popular commercial music addressed itself largely to an undifferentiated audience, the same songs marketed to everyone from grandparents to grandchildren. Audience segmentation into teen/adult categories really began, he contends, in the interwar years, but was institutionalised only in the mid-1950s when teen taste officially became a segregated category of the mainstream market. In this period, radio programming in the United States began to change from the one-size-fits-all family fare of national broadcasters to more specialised stations catering to adult or teen listeners and to differentiated ethnic or regional tastes. One of the spectacular developments of this period, Keightley argues, was the inauguration of the Top 40, which institutionalised a new kind of meritocracy within music: by its nature, this system was committed to rapid stylistic turnover and to the idea that the best songs would reach the biggest audiences.
Within this mass-music infrastructure, rock self-identified as a “masculinist”, muscular vanguardist music and considered itself the antithesis to everything “soft”, meaning music that seemed sentimental, pretty, or establishment, and in one way or another “feminine”. Teen music initially relied extensively on the cheap single, but with rock came the cult of the album (especially the “theme” or “concept” album) with its connotations of high art or poetry-collection weightiness. Rock, Keightley suggests, positioned itself ambivalently between “teen” music (with its connotations of transient pubescence and puppy-love frivolity) and “adult” music (with its suggestion of establishment conformity), affixing itself to an idea of “youth culture” ‑ “youth” signalling a post-pubescent maturity not yet however socially integrated or tamely conformist. Rock, in short, identified itself from the outset as a special case of mass consumption, one defined by its seriousness and experimentally self-conscious resistance to the rank commercialism of the mainstream popular culture to which it nonetheless clearly belonged.
Folk revivals, Keightley allows, also defined themselves by their rejections of mass society and mass culture and well before rock music folk music too understood itself as a rejection of soulless commercial songs and suspect success. Like rock, folk aspired to fuse sociopolitical and aesthetic concerns, but in its effort to challenge that capitalist mass culture folk’s ethos was not so much avant-gardist as revivalist, seeking out “authentic” and marginal music traditions associated with pre-industrial communities, often agrarian, sometimes proletarian, usually lower class or subaltern. In the United States, this folk quest for the authentic and traditional often involved a turn to African American blues and country styles, though in the 1960s there were also earlier traditions of Popular Front songs, mining songs, and workers’ protest music available to folk artists. But even when it borrowed from subaltern cultures, folk music was not typically addressed to the subaltern classes: it attracted urban and often college-educated people, these usually white in the United States. Unlike rock music’s audiences, though, folk publics were often more intergenerational in composition, including college students, middle-age bohemians, and sometimes older musicians who could authenticate folk’s connections to the longer musical heritages from which it drew.
For Keightley, despite a shared antipathy to worthless “mass music”, the key difference between folk and rock musics was that folk conceived of itself in an essentially Romantic value system, rock in an essentially Modernist one. Folk, therefore, understood its authenticity in terms of roots, tradition, and continuity with the past. It professed to value a sense of community and an ethos of sincerity and directness, it leaned towards a populist politics and “natural” sounds ‑ hence, its tendency to avoid or hide music technology in preference for more low-tech instruments. Rock, in contrast, privileged experimentation and rupture with the past over continuity and tradition, prized an avant-gardist over a roots sense of music, and preferred high-volume and high-tech over low-tech and “natural” sounds. By endorsing an aesthetics committed to radical innovation, rock looked to the future rather than the past for validation. This meant that it was therefore wedded to a kind of constant changing of the guard: punk tried to oust stadium rock as the latter apparently became corrupted, post-punk in turn dismissed early punk’s passionate ineptitude in favour of adaptations of electronic and dance music and more avant-garde production techniques, and so on. In this way, Keightley contends, rock music generally internalises as part of its self-understanding both “romantic” and “modernist” aesthetics, but requires a constant process of stratification within the mainstream to distinguish between the serious and trivial to shore up its own apparent authenticity and autonomy. But whereas folk music liked to see itself as marginal to the compromised mainstream, a subcultural music set apart from mass-mediated commodity culture, and was thus inherently suspicious of crossovers to commercial success as “sellout”, rock culture could parade its hostility to compromised mass music but still embrace commercial success as a validation of artistic quality. So long as they seemed true to their musical mission, rock fans could cheer their band as it transitioned from local subcultural phenomenon to national chart-topping success to global conquest to mega-wealth without ever feeling that either the band or its support had “sold out” on this trajectory to the top.
Regarded in this light, the emergence of rock music internationally in the 1950s and ’60s and of a more locally-based Irish version from the mid-1970s onwards might be seen in retrospect to represent something like the creation not just of a new genre of music or new consumer market, but also as the elaboration a whole new public or counterpublic sphere in Ireland. If public spheres are by definition self-organised and establish a relation of presumptive intimacy and exchange between strangers, and in that sense are sustained by means of attention and the reflexive circulation of discourse, then rock music constituted such a sphere. In the Habermasian sense, the early Enlightenment public sphere is identified with printing, middle class literacy, secularism, and rational deliberation among presumptive equals. However, American scholars have stressed the significance of evangelical Protestantism to the creation of a modern Anglo-American public sphere. Where Habermas stressed the importance of writing, literacy, print and reasoned public debate, American critics stressed the persistent importance of oral and religious forms (preaching, prophecy), affect, and conversionistic modes of address to strangers. As migrant preachers broke away from mainstream churches in Great Britain and the United States to form new congregations, new counterpublics were repeatedly set up to challenge more mainstream middle class ones. These may have been an even more significant process in the United States than in the United Kingdom thanks to the separation of church and state.
If we think of it as a form of public sphere, rock music obviously does not operate by rational deliberation only, but rather by a curious combination of charismatic concert performance and ecstatic audience response. But the ecstatic performance moment is typically hedged about by rational “expert” public discourses transmitted through fanzines, the musical press, DJs, expert reviewers, autobiographers, critical scholarship, etc. In other words, if rock music forms a new kind of public sphere, what distinguishes it from the Enlightenment bourgeois public sphere as conventionally formulated is that it requires both “hot” charismatic interactions with the publics it constitutes in the form of heady live performances, these then supplemented by the kinds of “cool” discursive debates characteristic of the culture industries and arts fields more generally. As cultural historians like Gerry Smyth or Martin McLoone and Noel McLaughlin have pointed out, the Irish showbands may have been forerunners to rock in the creation of an Irish “youth culture” in the 1960s and 1970s, but the showbands still depended on pre-existing infrastructures of the Catholic church for things such as parish halls or community centres whereas rock innovated many of its own venues. Rock also found a supportive medium initially in “pirate” radio broadcasting stations and then in state-licensed stations. Soon enough, this wall-to-wall radio transmission media was in turn massively boosted by the establishment of American cable-channel MTV on August 1st, 1981. Furthermore, when the leading rock stars also became public figures with causes and campaigns to espouse, rock married its charismatic elements to public intervention in a manner that other Irish musics ‑ classical, jazz, traditional, even folk ‑ could rarely match even if they wished to do so. Irish rock music, in short, constituted a new kind of public sphere with a kind of dionysian-or-charismatic-cum-rational-deliberative dynamic all of its own.
By virtue of what Keightley calls its modernist avant-garde aesthetics, rock music as a self-organised public sphere was constitutively, then, both anti-statist and anti-church or organised religion. Rock, that is, understood itself as the authentic anguished expression of a repressed “youth”, a constituency supposedly alienated from all adult institutions, church and state most immediately. (The drudgery of factory and work and the despair of deindustrialisation may have featured more prominently in British rock, but in Ireland unemployment and clerical oppression probably loomed larger in the musical imagination.) But since rock music also defines itself as “serious” music, it requires that it be taken seriously both as an art form and, often, as a music with a social message or mission. Like folk musicians, and generally unlike classical or jazz or showband musics, rock’s leading exponents are commonly expected to be “mouthy”, to have views, to provoke controversy, to align themselves with disaffected or bohemian communities.
Against the backdrop of a near civil war in the North and the rancorous clash between the religious and secularists in the South in the 1970s and 80s, there was extra pressure perhaps but also special opportunity for the new specifically “Irish” rock stars to assume this kind of public role. Certainly, figures like Bob Geldof, Bono, Sinéad O’Connor, Shane MacGowan, and later, to some extent, Dolores O’Riordan, embraced such roles, some with considerable gusto and to a degree more rarely attempted by earlier Irish forerunners like Van Morrison, Phil Lynott or Rory Gallagher. With the establishment of MTV in 1981, rock as medium became more “globalised” than ever before so that Geldof, Bono, O’Connor and others would soon command a much higher public profile than anything that contemporary high-profile folk- or ballad-style musicians such as, say, Christy Moore or The Wolfe Tones could manage. As Keightley notes, rock always constituted itself as both avant-garde and mainstream, a countercultural music that was never satisfied to be merely marginal or subcultural. Christy Moore might be a national figure with a popularity that could win him audiences in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe, but the “real” rock stars ‑ Van Morrison, U2, Sinead O’Connor, for a time The Pogues ‑ had to capture the American imagination and market as well. And capturing an American public meant mastering American rhetorics or styles of address also.
Smyth’s and McLoone and MacLaughlin’s studies attempt to decipher the politics of Irish rock by assessing the merits and styles of successive bands. In other words, they deduce the politics of rock by assessing group by group or album by album the aesthetic ideology of this or that band or singer. Critical discriminations of such kind are indispensable and meaningful of course, but it needs to also to be recognised that Irish rock music constituted a public/counterpublic sphere quite different from that constituted by other musics. Whatever about the political or aesthetic leanings of particular groups, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that rock music as a medium was foundationally both socially liberal and economically neoliberal from the mid-70s onwards. The social liberalism may have been most evident in the music; the neoliberalism more evident in the media infrastructures that carried it. But how far these two can be separated is a question and the entrepreneurial “free market” dispositions characteristic of the management companies, radio stations and public relations corporations were not absent from the music either. The Boomtown Rats’ first hit single, “Lookin’ After No 1” (1977) and “Banana Republic” (1980) ‑ “Banana Republic/Septic Isle” ‑ with its denunciation of “Black and Blue uniforms, police and priests” undoubtedly captured the mood of a youthful venom directed at a southern state then in the throes of multiple crises. However, Geldof’s scorn for what he deemed “medieval-minded clerics and corrupt politicians” was by the early 1980s shared not just by many young people, whether in Ireland or emigrated, and by struggling secularists, but also by the more modernising and entrepreneurial sections of the political class keen to leave behind “De Valera’s Ireland” for new European and globalising futures. In other words, significant sections of the Irish capitalist class were keen for Ireland to move on from its past as fast it could go. But moving on did not mean more social democracy or social equality; it meant hewing a path, as a later phrase had it, closer to Boston than to Berlin. The rock music industry had had its eye on America all along; that industry shared common interests not just with dissident Irish youth but also with Irish capitalist interest in Irish and American synergies of other sorts.
With the Geldof/Midge Ure-organised Live Aid concerts in 1985, followed by the domestic Self-Aid version in 1986, and the consolidation of U2 as the dominant band on the Irish scene ‑ Rolling Stone had hailed U2 as the “Band of the 80s” in March 1985 ‑ Irish rock was quickly leaving behind international rock’s earlier “sex, drugs and rock and roll” hedonism for a whole new “caring rock” image. The Live Aid or Self-Aid concerts were certainly spectacular and drew serious media attention for a time at least to the inequalities of global or Irish capitalism, and looked to “people” ‑ however vaguely defined ‑ to press for change. But they also did much more than that. For one thing, they refurbished an idea of the rock musician as activist, but within terms that now that moved the whole conception of musical politics away from avant-gardism or association with social movements of any clearly-defined political kind and closer to single-issue campaigning philanthropy. The idea appeared to be that the charismatic concert would be a spectacular event, a kind of grand musical summit or “great awakening” that would ignite a new sense of awareness, a new sense of righteous urgency, in which national governments, corporations and “peoples” alike would come together in great campaigns to end famine, unemployment or even world poverty. As U2 especially went on to greater global success after the 1980s, the band’s commitment to a particularly corporatised version of “change” also became more evident; indeed, the phenomenal success of U2 as “the world’s greatest band” was such that its activities helped to reshape not just the image of Irish rock but of rock more generally. Where once rock stars appeared as the rollicking playboys of the western world, now they ‑ or some of them at least ‑ espoused not just serious music but serious, even saintly, missions as well.
U2’s particular blending of evangelical revivalism, slick entrepreneurialism and anthemic stadium music did not even at its height, of course, command everyone’s admiration either in Ireland or elsewhere within or without the musical world. However, this is hardly the point. Whether admired or reviled, Bono and U2 created a new image for rock music and a new sense of what a socially-minded campaigning artist might be. Irish bands, Irish critics and some sections of the Irish public might sneer, but no Irish artist since Joyce, Yeats or Beckett came near to Bono in international profile, no other Irish artist-celebrity had nearly so clearly defined a political worldview nor the same sheer force of will to actualise it. No other Irish band of any kind was so fiercely professional, clean-living, and long-lasting; none campaigned with so meticulous skill and impressive determination to make itself matter not just in Ireland and the United Kingdom, or the United States and Europe, but also in Africa. And if it was not already clear at the outset, it certainly soon enough would be that what U2 stood for was an evangelically-inflected neoliberalism whereby a reforming and progressive capitalist elite would set itself the mission of clearing up the ravages of Western capitalism even as it also, and more successfully, cleaned up Western capitalism’s image in the process. When the Soviet Union collapsed and communist and socialist parties everywhere in Europe either disbanded in disarray or moved to the centre in the 1990s, the idea of an evangelical-minded “good capitalism” had considerable appeal not just in Ireland but well beyond. Bonoism in Ireland and, a little later, Blairism in Britain each had a youthfully evangelical can-do “Third Way” charisma and a purposeful vision that combined a considerable degree of social liberalism with economic neoliberalism. And while neither Bono nor Blair were ever the singlehanded engineers of the neoliberal transformations under way on both islands, each lent to those transformations his own distinct sense of optimistic sleeves-rolled-up can-do-ism and reasoned prophetic righteousness.
Neoliberal deregulation was pressed on Ireland by a mix of American Foreign Direct Investment pressure and European Union referenda. It was slowly but surely imposed on certain state-managed and unionised sectors like broadcasting, transport or education by a mixture of threats and well-crafted inducements. However, in the corporately sponsored music stations undergoing transformation from “pirate” to legalised “independent stations” and in the less-unionised arts sector more generally, especially in the case of the new “wild child” of Irish rock, neoliberalism was never imposed from without. As I have argued elsewhere, what would soon be termed “the creative industries” were in fact often nurseries to a new neoliberal ethos and some of the Irish products of those industries became enormously successful global brands. For every Ryanair, Cement Roadstone or Glanbia Ireland created, there was also a Riverdance, an Enya, a Westlife. This is not to say, by any means, that the whole history of Irish rock is reducible to a history of neoliberal value. It is to stress, though, that accounts of Irish rock that concentrate on issues of “identity” or “hybridity” or “tradition” and “modernisation” or that quarantine rock music off from the wider neoliberalisation of Irish society from the 1970s onwards ignore one of the most significant elements of the cultural history they purport to analyse.
Rock music avant-gardism may well have constituted a curious late-twentieth-century “second coming” of Irish modernism, this avant-gardism conducted now not in some restricted highbrow literary milieu but on the mass cultural airwaves. As such, it may well represent a vernacular late-modernism of sorts deserving serious analysis in its own right. But if this was a new vernacular modernism it was one that openly embraced the ethos and trapping of enormous wealth and mass cultural success even as it retained for itself also the older trappings of counter-cultural bohemianism. Whatever else Bono might be, he was neither a second James Joyce boulevard café type venerated by highbrow cosmopolitan critics and university professors nor a craggy-faced Samuel Beckett shunning publicity with the same canniness that some cultivated it. It is also true that as a public/counterpublic sphere rock music as music (rather than as industry) was generally on the socially liberal side of Irish society at a time when Irish liberals were confronted with a significant Catholic conservative backlash and when campaigns for greater rights for women, gays, and other minorities had still to be won. But by merging a modernist-style avant-garde musical aesthetics with a mass-cultural celebration of commercial success, rock music fashioned a “late modernism” that married social liberalism to economic neoliberalism in ways that lent a glittering sheen to the wider state-supported transition to neoliberalism more generally. As Ireland moved into and beyond the Celtic Tiger era, its histories of liberalism and neoliberalism became tangled in ways that most social and cultural histories have still to tackle. Like all revolutions, in short, the “rock revolution” had more than one consequence. Some of its effects were almost certainly emancipatory and Irish music certainly needing a good shake up and shake out. But some of its less emancipatory consequences merit greater attention.
But what about the actual political music of this era? How good was it? How radical or faux-radical? How strong was it as political music specifically? Publics, after all, are not all comprised of band fanatics committed to only one group or only one sound. Listeners sometimes care more for particular songs than for bands or their careers, more for a special musical experience than for generic categories like folk or rock, classical or hip-hop music. On this level, the question to be posed perhaps is whether Irish rock music nurtured a new kind of political art more accomplished and complex than that inherited from the older lineages of republican, folk, workerist or protest songs and ballads that preceded its emergence. What kind of political expression could rock music accommodate, how expansive was its emotional and cognitive stretch in this respect? These are difficult questions to answer with any precision and my assessments here are necessarily perfunctory and provisional. But even as its most memorable, rock music seems to have been better equipped to express a rather inchoate anger, dissent, rage and confusion than to channel political vision of any well-defined kind.
Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device” (1979), to pick an early example, is a fast and furious pugnacious punk protest song that declaims against political indoctrination and mind control. “Alternative Ulster”, the band’s second single, is a vigorous punk repudiation of everything; it mixes anger and manic desperation to plead for some inchoately inexpressible “alternative”. Boomtown Rats’ “Banana Republic” (1980) is verbally strident in the early punk manner, but musically a rather comfortably mainstream and gentle ska-reggae protest song. The virulence of the lyrics and the sudsy-sounding music make for a curious mix of feel-bad indignation and feel-good righteousness. U2’s anthemic “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (1983) is surely the most internationally-celebrated Irish political song of the 1980s. It has a lead-in militaristic drumbeat but proudly pacifist message, making it, oxymoronically, an anti-protest protest song. It chorus line, “How long, how long must we sing this song?”, expresses a war-weariness and visceral disgust with violence that tapped into Irish religious and secular critiques of militarism on all sides. A protest against waste and atrocity (“Broken bottles under children’s feet / Bodies strewn across the dead end street”) and an anti-recruitment song (“But I won’t heed the battle call”), “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” folds its anguished repudiation of Northern Irish violence into a universal sense of shame at a world all awry (“And it’s true we are immune / When fact is fiction and TV reality /A nd today the millions cry / We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”). The music finally soars to a salvific declaration of faith in human unity (“Cause tonight we can be as one”) and Christian redemption (“the real battle just begun / To claim the victory Jesus won”). As such, the “How long, how long must we sing this song?” has a hymnal quality more invested in spiritual transcendence than politics of any description. Paul Brady’s “The Island” (1985) is a plaintive musical Humeism decrying the primeval senselessness of tribal violence (Irish and Lebanese) mixed with a wistful pastoral island escapism worthy of a tourist brochure. Christy Moore’s “The Other Side”, which appeared on his Unfinished Revolution (1987), is a riposte to “The Island”, offering a darker image of “the island” north and south, by invoking the spectacles of clerical opposition to divorce, British militarism, homelessness, and youth emigration to the United States. In fairness, Brady’s “Nothing But the Same old Story”, released on his Hard Station album in 1981, showed him just as capable as Moore or any other Irish artist of writing a hard-hitting political song.
Because so many Irish rock songs cultivated a careful neutrality with reference to opposing sides in the Northern conflict, The Pogues “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” (1988) is an anomaly. The song counterpoints a dolefully melancholic emigrant song with an abrasively venomous punk protest tirade against British justice and imperialism, clearly shifting the focus of blame for Anglo-Irish relations from paramilitary violence to a history of British imperialist violence, Northern Irish deindustrialisation, and legal injustice. The Cranberries “Zombie” (1994), a song composed after the Warrington bombing, has enjoyed enormous international success. It mixes terrific anguish and guilt with a howlingly plaintive protest music. The extraordinary accompanying video features a truly baroque montage of black and white footage of Belfast, a gold-dust-covered, cupid-surrounded Cleopatra-like O’ Riordan, and a background that sweeps between a garish crucifixion scene, British troop patrols, menacing streetkids, and republican and loyalist paramilitary murals. The song lyrics verge on banality ‑ “it’s the same old theme/Since nineteen-sixteen/In your head, in your head they are fighting” ‑ but O Riordan’s voice, soaring and swooping in pitches that mingle shame, sorrow and bitterly angry despair, lends “Zombie” a macabre surrealistic power. The song conveys something of that quality of demented Gothic or nightmarish postmodern mayhem that Patrick McCabe had registered two years earlier in The Butcher Boy (1992) and would do again with Breakfast on Pluto (1998). By contrast, Sinead O’Connor’s “This is a Rebel Song” (1997) is often considered a retort to U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” a song Bono introduced as “not a rebel song”. Despite its title, “This is a Rebel Song” is actually not a rebel song either, but its converse: a tender love song addressed across the barricades to an Englishman, this overture delivered with a sense of muffled injury and tentative forgiveness.
To describe these songs in such summary penstroke manner admittedly does little to register the complexities of emotional response they can trigger. If songs offer some kind of psychogram of where a society is emotionally, these collectively suggest an Ireland imaginatively indentured to the religious, nationalist or republican imaginaries it strives to leave behind or recombine to new purpose. It is hard not to conclude that what was most novel about rock music was not its song lyrics, which often appear less subtle than their folk or ballad music counterparts, but the medium’s performative riskiness and attention-grabbing capacities. For rock, song lyrics were just one part of an arresting multimedia spectacle and the combined power of music, voice, band-image, video-design and personal charisma pressed rock performance far closer to musical theatre or pop-opera than to other more low-tech, smaller audience modes like folk or traditional music. As mentioned already, rock’s transmission media were also new: whether communicated through the ecstatic medium of mega-stadium live concert or via the repetitive loop of TV and radio broadcast, Irish rock could reach publics in ways few other modes of music could do. A novel synthetic cultural form had emerged in Irish society in a time of chronic political crisis and rapid economic change: this new form created spaces for the articulation of new aspirations, but in many respects the “message” relayed by rock ‑ if by message we mean the song lyrics ‑ appears mostly (though not in all cases) quite centrist.
Moreover, despite its great possibilities and potencies, rock as medium also had its inherent social limitations. The new medium allowed Irish musicians and singers an international reach that exceeded that available to any rival musical medium, but “global” success inevitably took bands or artists away from nurturing local bases, that distance exacting over time a loss of connection and political edge. Perhaps this may explain why, in ways that sometimes seem to frustrate their recent cultural historians, so many Irish rock musicians would at some point in their careers return to “tradition” ‑ think Van Morrison’s fascination with Protestant gospel music or Yeatsian mysticism or his collaboration with the Chieftains, think Thin Lizzy or Horslips and Celtic rock. And later bands roughly contemporary with U2 such as The Moving Hearts, Scullion, The Waterboys, The Pogues, Hothouse Flowers, In Tua Nua, Clannad, or The Saw Doctors, not to mention British and American second-generation Irish groups like Dexy’s Midnight’s Runners or Black 47, leaned even more heavily into earlier folk, traditional, republican or ballad repertoires. For all their differences, Irish rock music retained a sibling rivalry and camaraderie with Irish folk. And once a new Irish rock music public sphere was established as its own independent reality, some folk musicians (Moving Hearts, Scullion, Paul Brady) ventured into that sphere, but many more rock artists (Van Morrison, Phil Lynott, Elvis Costello, Sinéad O’Connor, Kevin Rowland) always wanted to connect at some point with their country’s folk or traditional music.
For some, returns to “roots” of this kind will always appear suspect, a concession to some retro-version of musical Irishness. However, such returns might just as well be read as indices of the limitations of the new rock medium, as a search for some more fertile relationship between “past”, “present” and “future.” At its best, rock’s avant-gardism could machete clearings into some yet ineffable future; at its worst, it could take bands into cooler than cool deserts of postmodern gimmickry or New Age vapidity. If Irish rock so often found itself returning to earlier forms of Irish music, this is because, like modernist art music before it, rock could so easily run out of musical road. However much it might identify itself as the music of “youth” like the classical art avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, rock was never exempt from “ageing”; it could never be wholly self-generated in some musical fountain of youth either, and needed other musical forms with their own distinctive publics and resources to sustain or renew itself.
To sum up then, there can be no simple balance sheet or assessment of the politics of Irish rock. The material infrastructure of the new form was always corporate, entrepreneurial and de facto neoliberal; this aspect of the “rock revolution” remains seriously neglected and understudied. Rock music’s ethos was premised on global success and in time its most feted exponents ‑ singers, managers, entourages ‑ became part of the new Celtic Tiger entrepreneurial elites, many apparently cosily so. In keeping with much of the international art milieu more generally, in their personal politics rock artists tended to be socially liberal, especially perhaps in terms of gender and sexual politics. Nevertheless, as the careers of U2, Sinead O’Connor, Dolores O Riordan, Moya Brennan, Shane MacGowan, and several others indicate, many Irish artists continued to have tortuous but interesting relationships to religion, an aspect of the new music that was nearly always played down in the musical press and remains so in the academic scholarship on Irish music. That relationship appears quite complex: as the once-dominant Irish churches, Catholic and Church of Ireland, shed their charismatic authority, perhaps rock filled a vacancy. When neither churches nor political parties can mobilise a sense of collective excitement or future purpose new missionaries and messiahs with new messages appear.
The financial crisis of 2008 appears in retrospect not merely a crisis in Irish politics but also as a drastic calling in of accounts in Irish political music. In the decade and more that has elapsed since 2008, the most astonishing thing about Irish music has been its remarkable inability to offer anything particularly meaningful to that crisis. Folk and rock musicians had engaged with the Troubles in various ways and had produced memorably angry songs directed against Catholic conservatism and clerical or state child abuse. But after 2008 what has resonated most has been the voluble sound of silence or, in other words, a remarkable lack of creativity, certainly from the most established figures in folk and rock musics alike.
Have Van Morrison, U2, Geldof, Paul Brady, the Undertones, Sinéad O’Connor, the Cranberries (before the tragic death of Dolores O’Riordan) had anything provoking to say to that decade or more of bank bailouts, austerity, heathcare cuts or extreme housing crises? Nothing notable of any great significance from Christy Moore, Declan Lunny, Shane MacGowan, Dolores Keane, Sharon Shannon, Frances or Mary Black or leading figures more associated with the folk music end of things either. For some commentators, the Celtic Tiger era sound was defined by a confectioned teen-music associated with boy and girl bands (Boyzone were established in 1993, B*Witched in 1997, Westlife in 1998) and as such was considered a regression. Still, to focus exclusively on the made-to-order teen bands is to ignore the steady stream of independent singer-songwriters that also emerged to soulful prominence in the pre- or post-2008 periods. Here too the most high-profile names ‑ Julie Feeney, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, Gemma Hayes, Mundy ‑ have had little enough to offer by way of memorable political song. Is there even one post-2008 political song that captured the public’s imagination about the banking collapse, the corporate bailouts, the Troika impositions, the “loss” of national sovereignty, the Brexit-crisis years?
When the water-charge protests were under way, honourable reliables like Christy Moore or Frances Black could still be counted on to perform old repertoires for charity gigs and early trade union protest rallies sometimes featured younger new rap artists, hip hop groups or working class singers such as Damien Dempsey, Samantha Mumba or Imelda May. Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey were prominently involved with the Irish Housing Network takeover of Apollo House in December 2016 and 2017, but commendable as such actions might be no distinctive new political music emerged to complement the activism. Hozier has lent support to the Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign and has protested at homophobia, but new rock figures of his kind did not appear in sufficient force or number to shift the dial on the wider musical culture. Meanwhile, the now senior rock celebrities like Bono and Geldof were fronting up the Global Irish Economic Forums in Farmleigh and Dublin Castle, continuing in more corporate form the kind of top-down “caring capitalist” approaches developed in the 1980s. In an era of accelerating climate crisis, austerity for the poor, and renewed emigration or gig economy jobs for the young, bailouts reserved for banks and plutocrats, the prospect that “caring capitalism” might complete the victory Jesus won looked pretty feeble.
If things seemed stymied after 2008, the problem was not simply an Irish one. Protest music and political music generally thrive in atmospheres fired up by energetic social movements. The Irish ballad or rebel music variously espoused by Thomas Davis, James Connolly, Brendan Behan, The Wolfe Tones or The Pogues always had a vociferously militant strand that protested British imperialism and military oppression and that celebrated stubborn Irish resistance to these. Nevertheless, a great deal of rebel or folk music never developed any vocabulary, musical or lyrical, to deal with capitalism more specifically in song. The British empire was a more visible, tangible and immediate opponent than a complex economic system. The more workerist elements of that rebel tradition promoted from James Connolly to Luke Kelly to Christy Moore engaged, sometimes in melancholic, sometimes robustly comic mode, with the hardships of labouring life, emigration, and poverty, or with the carnivalesque revelry that made such lives tolerable for some at least. Still, songs about the sorrows of the oppressed underdog or even about the underdog’s devil-may-care delights are not the same thing as a music that possesses some sense of alternative vision, some energetic charge for change. Irish musicians clearly cannot be blamed for the limited nature of the Irish social protest movements that emerged in the wake of 2008, and if the extraordinary period after the international financial crisis and the corporate bailouts is now more memorable for the sound of silence than for its music this has surely something to do with wider shifts of social and musical circumstance. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, in the wake of the collapse of the Irish banks and the coming of the Troika, neither rebel music nor workerist ballad nor the charismatic politics of “caring capitalism” were really able to come to terms with a corporate capitalism well capable of imposing its will on whole populations without recourse to imperial-style invasions or the more overt forms of class assault. The prospect of capital feeling Ireland was, and remains, more frightening than the prospect of austerity capitalism. Some will rob you with a sixgun, some a fountain pen, but the one kind of swindle is easier to represent than the other.
Global and Irish capitalism reeled for a few tottering years after 2008, but the workers did not rise and the citizens generally submitted with little more than token resistance to austerity and demanded no social transformation of existing structures or national plans. In the preceding boom decade, many of the folk and rock celebrities alike had grown old, out of touch with younger audiences, and joined the rich lists. In the same interval, I-tunes and Spotify eroded the genre of concept albums and returned youthful listeners to something like the days of the single release. Success always has its costs; revolutions go awry. Rock might still command the airwaves, a great deal of Irish traditional and folk musics might have melted into commercial Irish kitsch or “world music” and republican music might still enjoy followings in working class areas especially. Up North, the Orange Order and its pipe bands, a distinctly unfashionable but well-organised political music, could still command the public streets for the annual “marching season”. Down South, younger musicians like Lankum or Lisa O’Neill appeared to find more resource in eclectic folk, traditional, punk or American blues repertoires than in stadium rock. If rock music had earlier represented not just a fresh new sound but also a brash new public or counterpublic sphere, that sphere was no longer so new and it was now probably much more internally segmented than it was a few decades earlier. However, no other form of Irish music ‑ folk, rock, traditional, vernacular hip-hop ‑ was able to forge a new counterpublic sphere powerful enough to displace the now ossifying rock one.
It is too soon to tell whether the current twin crises of pandemic and neoliberal capitalism, a combination that threatens to stymy any kind of live public sphere for some time at least, will simply further flatten Irish popular music’s current resources or whether the hiatus will clear the way for badly-needed fresh beginnings. Tough new times, which no one wanted but which are here now anyway, may impel Irish musicians to renovate older radical repertoires from tough old times. The country is now home to many new migrant communities with their own political and musical traditions ‑ from such resources a “new Irish” music in every sense might yet emerge and manage to forge its own public. Becoming modern, so long an obsession in Irish liberal and neoliberal culture, and in Irish rock, no longer seems the compelling project it once was in an era when the whole notion of never-ending growth seems to depend on environmental disaster. Ireland in 2020 is plenty modern enough; it is the character of its modernity that matters. Those trying to recreate a new Irish political music have their work cut out and much to consider. What makes for invigorating and enlightened political song? What are the best Irish political songs? What makes them so? How have different kinds of Irish political musics created and recreated their publics? Is there any kind of music that can speak not just to the sufferings of the most oppressed in contemporary society, but that can sharpen aspirations for a new order where such suffering would not be so routine, so predictably tied to the regular boom-bust cycles of capitalism that always deliver to the lower classes the quickest and hardest knocks?
Those interested in such matters might do well to remember Luke Kelly, born eighty years ago in November 1940, and who died aged 43 in January 1984. They might do well, too, to consider Revolution, an album now fifty years old, and do so not so much to replicate it as to reimagine it, revolutionise it even, for challenges that have already overtaken us. Kelly’s music combined humour with social anger, recollections of past struggles with visions for the future, tenderness with combativeness, melancholy with militancy, saltiness with socialism, local struggles with international solidarities. His sense of himself as a singer and musician depended less on hot charisma or celebrity cool than on republican-left and radical internationalist affiliations. Times move on, music changes, music media are transformed, publics fade, songs age. There is no return to the past. But there can be no going forward without learning from it.
Notes and Sources: Early histories of Irish rock include Mark Prendergast, The Isle of Noises: Rock and Roll’s Roots in Ireland (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1987); Tony Clayton-Lea and Richie Taylor, Irish Rock: Where It’s Come From. Where It’s Going (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992), and Daragh O’Halloran, Green Beat: The Forgotten History of Irish Rock (Belfast: Brehon Press, 2006). The heroic version of Irish rock is recounted with panache in the Mike Connolly-directed documentary The Irish Rock Story: A Tale of Two Cities (2015). On ballad music, I have drawn extensively on Daniel Gomes, “Songs of the People: Ballads, Media and the Irish Left, 1922-1972,” (Doctoral dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2017) and see also Barra Ó Seaghdha, “Thomas Davis, the Arts, and Music: A Reassessment,” Éire-Ireland, 54, 1&2, (Spring/Summer 2019), 110-36. James Connolly is cited in Gomes, “Songs of the People,” op. cit., 2; Ciarán MacMathúna in Peter McNamee, ed., Traditional Music: Whose Music? (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1991), vi. On Luke Kelly, see Gomes and Des Geraghty, Luke Kelly: A Memoir (Dublin: Basement Press, 1994), 121. On rock music, Keir Keightley, “Reconsidering Rock” in Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 109-142, 109-10. On the public sphere, standard works are Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1989 ) and Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005). On neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009). On neoliberalism and Irish culture, see Joe Cleary, “’Horseman Pass By!: The Neoliberal World System and the Crisis in Irish Literature,” boundary 2, 45, 1 (2018): 135-179. For a well-researched critique of U2, see Harry Browne, The Frontman: Bono (in the Name of Power) (London: Verso, 2013) and, for an American perspective, see Chad E. Seales, Religion Around Bono: Evangelical Enchantment and Neoliberal Capitalism (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).
Joe Cleary is Professor of English at Yale University and the author ofLiterature, Partition and the Nation-State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (Field Day Publications, 2007). His Modernism, Empire, World Literature will be published by Cambridge in 2021.